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Perfectionist Hiller gives the edge to Ducks, Swiss

Thursday, 01.28.2010 / 10:55 AM / All-Access Vancouver

By John Manasso - NHL.com Correspondent

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Perfectionist Hiller gives the edge to Ducks, Swiss
Jonas Hiller has become the No. 1 goalie for the Anaheim Ducks with his strong play, which he hopes will carry over to the Olympics for Switzerland.
For at least 15 minutes before every game Jonas Hiller sharpens his skates with the perfectionist zeal of a diamond cutter.

With one of his boots clamped in a jig, the Anaheim Ducks goalie and Doug Shearer, the team's equipment manager, take turns making ever-so-slight adjustments to the blade.

After the gentlest touch against the whirling sharpener, Hiller will hold the blade less than a puck's width from his eyes to see if the work meets his exacting standards.

"I just try to get as good of an edge as possible so I can push well," said Hiller, the rare player to sharpen his own skates. " ... It's not too much time, I think, for feeling good on the ice."

That is the kind of focus that has allowed the 27-year-old to wrest the Ducks' No. 1 job from his Conn Smythe Trophy- and Stanley Cup-winning teammate Jean-Sebastien Giguere. It's also what will help to make Switzerland a threat against any team in the 2010 Winter Olympics.

"You know, having Jonas on their team makes the Swiss dangerous in a one-game [situation]," said Giguere, who has an amiable relationship with Hiller. "When the goalie gets hot, you never know what can happen in one game."

"He's a great kid. People always think we're in a competition, but I don't believe in that. He's a teammate and I want him to be successful. When I play, I don't compete against him, I compete against the puck. I'm sure he approaches the game the same way. Everything he's done so far, every success he's had in this league he's earned it by working hard." -- Ducks goalie, J-S Giguere

That was somewhat the case at the 2006 Games in Torino when goalie Martin Gerber, having a career season, helped Switzerland finish sixth in the tournament, ahead of both Canada (seventh) and the United States (eighth). Gerber and the Swiss shocked the Canadians with a 2-0 win in the preliminary round.

Along with his ability to focus, Hiller brings other assets to the Swiss. Ducks television broadcaster Brian Hayward, who played 11 NHL seasons as a goalie, said that 6-foot-2 Hiller is best among NHL butterfly-style goalies at shuffling on his knees from side to side, blocking the low part of the ice.

Giguere said Hiller has "great legs, [is] very quick on the ice and he's got good reflexes."

"Even though he's a very athletic guy, his style of game is very simple," Giguere said. "He tries to always be between the puck and the net and that gives him the better chance to make the save. ... All around, he's got all the tools to be a very successful goalie here."

Atlanta Thrashers sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, who will compete for Russia's Olympic team, has only played against Hiller once this season and for half a game last season, but said Hiller is a "big goalie" who "covers a lot of room."

Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said that Hiller's ascension arose from the simplest of reasons.

"I think with Jonas we've always stated -- and I know our media will be tired of hearing it -- all we ask is that our goalies give us a chance," he said. " ... Yeah, we'd like him to steal a game once in a while, but realistically one guy can't win you a hockey game. But he's been able to do that in a couple of occasions for us."

Carlyle pointed to a Jan. 10 game in which the Ducks were playing on the road for the second time in two nights in Chicago and the Blackhawks outshot them 43-12, including 16-1 in the third period until Anaheim scored an empty-net goal, and Hiller earned a 3-1 victory.

"He's confident in where he's at in the net and he's seeing the puck, he's blocking, he's made some big stops at key times for our group," Carlyle said.

While Giguere has publicly voiced his displeasure at not playing more, he and Hiller share a supportive relationship.

"He's a great kid," Giguere said. "People always think we're in a competition, but I don't believe in that. He's a teammate and I want him to be successful. When I play, I don't compete against him, I compete against the puck. I'm sure he approaches the game the same way. Everything he's done so far, every success he's had in this league he's earned it by working hard."

Hiller said that when he arrived three years ago, his goals were simple: To prove to himself, his team and observers back home in Switzerland that he could play in the NHL.

With every game every season, he said he has felt that he has improved.

"I never put myself under the pressure that I have to be the No. 1 the next day, in a week or something," he said. "I just try to play well and keep improving. It took me quite a far way right now and I hope I can keep it up. I'm quite sure I can play even better. As I work hard on the ice every day, I'm happy that I play that many games, but I know I have to keep it going otherwise I'll be out of there pretty quick."

He credits Giguere for helping him get his start in the NHL and for getting to the level he has reached.

"Even though he doesn't play and I know he's not happy with the situation ... even through the all of the circumstances, he's a great guy," Hiller said. "He's not mad at me or anything. He tries to help me and that makes it easier and I'm definitely very thankful for his help and having him around."

Immediately, Hiller is focused on getting Anaheim back in the top eight in the Western Conference. In January, he made 11 straight starts, going 8-3 with a .919 save percentage and 2.55 goals-against average.

But in a few weeks, it's off to Vancouver for the Olympics with the whole world as a stage. He followed his country's progress in the World Junior Championships, especially as Ducks' teammate Luca Sbisa competed. In the quarterfinals, Switzerland scored a major upset of Russia.

A win on that scale is a feat that Hiller would like to duplicate in the Olympics, but he also drew a lesson from the Swiss' juniors quarterfinal match in which his country was outshot 52-31 and won 3-2 in overtime.

"I mean, it kind of showed also that you need a perfect game to win against the big nations," he said. "I don't think you can play a perfect game every night, but you can try to do it as close as possible. For our national team it needs a perfect game to win against the big nations. But, yeah, our juniors showed it's possible and we know it's possible, too."

A perfect goal for a perfectionist.