Gerber, Toskala earning their time
Let down by high-priced starters, the Ducks and Sharks have reaped benefits with backups.
In a surprisingly wide-open Pacific Division, a pair of strange and unlikely names have floated to the surface.
Anonymous backup goalies who could skate across the United States without being recognized by even the most hard-core hockey fan, Anaheim's Martin Gerber and San Jose's Vesa Toskala, have become early season-savers for their teams, which will play two home-and-home series in 12 days.
Gerber's impact has been surprising, considering the brick wall-like playoff performance of Jean-Sebastien Giguere last spring. Most figured Gerber would get a lot of practice opening and closing the door on the bench, while the newly minted Giguere, who signed a four-year, $19.5 million deal before training camp, would continue his Conn Smythe ways.
Instead, Gerber's been opening the door for Giguere, who was pulled in each of his last two starts -- blowout losses in Detroit and Atlanta. Through 19 games, Giguere is a shockingly bad 4-12-2 with a 2.91 goals-against average and respectable, but unspectacular, .905 save percentage. Gerber is 5-3-2 with a 2.14 GAA and a .929 save percentage. The Swiss-born Gerber, 29, who was the top goalie in the Swedish Elite League two seasons ago, also has two shutouts to his credit, including a 32-save whitewashing of the Stars on Sunday at the Pond.
Like Giguere, Gerber employs the butterfly style taught by Ducks' goalie coach Francois Allaire.
"He really stays square to the shooter," Babcock said. "And he's a battler. I think he could be a starting goalie in this league."
Up the California coast, the Sharks' situation has unfolded a bit differently. Starter Evgeni Nabokov re-aggravated a groin pull in the first period of a 5-0 win in Phoenix on Nov. 21. The injury opened the door for Toskala, who'd appeared in just five of the club's first 20 games. The Finnish native keyed a 6-1-1 run that propelled the Sharks into the thick of the division race.
Toskala, 26, is 6-2-4 with a 1.85 GAA and .935 save percentage. Before suffering his injury, Nabokov was a sub par 3-7-5 with a 2.70 GAA and .906 save percentage.
"Tosk has played great," said Sharks coach Ron Wilson. "He's the kind of guy you have to check for a pulse. He doesn't get too excited and he doesn't manufacture pressure.
"He a typical butterfly type goalie. But he's really patient. He reads the play and anticipates what's going to happen."
In the Western Conference playoff race, where winning the Pacific Division could be the difference between being a No. 3 seed or a No. 8 seed, both coaches might have some hard choices to make concerning their big-money starting goalies in the coming weeks and months.
Wilson has a similar confidence in Nabokov, but feels the internal competition might be a good thing.
"I think this is what Nabby needs," Wilson said. "In the past, good game, bad game, Nabby always played. Now, he knows he's playing for a coach that has a lot of faith in the other guy, too."
Though Nabokov is ready to return, Wilson said he'll probably split the goaltending chores for the next couple of weeks.
"He has to find his form," Wilson said. "But my concern is winning, so he'll have to do some of that work in practice."
While good goaltending is important in today's NHL, both coaches note the ripple effect it has on the rest of the team.
"When guys are worried about their goalie, they get back on their heels," said Wilson, who coached the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup final in 1998 with exceptional play from goalie Olaf Kolzig. "When they feel comfortable with the goalie, they play better and more aggressively in all areas."
Added Babcock: "When your goalie is sharp and controlling his rebounds, there's no panic in the defensive zone. Then, you can move the puck quickly out of your end."
So, until Giguere and Nabokov rediscover their games, keep the names of Martin Gerber and Vesa Toskala fresh in your mind. Babcock and Wilson will do the same.
Around the Hrink
Power-play time with ...
Q: You've become a successful NHLer after struggling to get a chance. Along the way, was there ever a time when you thought that you wouldn't make it?
A: Well, my third year pro and my second camp in Calgary. I'd made the team out of camp the year before and finished strong in the minors; I thought I was going to get a real good chance. But in that camp, I was one of the first cut. At that time, I thought I might never be there (in the NHL) again.
Q: What is the biggest thing you've learned since you've been in the league?
A: You've got to play without the puck. You got to be a good player, not just when you have the puck. The league now is positioning. That's key. If you can't play without the puck, you're going to have a tough time unless you score 30 or 40 goals every year. That's one thing that I always work on. I try to keep that at the level that I think it should be for me to perform.
Q: After scoring 33 goals last year, do opposing teams pay more attention to you this season?
A: When you have success, they will pay more attention to you. I feel it's something that has been happening gradually over the past couple of years. With the success of our team and myself last year, the attention level is a little higher right now. It's something I have to fight through.
Q: What is the one area that the Lightning need to improve on to make a bid for an Eastern Conference title or even the Stanley Cup?
A: I don't know if there's any one thing. I think we have to stay even keel and believe in one another. If we do that, I think we can get it done. You just can't get too high or too low. I think we gained a tremendous amount of confidence from getting to the playoffs last year. I think we matured a lot during that time. A lot of us had never been there before. I think that experience has helped us get off to a good start this year.
Q: If you could do one thing to improve the quality of the game, what would it be?
A: Get rid of the stick work. The hooking and holding slows down the game and it diminishes scoring chances, and that's what fans want. They want goals. If you took the hooking and holding out of the game there would be a lot more scoring chances.
Bargain or bust?
Acquired from the Penguins at last year's trade deadline, Donovan is having a major impact in his first full season in Calgary. Through 26 games, Donovan leads the club with 11 goals, four game-winning goals and two shorthanded goals.
The 6-2, 205-pound Donovan has always been an excellent skater, so much so the Sharks selected him with the 28th overall pick in the 1993 draft. But he never developed into an offensive threat and he's never scored more than 13 goals (with the Sharks in 1995-96) in any of his previous eight NHL seasons with the Sharks, Avs, Thrashers, Pens and Flames.
Donovan is providing offense while working effectively on the club's checking line with center Craig Conroy and left wing Martin Gelinas. Due to an ankle injury to Conroy, Dean McAmmond now centers the line. If Donovan can continue his surprising play, the Flames just might have a shot at ending their seven-year playoff drought.
Why is Mike Milbury still employed as the GM of the Islanders?
-- William Bianchi, Garden City, N.Y.
He must have incriminating photos of a high-ranking club official, right? Seriously, Milbury is a bright guy who has been done in by ownership issues, as well as his own impatience, during most of his tenure. If nothing else, he has been very good at keeping his job. If things don't turn around soon, however, his superb self-preservation skills could be put to the ultimate test.
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