Pascal Leclaire never had a say in his early hockey allegiances. He grew up 15 minutes away from Montreal in Repentigny, Quebec, where all the kids in his area were rabid fanes of the 'bleu, blanc et rouge' – the storied Montreal Canadiens. Leclaire attended plenty of games growing up and still vividly remembers the 1993 season, the last time the Canadiens hoisted the Stanley Cup.
"It was such a big deal," Leclaire says, noting that the Cup games played in Los Angeles made for some pretty late nights. "Every kid was up watching the games.
"School wasn't really that important."
His idol was the great Patrick Roy, who won the second of his three Conn Smythe trophies as playoff MVP following that successful run in 1993. As a young, French-Canadian goaltender, seeing the best goalie play on a nightly basis was a treat for Leclaire.
"You knew you had the best goalie in the league on your team," he said.
Even Roy would be impressed with the run his fellow Quebecer is currently on. After a frustrating and injury-plagued 2006-07 season, Leclaire has reached a new level for the Blue Jackets this season, with four wins in his first six appearances – all by shutout. The latest was a 36-save gem in a solid 3-0 blanking of Central Division rival St. Louis Thursday.
His four shutouts lead all NHL netminders, with his .950 save percentage and anemic 1.34 goals against average both ranking second behind Boston’s Tim Thomas. But the 24-year-old Leclaire insists the gaudy numbers mean nothing to him.
All that matters is the 'W'.
"The win column is the most important thing," says Leclaire, known as "Pazzy" to his teammates. "To me, shutouts are just a bonus. They look good on paper but that's not important."
Leclaire is just as consistent deflecting praise as he is the puck. He insists that the team is most responsible for his amazing start, suggesting that a tighter defensive system implemented by head coach Ken Hitchcock is translating into fewer quality scoring opportunities. Turnovers are down and his teammates are focused.
"He's going to credit us for some of the shutouts he's gotten but I'll tell you what, all you need in this league is a goalie to make big saves at big times," center Michael Peca says of Leclaire's memorable start to the season. "He's come up numerous times to make those saves.
"It's amazing how the team can feed off him," Jason Chimera added. "He's been coming up with big saves. He never quits on a shot. You think you have him beat and he'll throw out a toe and make a save.
"It's pretty nice to have him back there."
Stats aside, Leclaire is evolving into the confident, poised goaltender the franchise envisioned when he was selected eighth overall in the 2001 Entry Draft.
It was a different story last year. An injury to his left knee limited him to just six wins in 24 appearances and Leclaire went into the off-season facing a tough rehab. Columbus' strength and conditioning coach Barry Brennan consulted with some physiotherapy experts in Montreal and constructed a program for Leclaire that was specifically tailored to his capabilities following the injury.
"I couldn't really do any weights until July because of my knee," Leclaire said. "I had to find ways to play around and build strength in my legs without doing weights. So I rode the bike a lot.
"I enjoyed it quite a bit. And I feel pretty good now. For me, returning at full strength was never an issue. I knew my knee would come back. The doctors made it clear to me that everything would be fine, I just needed the time."
His health, and fantastic start, should translate into more opportunities for Leclaire, who has platooned with Fredrik Norrena to form a solid tandem.
Like most goalie duos, the two work well together, sharing ideas and doing what they can to produce wins when each gets the call.
"We just hate each other," Leclaire said in his joking manner. "He came in and did a great job for us last year. He gave us a chance to win on a pretty regular basis, if not every night. Obviously he wants to play and I want to play. We both try and prepare as if we were going to play every game. That's not going to happen but it's a very healthy relationship that we have."
"He has a positive impact on me. We have two different styles. He does some stuff that I wish I could do. We have a good time together and we push each other. It's a good healthy relationship when the goalies are pushing each other and they want to do well. It can only help the team and that's the most important thing.
"If the team keeps winning, we're both happy."
Leclaire says goaltending coach Clint Malarchuk has also had a tremendous influence on him.
Malarchuk joined the Jackets last year and has done well working with the duo. Leclaire considers himself somewhat of a hybrid goalie who occasionally butterflies but prefers to be active, using his legs and catching glove as much as possible, rather than letting the puck hit him like a robot. Malarchuk, he says, works to his strengths and avoids trying to get Leclaire to make drastic changes to his unique style, opting to suggest more subtle adjustments.
"He's got some really great tips," Leclaire says. "When he tells you to try something, it usually works. He's a great guy to rely on. When I'm not on, he knows exactly what it is.
"We talk about everything. He's just a great human being. He's a really positive asset to our team. We're lucky to have him."
While Leclaire has had help from those around him in his development, one component of his improved performance is simply maturing into an NHL regular. With a few years of NHL play under his belt, he says it's no longer an "eye-popping" experience every time he goes to a new city or plays in a different rink. He now knows what to expect. And more importantly, what's expected from him.
"The first year was a little different," Leclaire says of his rookie campaign. "You feel like you play with a gun to your head every night. You're at the hotel, you don't know what's going on. You don't have family in because you never know of you're going to be in.
"But we all grow a little bit older and want to have more impact on a game and the team. The word 'winning' becomes way more important.
"You want to be part of the team and win something with it."