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The pressure in creases

No player in hockey deals with as much heat as the goaltender, who is the last line of defense and, often, means the difference between winning and losing. Each deals with it in his own way.

January 15, 2007|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

As he took the ice Thursday night against the Dallas Stars, goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov was already feeling the heat.

The league-leading Ducks, whose franchise-record start had turned heads, now were turning over pucks. They had lost key players to injury, including star defenseman Chris Pronger and starting goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere. They also had lost five of their last six games and were stumbling toward the All-Star break.

Bryzgalov, filling in for Giguere, had been back only about a week from his own injury. And the pressure screamed, as it does for any NHL goalie.

Stop the slide.

Then, as the national anthem began to play, a wide grin emerged -- the same one Bryzgalov had worn when the Ducks took on Nashville two nights before. And the same one when they played host to the Detroit Red Wings on Jan. 7, despite coming off a collapse at home against the Columbus Blue Jackets in which he gave up four goals in the last 10 minutes -- about as fast as those discs of vulcanized rubber flew at him.

"I try to play without pressure because when you feel it, it can sometimes [overwhelm] you," Bryzgalov said. "It's not good for you when you play the game. You can start to make lots of mistakes."

The Ducks won that game Thursday and lost in a shootout Saturday night but remain atop the Pacific Division with a 30-9-8 record and 68 points -- still best in the NHL.

With Giguere, who has a groin injury, unlikely to return until after the break, the second-year goalie knows it will come down to him. Next up: the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday night.

"I just try to play my best game every game," Bryzgalov said. "Sometimes things happen. But all I want to do is give the team a chance to win the game."

The very nature of the game forces those in net to rise and meet the pressure, or crumble beneath it. It is what makes goaltender the most important position in the NHL. And it is the goaltender who gets the bulk of the credit and the brunt of the blame.

Sometimes, both can happen.

Jose Theodore was the toast of Montreal in his Hart Trophy season with the Canadiens five years ago, but that didn't last and this season he has been booed nightly in Colorado by Avalanche fans who view him as an overpriced failure. Two weeks ago, Peter Budaj took over the starting job.

Dallas' Marty Turco has been a regular-season wonder but has failed to take the Stars past the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in three seasons.

Indeed, it is the postseason where reputations are made. Just ask Giguere, who carried the Ducks to the Stanley Cup finals four years ago. Or Dwayne Roloson, a journeyman who was terrific for the runner-up Edmonton Oilers last season.

Turco said he wouldn't have it any other way.

"You are a huge factor, especially in the postseason," he said. "Guys can get hot and be fortunate or they can be unfortunate. It's a product of our profession and one that I've never heard anybody complain about. Because it's fun. It's a huge challenge. I've relished the opportunities I've had and squandered."

Bryzgalov knows the taste of playoff success. Last season, he stepped in for an injured Giguere in Game 5 of a first-round series against the Calgary Flames and recorded five straight victories, three of them consecutive shutouts. His 249-minute 15-second shutout streak was the second-longest in NHL postseason history.

Now he is being asked to keep the Ducks and their run at the Stanley Cup on track.

But he won't use the word pressure.

"I feel it's more responsibility," said Bryzgalov, who is 2-2-1 with a 2.80 goals-against average since returning Jan. 2 from a groin injury. "We have new guys on the team, on the defense, who don't have much experience. I have to stop the puck and give them some confidence."

Bryzgalov has had his own issues. During a five-week stretch in November and December, he played in only one game and re-injured his groin.

When Giguere went down late last month, the Ducks were privately grumbling about Bryzgalov's slow recovery. Giguere, meanwhile, had been brilliant, with a 23-4-5 record and 2.17 goals-against average.

But Bryzgalov has shown some brilliance of his own.

Darren Pang, a former NHL goaltender, said Bryzgalov's postseason last year opened eyes.

"The benefit that Bryz has is he was in a pressure situation and performed," said Pang, now a color analyst with the Phoenix Coyotes. "[The Ducks] know that he has that in him. As much as anything, he can prove that he can take the ball and run with it."

Said Ducks Coach Randy Carlyle: "I look at this as an opportunity for Bryzgalov to go in and steal the net."

Nashville survived a similar situation when star goalie Tomas Vokoun went down because of a torn tendon in his thumb on Nov. 23. Chris Mason was 13-6-1 in his absence, keeping the Predators atop the Central Division.

"When a backup goes in and especially when it's for a long period of time, the No. 1 thing you want to accomplish is consistency," Nashville Coach Barry Trotz said. "You may not be able to replace the No. 1 guy, especially if there's a difference in the skill level. But at the same time, you want to give a degree of confidence to your whole group by being consistent."

"When you lose a star player, obviously you can't really replace them," Mason said. "There is more pressure when you're replacing a guy of that stature like a Vokoun or a Giguere. You want guys to feel comfortable and confident that you can do the job.

"The only way you can do that is by playing solid and doing it every night."

Francois Allaire, the Ducks' goaltending consultant, said such pressure is nothing new.

"In the NHL, there's pressure every game," he said. "You have to play well if you want to win.

"And that's their job. If there's too much pressure, they'll find another guy ready to do it."

eric.stephens@latimes.com

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