NHL

Backup goaltenders making all the difference this season

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The Canadian Press
12/12/2008 11:56:57 PM
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The first couple months of the NHL season has given goalies everywhere a reason to dream.

While they may still face the longest odds at reaching hockey's highest level, a number of less-established goalies have already made an impact in the NHL this year. In fact, several of the best performers started the season as backups.

Clearly, there are more than 30 men on the planet capable of filling the starter's role on an NHL team.

"Given the opportunity, I think there's a lot of guys that could step right in and get it done," longtime NHL goalie Glenn Healy said Friday. "But they have to get the opportunity.

"A lot of times it comes from a coach giving you that responsibility or maybe good timing where you step into a situation like (Bruins starter) Tim Thomas."

In some cases this season, the opportunity has come by way of injury. In others, it's been a situation where the backup was simply too good to sit on the bench.

Healy spent the last couple years of his career as the No. 2 man in Toronto and has empathy for goalies who spend more of their time watching games than playing them.

"It is hard - very, very difficult," said Healy. "When you get to play, you typically spend the first period surviving. That's it in a nutshell because you know that your next chance might be a month from that night.

"The mind is racing at a thousand miles an hour. You are doubting yourself at every turn. You're doubting yourself before you go on the ice."

That doesn't make the role any less important.

"The backup goaltenders and the valuable points they can provide, that makes a difference with some team's getting in the playoffs or not getting in the playoffs," said Healey, now the director of player affairs at the NHL Players' Association. "That 15 to 20 points you can put into the bank, where the starter gets his rest - that's non-playoffs to playoffs."

With that in mind, here's a closer look at the top performers among those that started the year in a backup role:

1. Craig Anderson, Florida. Once claimed on waivers three different times over a 15-day period, Anderson has been one of the NHL's top goalies this season. Heading into Friday night's game at Calgary, he had the best save percentage (.946) in the league and second-lowest goals-against average (1.94). The 27-year-old journeyman has supplanted Tomas Vokoun and grabbed the starter's job for the time being. And he's being paid US$4.75 million less to do it.

2. Ty Conklin, Detroit. Conklin may have made a less-publicized jump from last year's Stanley Cup finalist to its champion than Marian Hossa, but he has still made an impact in Motown. Conklin entered play Friday with an 8-3 record and has given coach Mike Babcock a good second option behind Chris Osgood. Given how well Conklin has performed over the last year and a half, it's reasonable to think that a couple teams might want to make him their starter when he becomes a free agent on July 1.

3. Scott Clemmensen, New Jersey. No Martin Brodeur? No problem. Clemmensen is the embodiment of a guy seizing his chance - the veteran backup has never played more than 13 NHL games in a season, but is 7-3-0 while getting into 11 games already this year. Kevin Weekes was pegged as the starter when Brodeur went down with a biceps injury but Clemmensen has since risen to the top of the depth chart and helped kept the Devils afloat.

4. Alex Auld, Ottawa. One of the few bright spots in the nation's capital this season, Auld took the No. 1 job from Martin Gerber early and has run with it. His record of 9-6-4 would be even better if the low-scoring Senators could produce more offensively - seven of his regulation and overtime/shootout losses have come on nights where he allowed three or fewer goals. His renaissance is even more impressive considering the number of teams who have passed on him. Since the lockout, Auld has played for Vancouver, Florida, Phoenix, Boston and Ottawa.

5. Brent Johnson, Washington. He has victories in all three starts this month and got the call again Friday versus Ottawa. Johnson found himself on the highlight reel earlier this week after making a miraculous stick save on Blake Wheeler during a win over Boston. "Extraordinary," Wheeler said afterwards. "He's pulling some saves out of thin air." The 31-year-old Johnson has been a backup for most of his nine seasons in the league but has taken a good share of Jose Theodore's minutes this year.

Honourable mention: Brian Boucher, San Jose; Pekka Rinne, Nashville; and Steve Mason, Columbus.

Craig Anderson (Photo: Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images)
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