Patrick Lalime. (Glenn Cratty/Allsport)
A generation before Andrew Hammond burst on the scene in Ottawa, Parick Lalime was an unbeatable freshman goalie for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It was his debut on the big stage. His first NHL appearance came when he took the ice in relief. In less than half a game’s work, he allowed three goals on 14 shots. If there was an NHL-ready starting goaltender under that equipment, it didn’t shine through right away.
Then, miraculously, the run began – a string of remarkable play that had the entire league wondering where exactly this kid came from. Over his next 16 games, he set an NHL record for the longest unbeaten streak to begin a career, going 14-0-2.
While it sounds like the story of 27-year-old Andrew Hammond, who stole headlines with the Ottawa Senators in 2014-15, it’s not. It’s the tale of 22-year-old Pittsburgh goaltender Patrick Lalime, who became one of the NHL’s great stories during the 1996-97 campaign, a season he recalls fondly.
“I was a late pick, so you’ve got nothing to lose,” Lalime said. “I enjoyed every minute of that run. The longer it gets, there’s build up – the pressure and everything. When it ends, you’re like. ‘Whoa. That just happened. That was a pretty good run.’ ”
A pretty good run, indeed. From Dec. 6, 1996 to Jan. 21, 1997, Lalime earned 14 victories and two ties. That went along with a 1.69 goals-against average and .947 save percentage. It was enough to vault Lalime, whom the Penguins drafted 156th overall in 1993, into the Calder Trophy conversation. He wound up with a 21-12-2 record, 2.95 GAA and .913 SP, finishing fifth in the Calder race. “I remember my first shutout,” Lalime said. “It was in San Jose. We won 4-0. At the end of the game, I remember Darius Kasparaitis picked the puck up and threw it in the stands. Everyone was like, ‘Are you kidding me?!’ ”
Eventually, the team got the puck back. It cost a couple autographed sticks and Penguins merchandise, but that story has a happy ending. Unfortunately, Lalime’s time in Pittsburgh did not. Shortly after his rookie campaign, there was a contract dispute that lasted 904 days – almost two and a half years. Lalime didn’t suit up again in the NHL until he was an Ottawa Senator.
“There was part of me that, yes, I did regret not being in the NHL,” Lalime said. “But I’m the kind of guy who keeps looking forward and can’t feel sorry for what happened. At the end of the day, it turned out to be great for me in Ottawa.”
That Lalime continued in Ottawa, where Hammond’s emergence happened last season, is a happy coincidence. There’s a number of similarities between the runs the goaltenders had, but the Senators connection makes the two even more alike. “It was fun to watch last year,” Lalime said. “He was a guy that not a lot of people knew about in the minors who got a shot. He dominated more than me if you look at his first 20 games. Best start ever in the NHL.”
For Hammond, the doubters are coming out, much like they did for Lalime. So far this season, Hammond has been set back by head injuries, limiting him to just five games. Did he just catch lightning in a bottle? To Lalime, now an analyst with TVA Sports, it’s about Hammond’s mental game.
Eventually, Hammond, like Lalime, will show some cracks, but Lalime had some words of wisdom for the young netminder. “I had a chance to talk to him, and I said, ‘A lot of people will be waiting for something bad to happen because they maybe don’t believe in everything. The way you handle the situation going forward is going to make all the difference. You know your ability is there, so don’t worry about what people think.’