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In playoff hockey, the net belongs to rookies

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 26, 2006



RALEIGH, N.C.

What was once a cardinal rule in hockey - that a team needs to line up a veteran goaltender to compete for the Stanley Cup - is turning out to be a canard in the "new" NHL.

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As playoff hockey galvanizes the puck world faithful for the next few weeks, three of four goalies in the semi-final round are rookies. The six goalies with the most victories in the regular season - mostly veterans - have all been eliminated. The last time two rookie goaltenders met in the Eastern Conference championship was in 1981.

Carolina's Cam Ward, Buffalo's Ryan Miller, and Anaheim's Ilja Bryzgalov are all recent backbenchers now leading their squads to the heights of frozen pond glory. Even the only over-25 goalie still standing, Dwayne Roloson of Edmonton, has never had a starring role in the playoffs.

"It's an incredible aberration," says Earl Zukerman, a vice president at the Society for International Hockey Research in Montreal. "It's certainly a blip in the type of goaltender that you would typically see in the playoffs."

Risk-taking coaches, general managers struggling with a new salary cap that requires tough decisions about expensive net-minders, and new league rules that favor a whole-team focus have given the three net-minders opportunities that they've jumped on. Perhaps, too, they've been helped along by a twitch in human psychology that allows the young to succeed in one of the most high-pressure positions in all of sports.

"One of the elements is the underdog theory," says Cal Botterill, a sports psychologist at the University of Winnipeg. "It's a blissful state to be an underdog, a kid playing above your head in a big final." But for big-name goalies like legend Patrick Roy, who carries the franchise's prospects on their backs, "it's easier to be affected by the pressure."

But the heat is on. Ward was pulled in Carolina's 4-3 loss Wednesday night against Miller and the Sabres, and Bryzgalov on Thursday night faces elimination against a roughneck crew of Oilers.

In the past, goalies like former Sabres stalwart Dominik Hasek could turn a poor team into a winner, all while flopping around the goal line like a trout on a hook. Most coaches shared the belief that the confidence of a team could be built only on the back of a grizzled Canadian (80 percent of NHL goalies come from Quebec and Ontario) with a crazy gleam in his eye.

Cam Ward, though a Canadian, couldn't cut a more different picture. After taking over early in the playoffs, Ward tied Cecil "Tiny" Thompson's seven-game rookie winning streak in the playoffs, set back in 1930. Ward is an aw-shucks "Leave It to Beaver" type of guy who never gets too high or too low, once merely shrugging after neatly closing out the Pittsburgh Penguins in a regular-season shootout.

"They call him the man without a pulse," says David Lee, a hockey blogger who posts at redblackhockey.blogspot.com.

In Anaheim, Bryzgalov, a bearded Russian who reads Aristotle and looks like a Tibetan yeti lurking in net, nearly set an NHL record by going 249 minutes and 42 seconds without being scored on during the Mighty Ducks' blow-out series against the Colorado Avalanche.

"A guy like Bryzgalov looks like he has no baggage. He's in a Zen state, connecting the spiritual as well as physical as well as emotional dimension of the game," says Mr. Botterill.

Miller, a Michigan State University stand-out, winner of a Hobey Baker award (akin to the Heisman Trophy for hockey), and the most experienced of the young ones, started most of Buffalo's games this year. "It's exciting for some of the young guys to have the opportunity," he acknowledged in an NHL teleconference earlier this month.

Their early on-ice maturity is perhaps not all of their own doing. After all, the four remaining teams are testaments to a newly engineered league game that favors teamwork over individual heroics.

"These goalies have got guys in front of them stopping pucks with their face and blocking shots from the blue line," says Mr. Zukerman. "They aren't feeling games like when Dominik Hasek's feeling games, when he's doing it all by himself."

What's more, Mr. Lee says, all three under-25-year-olds benefitted greatly during the lockout year by playing in the game-heavy American minor leagues. Veterans Martin Brodeur of New Jersey and Curtis Joseph of Phoenix didn't play at all, and other veterans spent the year in Europe, where the playing schedule is much lighter. Of course, not all rookies fared so well: The Rangers' Henrik Lundquist - known as "King Henrik" to Big Apple fans - helped Sweden win Olympic gold, but started letting in beachballs as the Rangers couldn't win a game in the first round against New Jersey.

In this unusual season in the net, fans like Lee marvel at the Buddha-like tenacity of the next generation's Ron Hextalls and Martin Brodeurs - and linger to see how they will react to the inevitable bitterness of experience. Coaches for their part will try to understand the benefits - and limits - of inexperience, and what "the year of the rookie" will all mean for the most important position in sports. "What now creates interest is how these next few games will test their mettle," says Botterill.

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