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HELENE ELLIOTT

Jonas Hiller earns his spot for Ducks

The goalie from a small town in Switzerland was brilliant in his playoff debut.

April 18, 2009|HELENE ELLIOTT

FROM SAN JOSE — While slap shots flew at him from the blue line and Travis Moen encroached close enough to bump him, while the tension between the Sharks and Ducks spiked to nailbiting levels in their playoff opener, goaltender Jonas Hiller remained the calmest person in the building.

To understand why, you have to know that stopping 35 shots in his NHL playoff debut and leading the Ducks to 2-0 victory Thursday wasn't the most difficult feat he has pulled off.

Born in Felben Wellhausen in northeastern Switzerland, near Germany and Austria, Hiller had attended goaltending camps since he was 15 but didn't dare to believe he'd play in the NHL.

"I never really dreamed it could happen because it was just too far away," he said. "I was never in the junior national team. I was never drafted."

Not until the 2004-05 season, when the NHL shuttered its rinks because of a labor dispute and many players ventured to Europe leagues, did Hiller get noticed. It was his first season with Davos, the Montreal Canadiens of Swiss hockey, with 29 championships to their credit.

Hiller helped win two of those titles. He shared one with Joe Thornton, the bigger-than-life Sharks center who put aside his frustrations to offer tribute to Hiller on Friday. The two are still friends and work out together in Switzerland each summer.

"He kind of came out of nowhere over there, to be honest with you," Thornton said. "He just blossomed into a great goalie, actually, my first year there. For whatever reason he's been great."

Hiller played three seasons in Davos before enough people told him enough times that he was NHL material. He spurned more than a dozen offers in 2007 to sign with the Ducks, choosing them because his goalie camp instructor, Francois Allaire, was their goaltending consultant.

"I was a little patient. I didn't want to rush it," Hiller said. "I wanted to be sure back home what I'm capable of. I made the step at the right point, and I'm definitely happy where I am."

To win the starting job he had to beat out Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who won the most-valuable-player award in the 2003 playoffs and became the foundation of the Ducks' 2007 Stanley Cup triumph.

Giguere struggled this season, but Hiller didn't prevail by default. Hiller's unflappable calm and ability to play even bigger than his 6-foot-2, 193-pound build became his touchstones.

If anyone ever questioned whether Hiller deserved to start Game 1, there was no doubt in Giguere's mind.

"It's good for the team and it's good for him. He's worked hard since he's been here, and he deserves what he's getting," Giguere said.

"He didn't get it out of left field. He worked for it. I'm happy for him. He's doing a great job. When he plays he's very solid, giving us a chance to win. And [Thursday] that's what he did. You can tell he's going to be a good goalie in this league."

Giguere's NHL playoff debut was equally memorable, a 63-save performance in a 2-1 victory over Detroit in 2003. He said he remembered being nervous but excited, just as Hiller was Wednesday after being told he would start and again Thursday when he took to the ice.

"For sure, I was hoping," he said of getting the start. "I actually thought I was going to be more nervous."

His Sharks counterpart, Evgeni Nabokov, understood.

"You would be nervous if you didn't play the whole season long and then go into the playoffs, but he played some key games for them," said Nabokov, who played for the Russian team Magnitogorsk against Hiller's Davos team in 2004-05.

"And I don't know if it's harder playing in the playoffs or getting to the playoffs."

For the Ducks, getting to the playoffs became possible when Hiller tied a club record by winning seven straight games in March and April. With each game he became more comfortable but never complacent.

Allaire made sure of that, motivating his pupils by saying he pushes them so hard because they're so special.

"An NHL goalie is not something you find on every corner of the street," he said. "It's rare, rare, rare kind of people, only 60 in the world."

Now, Hiller is among the even smaller group of NHL goalies whose teams lead a playoff series. The Ducks will try to extend that lead Sunday at HP Pavilion before the series shifts to Anaheim.

"It's going to be tough because we were able to win here and everybody knows San Jose is going to be even better than they were," Hiller said. "But now what we can do is play well, keep the mistakes low and see where it goes."

Where it goes is as unpredictable as a goalie going from a small town in Switzerland to the elite level in the NHL.

--

helene.elliott@latimes.com

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