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From understudy to a Stanley Cup star

Thursday, 04.29.2010 / 4:51 PM / 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs - Conference Semifinals

By John McGourty - NHL.com Staff Writer

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From understudy to a Stanley Cup star
Five NHL teams have turned to their goaltending understudy and seen their fortunes rise.
They were backups when the season started, but now they're No. 1 goalies who played a major role in getting their teams to the Stanley Cup Playoff conference semifinals.

Philadelphia's Brian Boucher, Chicago's Antti Niemi, Boston's Tuukka Rask, Detroit's Jimmy Howard and Montreal's Jaroslav Halak all rode the bench when the regular season started. But a combination of injuries and/or poor play from the previous No. 1
opened the door, and they have responded under the intense glare of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Brian Boucher, Flyers -- None of these goalies had a harder road this season than Boucher, who began the season as the No. 2 goalie behind Ray Emery and then was passed over for the No. 1 job five times.

 
When Emery needed surgery in December, Boucher was 2-4-0. He then went 2-6-1 before getting his pinkie finger crushed by a shot. Michael Leighton, picked up on waivers to play behind Boucher, stepped in and righted the Flyers' sinking ship. Emery returned and took over from Leighton, but then required season-ending hip surgery. Leighton re-emerged as No. 1 and played until he sprained his ankle March 16.

Boucher returned and went 2-5-2. During that run, he was benched in favor of AHL call-up Johan Backlund, but he played just two periods before aggravating a groin injury he suffered in the minors. The Flyers' playoff hopes seemed doomed, but Boucher caught fire in the last six games, going 4-2-0. A 1-0 loss to Montreal on April 2 was one of his best games of the season.

Boucher has had his moments of NHL glory, and he has been known to get hot suddenly and stay hot for a while. He was the 1999-00 goalie on the NHL All-Rookie Team when he went 20-10-3 with an NHL-leading 1.91 GAA. He also holds the NHL record for the longest shutout streak, set in 2003 while playing for the Phoenix Coyotes, going unscored upon for 332 minutes, or 5 1/2 games. Boucher then went 15-7-0 over two seasons, 2007-09, for San Jose.

Boucher always has performed at his best in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. His career playoff record is 15-9 with a 1.97 GAA and .921 save percentage. He's the leader after the first round this year with a .940 save percentage and 1.59 GAA.

"I think his reads have been excellent, and his patience on the ice has been excellent," Flyers goalie coach Jeff Reese told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "He's drawing on all the experience he's had over the years."

Antti Niemi, Blackhawks -- Niemi played in seven games through Dec. 11, then began playing every third game and then every second game until he missed five-straight games, one of them to illness, in late January. He then played all but four of the last 25 games, including the last 13 in a row.

Starter Cristobal Huet didn't meet expectations through the season, finishing 26-14-4 with a 2.50 GAA and .895 save percentage. As a part-timer, Niemi kept his GAA under 2.00, but he floated as high as 2.31 as the regular before a good stretch at season's end brought that number down to 2.25, fourth-best in the NHL and a .912 save percentage, tied for 20th. He had seven shutouts in 39 games and won 26.

Niemi got off to a rough start in his Stanley Cup Playoff debut, giving up a soft goal in Game 1 to Nashville's J.P. Dumont that opened the floodgates in a 4-1 loss. But Niemi bounced back with a 23-save, 2-0 shutout in Game 2 and got the Blackhawks back on track.

Or so it seemed. Niemi was no better than his teammates in a 4-1 loss in Game 3, but then he came back with another shutout, 3-0, in a 33-save performance in Game 4. Niemi wasn't so hot in the Blackhawks' 5-4 overtime victory in Game 5, giving up four goals on 21 shots, but he redeemed himself in Game 6, stopping 25 of 28 shots as his teammates rolled to a series-clinching 5-3 victory.

Tuukka Rask, Bruins -- After Tim Thomas emerged as the No. 1 goalie during the 2005-06 season, the Bruins traded their former No. 1 goalie, Andrew Raycroft, to the Toronto Maple Leafs to acquire Rask, a first-round draft pick the previous spring. The Bruins gave Rask two years to grow in the minors and then brought him up this season with the intention of playing him in 25-35 games behind Thomas, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner.

The Bruins, including Thomas, struggled earlier this season and Rask took over the job, and except for four games that he missed for an undisclosed reason in early March, Rask played in all but two games after Feb. 2.

Rask went 22-12-5 with a league-leading 1.97 GAA and .931 save percentage.

Just as he wrested the league's GAA and save percentage titles during the regular season from Buffalo's Ryan Miller, Rask slightly outplayed Miller in the first round of the playoffs, when the Bruins ousted the Sabres in six games while scoring one more goal in the series. Rask was fourth among playoff goalies with a 2.18 GAA and .927 save percentage in his Stanley Cup Playoff debut.

"He's been just fabulous for us," Bruins coach Claude Julien said after the series.

Jimmy Howard, Red Wings -- Like Rask with the Bruins, the Red Wings were hoping Howard, in his fifth season with the organization, would take over from two-time Stanley Cup-winning goalie Chris Osgood, 37. Howard played only 10 of the first 22 games and then Osgood got the flu in November. Howard stepped in, did well, and played all but four games after Dec. 30. 

He started 25 straight games in one stretch and finished 15-0-1. Howard tied for fourth in the League with a .924 save percentage and finished fifth with a 2.26 GAA. His 37 wins ranked eighth. At the end of the regular season, Howard was named a finalist for the Calder Memorial Trophy.

"He's earned it," Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland told the Detroit News. "He's a legitimate nominee."

Howard helped the Red Wings rebound from a 2-1 series deficit against the Phoenix Coyotes. His numbers (2.59 GAA, .919 save percentage) weren't great, but he made the saves he had to and won three games on the road. He learned a lot in his first round of Stanley Cup Playoff action.

"That's the fastest hockey I think I've ever played," Howard said. "It's probably going to get faster, so I'm looking forward to this new challenge."

Jaroslav Halak, Canadiens -- In the eyes of many, Halak is the early favorite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy (playoffs MVP) off his first-round triumph over the Washington Capitals. Halak was outstanding, make no mistake, but there was coaching genius behind the Habs' strategy that the Canadiens followed implicitly to victory.

Credit the collapsing defense, the shot-blocking and the good work of the forwards in clearing the zone under the withering pressure of the Capitals' unrelenting attack. And then there was Halak standing tall, or kneeling, or sprawling to stop almost everything thrown at him.

Halak waited a long time to get the No. 1 job in Montreal, sitting behind Carey Price for parts of four seasons, slowly building a career winning record of 56-34-7.

Halak had a strange season. He started only one of the first seven games, a loss, then won five of six, then played only one of the next 13 games, another a loss. Coach Jacques Martin alternated goalies until late January, when Halak seemed to gain the job. He played all but one game while going 5-2-1 until GM Bob Gainey resigned Feb. 8. Price then played the four of the next five games before Halak took over and played all but two of the last 17 games.

Halak was awesome in the last three games of the first round of the playoffs, after being pulled in Game 3 and being benched in Game 4, posting a .939 save percentage for the series that was second only to Boucher and a seventh-best 2.46 GAA. The Canadiens rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to win the final three games, with Halak stopping 131 of 134 shots in those three games.


Quote of the Day

It's pretty crazy, but believe me when I say we didn't draft these players with the mindset we had to because they had good hockey-playing dads. It just turned out that way. But we're certainly glad they're a part of our organization.

— Arizona Coyotes director of amateur scouting Tim Bernhardt regarding the coincidence that six of the organization's top prospects are sons of former NHL players