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Saving His Rep

Doubters are waiting for Giguere to prove his playoff run wasn't a fluke

October 04, 2005|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

The shots Jean-Sebastien Giguere has to face come in all forms.

It may be corralling a whistling slap shot from the point or fielding yet another inquiry about his equipment. It often is stopping a sniper from in close or facing more questions about the magical Stanley Cup ride in the spring of 2003 and the dismal results of the following season.

None of them are easy to handle. But the Mighty Duck goaltender is always willing, even amid doubters.

"I can't help what people think," Giguere said after a recent practice. "I know my abilities and I know what I can do. I know how good I can be when I'm at my best."

As he begins his fifth full season with the Ducks on Wednesday night against the Blackhawks in Chicago, the question of how good Giguere is will be front and center.

The hockey world remembers him at his best. Who can't forget the image of a weary, bearded goalie humbly accepting the Conn Smythe trophy as the Stanley Cup playoffs' most valuable player after carrying his team to within one victory of an improbable championship? The old guard of the NHL was forced to pay attention to the team with the goofy nickname as Giguere made save after save. A star was created as the stakes got higher and the lights grew brighter.

Then, just as suddenly, the lights went out.

In one season, the Ducks went from the brink of a title to a forgotten team, out of the playoffs. Giguere, like his team, struggled under the weight of greater expectations. Questions were raised about whether his dominance in the playoffs was a fluke.

At 28, the goalie now has to answer those doubters.

"Every goalie has something to prove," defenseman Keith Carney said. "Before the lockout, he was one of the goalies that was becoming one of the best in the league. He wants to prove he's an elite goaltender."

Redemption is understandable. Giguere sunk to a career-worst 17-31-6 record, partly because of an often impotent offense and partly because his 2.62 goals-against average was his highest since joining the Ducks.

It was a far cry from his breakout 2002-03 season where he set team records for victories (34) and shutouts (eight) before that brilliant postseason, where he added five more shutouts and had a playoff-best .945 save percentage.

"I've always approached a season where I take things day by day and try to do the best that I can every day," Giguere said. "I know it sounds like a cliche but that's the way it is."

The man teammates and fans affectionately call "Jiggy" will have more challenges than usual this season. The NHL put in new rules designed to produce more scoring, which had fallen precipitously under a defense-first mentality.

Goaltenders can no longer go into the corners to play the puck and can only do so in front of the goal line or in a trapezoid-shaped zone behind the net. They'll also deal with an approximate 11% total reduction in the size of the uniform and equipment.

There are also new rules on eliminating obstruction, the allowance of the two-line pass and the increased size of the offensive zone that are expected to promote more scoring chances and speed up the game.

None of this worries Giguere.

"I'm not going to change anything in my game," he said. "I'm still going to play the same way. Maybe I'll give up 10 more goals by the end of the season but everybody else will do the same."

But the changes have impacted netminders around the league.

Some, such as the Kings' Mathieu Garon and the Phoenix Coyotes' Curtis Joseph, say their biggest complaint is that their pants are now too tight and do not provide enough padding.

"You now feel a little more restricted," said Joseph, who has worked with the new equipment almost daily. "My pants feel really, really tight. I can't tuck my belly pad in and I've been doing it for 16 years. I'll have to figure out something else."

Giguere knows about equipment issues. During the Ducks' playoff run, he was often criticized for the size of his pads and hockey experts wondered aloud if they were the real secret to his amazing success.

Nothing was ever found to be illegal, but it remains a sore subject.

"I'm probably the most checked goalie in the league," he said. "During those playoffs, they checked almost every day to make sure everything was OK. You can ask anyone around here, the trainers, anyone. There was never any issue.

"We had rules back then and I played by the rules. Now we have new rules and I'm going to respect these rules. I'm not a cheater.

"I'll bet you anything right now [people] will still complain about my equipment," he said.

Giguere spent most of the 310-day lockout in his native Montreal, playing little hockey except for a brief stint in Germany. He also underwent hip surgery after the league in February officially canceled the 2004-05 season .

In four exhibitions, results have been mixed but they don't concern General Manager Brian Burke. Neither do the whispers around the league that Giguere is merely a solid goalie who became incredibly hot at the most opportune time.

"We'll let that sort itself out," Burke said. "Certainly I think he's much closer to the guy who carried this team on his back to the finals.

"For a young goalie to have that kind of run and then sag a bit, there's a lot of guys who have done that. Look at [Jose] Theodore in Montreal. I'm not worried about Jiggy."

Giguere downplays his role in the Ducks' greatest success or their ensuing pratfall.

"This is a team," he said.

"I never took all the credit for what happened in 2003. It was always a team thing. You have success as a team and you have a downfall as a team."

Francois Allaire, the Ducks' goaltending consultant, sees a maturing goalie not yet at his peak.

"Now he's a veteran guy and he's going to take on a little more responsibility," Allaire said. "It's not the same team he's used to. There's brand new people.

"I think he's ready for that challenge. It's a fresh start for him."

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