“It is only when a game ends and the mask comes off, when the immense challenge of the job turns abruptly to immense satisfaction or despair, that the unsmiling grimness lifts and goes away.”
Manny Fernandez, who was born in Etobicoke, certainly knows about the immense challenge of being a goalie in the NHL.
Heck, this time last year, when he was suffering through an injury ridden 2007-08 campaign, if you had told Fernandez that he would be 7-1-1 and one of those seven wins would be against the venerable Detroit Red Wings he might have looked at you with a look of dark incredulity.
But there it is, Fernandez has won his last six games, including wins over Buffalo (twice), Montreal and Detroit and the Boston Bruins stand second in the NHL, behind only the San Jose Sharks. The Black & Gold are first in the Northeast Division and, most importantly, tied with the New York Rangers for first in the Eastern Conference.
Much of that success hung in the balance, however, as Fernandez took to the crease twice this week. After a rare 3-2 loss agains the Buffalo Sabres with Tim Thomas
in goal, on Friday, Manny was in the nets for a 7-2 pasting of the New York Islanders.
But the specter of the Stanley Cup Champion Red Wings loomed large as the club looked at the calendar for Saturday.
|Manny Fernandez |
“We came in this morning and Timmy was set to go,” said Fernandez of his All-Star goaltending partner. “But he’s been sick the last few days, and (still) wasn’t feeling good…I have to be prepared for stuff like that.”
Fernandez was more than prepared. But, having played Detroit plenty of times in the Western Conference with the Minnesota Wild, Manny knew what was coming out of the visiting tunnel.
That said, after tthe B’s goaltender said that his teammates were prepared for Detroit, too.
“It was something to play them with Minnesota and it’s another to play them with Boston,” said Fernandez. “You know we’re one of the top teams right now in the NHL, and going in there with a bunch of rookies (in Minnesota) we had big hearts, but you know sometimes that puck was moving a little fast.
“But tonight we were seeing control of…everything that was happening out there. The penalty kill has been really key (and) we’re blocking shots at the right time. We’re clearing rebounds. We’re doing everything and we’re getting the puck out- something that was tough for us at the beginning of the year.
“It’s not the same game, at all, and it’s been really fun to be here and be a part of this.”
|Fernandez rehabbed for much of 2007-08. |
Bruins head coach Claude Julien was thrilled with his goalie’s performance.
“He made some big saves for us, especially when the game was really tight,” he said. “This was his first back-to-back game. Timmy (Thomas) been sick for the last few days and on Thanksgiving he didn’t practice and with yesterday’s noon game -- no morning skate, so I didn’t feel it was fair to put Timmy in there.
“So, I felt that Manny had played well enough that he earned a second start. Again it’s about those two guys working together to help our team win hockey games and it’s great to see.”
With Thomas and Fernandez on top of their game, Boston has a 2.12 GAA, good for best in the NHL. But like Thomas, Fernandez deflected all praise toward his teammates.
“The way they’ve been playing -- I can’t say enough,” he said. “I mean anyone who gets to play on a team like that – it’s amazing, easy game to play.
“You just concentrate on the first shot and they clear the rebounds.”
Minimizing his own contribution, again, Fernandez further emphasized the importance of the play of the guys in front of him when asked about the offensive support he’s been getting from the Bruins.
“You have to realize that they’re not taking any chances,” he said. “They realize it’s me and…they have been getting more goals when I am in for whatever reason, and playing well defensively at the same time.
“It’s been really key and fortunate and I am really proud to be playing for a team like that right now.”
|Fernandez worked hard during training camp. |
The B's weren't minimizing Fernandez's contribution to the win and the rest of the Bruins were pointing at the goalies’ corner of the locker room, where Fernandez sat taking off his gear.
“He was playing really good for us,” said Bruins captain Zdeno Chara
, echoing the sentiment around the locker room. “He made some really big saves for us at crucial times of the game.”David Krejci
was clearly pleased to have seen Fernandez come full circle.
“Manny’s been great,” said Krejci. “It was his best game this year.
“I was just so happy for him.”
The fans were happy for Fernandez, too, and started chanting “Manny, Manny, Manny” several times on the night – a far cry from the sarcastic cheer Fernandez received for a first period save after he gave up four early goals in a 7-4 win over the Buffalo Sabres on November 19th.
That night, Coach Julien came to his goalies defense, literally.
“I don’t care who would have been in net tonight, when you give up those point blank shots and they’re putting them right under the crossbar, with the tips and screens -- those were quality goals," said the coach.
|Detroit Red Wings' Daniel Cleary (11) looks for a rebound on Boston Bruins goalie Manny Fernandez during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Boston Saturday, Nov. 29, 2008. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson) |
“I thought it was unfair the treatment he got tonight,” continued Julien. "He should be a little ticked off at his teammates really for putting him in that position early in the game.
"(Manny's) the kind of guy that sucks it up, is going to go do his job and be back tomorrow. (He’s) going to continue to work hard and I thought it was a real good test mentally to get himself back in that game," he said.
Fernandez never talked about it that night, however (and although he may never admit to it) he did seem to acknowledge the crowd by raising his goal paddle in recognition of their clear message.
With the simple gesture, Fernandez seemed to say, “I understand, but stick with me.”
The Black & Gold faithful stuck by the veteran goalie and, three wins after that tough first period, showered him with praise generally reserved for eccentric home run hitters, hall of famers, college football phenoms and politicians.
But if you listen to him, Fernandez didn’t hear any of it.
“Was that my name? I thought it was something else,” he said with that look of incredulity mentioned earlier. “I’m concentrating on the game, whether it’s good or it’s bad out there."
But with the mask off, it seemed like Fernandez, no doubt remembering surgery and rehab with its innumerable sprints and squats -- and maybe, just maybe, with the echo of "Manny, Manny, Manny" still in his ears -- was trying very hard to hide a smile.