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Healthy Last Line of Defense

by Staff Writer / Columbus Blue Jackets
Though No. 1 goaltender Pascal Leclaire returned to the Blue Jackets' lineup this past week, without a doubt it's been a long, strange trip for Columbus this year between the pipes.

Even during Leclaire's extended absence, the CBJ found goaltender as one of its most reliable positions. To see evidence of that, look no further than Fredrik Norrena's 29-save shutout win, his third of the season, over San Jose Friday.

"It's been an interesting season goalie-wise," Jackets Goaltending Coach Clint Malarchuk said. As the season progressed, injuries forced juggling at the position as Columbus called upon Ty Conklin and even rookie Tomas Popperle for part of a game at Calgary. Four different netminders have stood in the crease for Columbus this year, about which Malarchuk said, "It's not often you see that."

Coming into training camp, the Jackets' goaltending unit had several changes. Leclaire replaced Marc Denis, who was dealt to Tampa Bay in June for forward Fredrik Modin and Norrena, as the No. 1 goaltender. The No. 2 spot had several suitors for its vacancy and Malarchuk, a former standout goaltender with the Buffalo Sabres, had just come on board himself.

The No. 2 opening was quickly addressed as Norrena, a 33-year-old rookie who starred in Finland in Sweden, acclimated to the North American game quickly and won the backup spot, Malarchuk said.

"We were riding 'Pazzy' (Leclaire) pretty hard into December as far as games played," Malarchuk said. 'Pazzy' got hurt and Freddie (Norrena) carried the ball and did a good job for us."

The team extended the contract of Norrena for two more seasons because of his play. He's loomed especially large this year, earning a 15-13-2 record with a 2.93 GAA.

"I faced a lot of responsibility for a lot of years (in Finland and Sweden)," he said. "But this, the NHL, this is where I wanted to be.

"It doesn't matter if I play 10, 20, 30, 40 or 82 games. I just want to go out there and do my job every night.”

Malarchuk continued to applaud Norrena's effort, saying that right before Leclaire's Dec. 22 injury, "Freddie put together a pretty good string there out west," Malarchuk said. That "pretty good string" included back-to-back shutouts at Edmonton and Colorado and went 155:28 of ice time without allowing a goal, a team record.

Conklin filled in well when he was called upon, too. His defining moment was his out-of-the-bullpen outing to preserve a win at home against Minnesota right after the All-Star Break when Norrena hurt his groin.

"You go that deep into your system and still get some wins, that’s pretty good," Malarchuk said.

Still, Leclaire, at only 24, is the number one option and has shown that he could develop into a dominant performer at the NHL level. He recorded his first career shutout earlier in late October against the Los Angeles Kings. Now for Leclaire, it's a matter of staying healthy.

"It was weird," Leclaire said of his injury trouble. "For me it was a little frustrating when I needed surgery, but stuff happens, and I'm not the first goalie who gets hurt."

Leclaire said the only advantage to missing playing time is getting a lofty seat in the press box and scouting opponents, something he took seriously during his time away and hopes it will make him a better goalie in the future.

Of his injury, he said, “Hopefully, it will help [the team] grow through the end of the year. Now, it looks like we’re fine.”

Malarchuk said with a healthy Leclaire, the Jackets are better than "fine" at the position because they have two different goaltenders with two different approaches, but both use their styles effectively. For example, Norrena likes to handle the puck, and Leclaire prefers to leave it alone.

"I like the combination," Malarchuk said, noting that his backup is "an experienced guy who's really opened some eyes around the league."

The Leclaire-Norrena tandem certainly provides for healthy internal competition. But their coach thinks they like to see each other succeed.

"These two guys, they get along real well. They push but also help each other."

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