By Adam Brady
There was Jason LaBarbera last night on a stool off the end of the Ducks bench, expecting to spend just another night as a backup, taking in the atmosphere of an electric night at Honda Center.
But things changed drastically halfway through the second period of Anaheim’s tilt with the rival Kings, after starter Frederik Andersen gave up an uncharacteristic soft goal to LA’s Trevor Lewis that put the Ducks in a 3-1 hole. Next thing LaBarbera knew, he was thrust into the game, expected to hold down the crease as the Ducks attempted to get back in it.
“At some point your approach might be just, ‘Don’t screw up,’ LaBarbera said. "But to be able to go in and have the game be really intense, and the crowd is going bananas, and it’s just back and forth and your team is playing great in front of you, you’ve really got to buckle down."
“At some point your approach might be just, ‘Don’t screw up,’ LaBarbera says as he reflected on it after today’s afternoon practice back at Honda Center. “Usually when you get thrown into a game as a backup, the game is a little bit out of hand. So it’s a little easier to play just because there is not as much pressure on you."
That wasn't the case last night, as the Ducks ultimately came back from three different two-goal deficits to vanquish LA 6-5 in a shootout.
“To be able to go in and have the game be really intense, and the crowd is going bananas, and it’s just back and forth and your team is playing great in front of you, you’ve really got to buckle down," LaBarbera said. "I’ve been around long enough that I understand the situation, and you can kind of revert back to situations that you’ve had in your career. When you’re younger, your head can spin a lot more, but at this point, you realize what the situation is and try and stay in the moment.”
LaBarbera saved 13 of 15 shots against his former team, and made a number of key stops as the Ducks mounted a late comeback to send the game to overtime, and ultimately a shootout. That’s where LaBarbera shined, despite giving up a goal to Marian Gaborik in the first round of the tiebreaker. He bounced back to make a stop on Jeff Carter, then deftly poke-checked the puck away from former teammate Anze Kopitar in the third. “I’ve seen that move a lot of times from him,” LaBarbera says. “He probably didn’t know what I was going to do either. Part of me was just winging it, just kind of go street hockey and see what happens. I probably surprised him. I think he probably shot it a little quicker than he wanted to.”
Perhaps spurred by the energy of the crowd after that stop, LaBarbera pumped both fists several times as teammates poured off the bench to embrace him. “That was unbelievable,” he said of the atmosphere inside a packed Honda Center. “I was on the other side of it a few years ago in LA, and it wasn’t even close to that. That was bad-ass out there. It was crazy, even on the bench. I was thinking, This is nuts. It was like a legitimate playoff game.”
|LaBarbera was drafted by the Rangers in the third round of the 1998 draft and played his first NHL game on October 14, 2000. He remembers it fondly: |
"I was 20 years old and we were in Pittsburgh. I was backing up Kirk McLean, who was my favorite goalie as a kid growing up. It was 4-4 after the second, and they scored four goals in the first 10 minutes of the third. [Jaromir] Jagr had four goals that night. Ron Low was the coach and he said, “Kid, get in there.” I was like, Wow, what? I made two saves on the only two shots I faced, we scored two goals and ended up losing 8-6. It was a crazy game."
Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau had the confidence in the 34-year-old LaBarbera to send him in there under the most intense circumstances. “He’s been around long enough in this league, mostly as a backup, that he knows this situation can happen at any time,” Boudreau said. “He knows how to prepare himself to be ready. I thought the last two shootout saves were indicative of a guy who really didn’t want the other team to score any more goals, and his emotion at the end showed.”
Indeed, if there is anyone in this league who knows anything can happen, it’s LaBarbera. The 15 teams he’s played for read like a hockey hodgepodge and include the likes of the Tri-City Americans, Portland Winter Hawks, Spokane Chiefs, Charlotte Checkers, Hartford Wolf Pack and Manchester Monarchs – not to mention NHL stints with the Rangers, Kings, Coyotes, Canucks, Oilers and finally the Ducks.
His career high of 45 games came with a mediocre Kings team in 2007-08, and since then he’s never played more than 19 at the NHL level.
“The last five years being a backup, I’ve dealt with so many different situations,” says LaBerbera, clad in an old Nirvana t-shirt. “I’m kind of immune to it.”
Anaheim signed LaBarbera over the summer to add a third netminder behind youngsters Andersen and John Gibson, expecting LaBarbera to spend most (if not all) of the season with their AHL affiliate in Norfolk. But when Andersen suffered leg stiffness earlier this month, LaBarbera was summoned to backup Gibson for a Sunday game in Denver.
The only problem was, LaBarbera had been in net for both the Friday and Saturday games in Norfolk and then attended a Halloween party with the team Saturday night. “I just showed up and had dinner with the guys, a couple beers, and enjoyed the guys being dressed up. I slept for about two hours and got up and flew to the rink. I was obviously not expecting to play, but I made sure I was ready to go just in case – physically at least.”
|“The last five years being a backup, I’ve dealt with so many different situations,” says LaBarbera. “I’m kind of immune to it.” |
But when Gibson got hurt in the warmup, LaBarbera was inserted as the emergency starter. “ It was a big-time shock, and probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my career, especially at my age," he says. "I’ve played three in three nights before, but when I was a lot younger, and traveling all day and then playing in an NHL game for the first time in a year was ... interesting.”
After letting in an early goal on a bad-angle shot, he buckled down to stop 16 of 17 in helping Anaheim to a 3-2 win over the Avs that night.
Now with Andersen back and Gibson expected to miss a few more weeks with a groin injury, LaBarbera’s back in a familiar role as backup. Though he was reminded last night his number can be called under any circumstance.
“I’ve been a backup a lot, and it’s something I’ve always brought to my preparation, to make sure I’m at least physically ready to go,” LaBarbera says.
He then added a line that, probably unintentionally, is a reflection on his entire career.
“You never know,” he said, “what can happen in this game.”