What's the toughest position in sports to play? This time of the year it has to be hockey goaltender. He's the last line of defense. The frozen rubber puck stops here. Often it screams toward a goalie's head at 150 m.p.h.
The great Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak once said, ``There is no position in sports as noble as that of goaltending.'' There is none as perilous, either.
Playoff hockey almost always reduces itself to goaltending. Inspired goaltending can lift an average team to dreamy heights. It is impossible to go far without it.
The hottest goaltender in the National Hockey League late in the regular season and early in the playoffs has been Sean Burke of the New Jersey Devils, who surprised everyone by winning the unofficial championship of metropolitan New York and qualified for the playoffs for the first time in their new home (they made it in an earlier life as the Colorado Rockies).
Burke joined the Devils from the Canadian Olympic team and proceeded to win 10 games and lose only one at the end of the regular season. Twice he shut out Mario Lemieux, the league's leading scorer.
Suddenly nobody is making clever remarks about the ``Little Devils'' who were the next best thing on the schedule to a night off. Respectability has arrived in the Jersey swamplands just west of Manhattan Island.
In the first round of the bloated playoffs, the Devils upset the Patrick Division champion New York Islanders in six games. Burke was as formidable as the Great Wall of China and has continued to play well in a best-of-seven, second-round series with the Washington Capitals. The two teams are deadlocked at two wins apiece heading into Game 5 tonight in Landover, Md.
People have begun comparing Burke to Ken Dryden, whose late-arriving rookie heroics carried the Montreal Canadiens to the Stanley Cup in 1971. Like Dryden, Burke is tall and rangy, and seemingly unflappable.
Says Denis Potvin, the retiring Islander captain: ``He reminds me more of Bernie Parent. The puck always seems to be hitting him in the chest. That's a sign he's in good position. Dryden was more of a scrambler. Parent never used his arms - the puck would just hit him in the chest - and this kid's the same way.''
Burke, a 21-year-old native of Toronto, where his father owned a fast-food restaurant, grew up as a fan of Parent and the Philadelphia Flyers. He tended goal for the Toronoto Marlboros junior team that played in Maple Leaf Gardens, and would watch the Flyers practice and play there every chance he had.
``I tried to learn how the pro goalies played the angles,'' he says. ``I didn't pattern myself on anybody in particular, but I did always pull for the Flyers. I liked their style.''
His own style might be called stolid standup. He is slow to commit himself, which tests the patience of opposing shooters, but fast-moving once he does.
He stopped the Islanders' best offensive player, Pat Lafontaine, on a breakaway to protect a one-goal lead in the dying seconds of his first playoff series. He simply stared Lafontaine down and smothered his weak shot in his chest pad.
``Our team hasn't allowed many clean opportunities like that,'' the quiet Burke says. ``We think defensively. We don't have a Paul Coffey starring on defense, but we have six dependable players. I rely on every defenseman to play a defensive style. If we get in trouble, we'll dump the puck out of our zone or get a whistle.''
Coach Jim Schoenfeld took over the Devils with 30 games left on the schedule and ignored criticism over his immediate use of Burke after the Olympics. Says the tough-thinking Schoenfeld, ``He got a lot of experience under pressure in top international competition. He's hard to rattle.''
Burke let in two dubious goals as the Devils lost the first game of the current quarterfinal series to Washington, probably the best defensive team in the league, but came back to handcuff the Capitals, 5-2, in Game 2 on the road. When the series shifted to New Jersey for Games 3 and 4, the Devils took a penalty-filled 10-4 victory before Washington re-evened things with Sunday's 4-1 decision.
``The other players feel they can win with him,'' says Schoenfeld of his prize rookie. ``He's made a splendid transition from the bigger Olympic ice surface, and he's still improving. He could become one of the best ever.''
Burke, who prepares for games by listening to Led Zeppelin tapes, says the big difference in the NHL is the shooting. ``They shoot from everywhere. In international hockey, you don't see many shots from the side, and only two or three players take shots. And NHL players are bigger and stronger.''
Realistically, Burke and the unheralded Devils weren't expected to get this far. But a hot goaltender can overturn even the longest odds, and Burke has shown he can play the toughest position in sports as well as anyone else.