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At halfway point, backups no longer in NHL shadows

by Mike G. Morreale
No one could have predicted the overnight success of New Jersey Devils backup goalie Scott Clemmensen after four-time Vezina Trophy winner Martin Brodeur went down with a left biceps injury the first day in November.

Then again, Florida's Craig Anderson, Nashville's Pekka Rinne, Washington's Brent Johnson and Steve Mason in Columbus weren't exactly household names at the start of the season either.

Face it, in a time when general managers are doing everything possible to survive today's economic strife and remain within the limits of the NHL's salary cap, the backup goalie has virtually become an after-thought.

Not this season.

In fact, would it be a complete surprise if the team raising the Stanley Cup in June possessed not only the best goalie, but the best goalie tandem?

"Backups should be playing more -- I've always felt that way," Washington General Manager George McPhee told "The intensity and focus that these games require today is a lot to handle for one goaltender. It hasn't surprised me at all that the teams who have been going with tandems have been getting good goaltending all year. It's been going well for them and we'll probably see more of it in the future."

Not surprisingly, McPhee is practicing what he preaches. His Washington Capitals concluded the first half of 2008-09 in second place in the Eastern Conference with 27 wins and 57 points by utilizing imported starter Jose Theodore and backup Brent Johnson.

The 31-year-old Johnson was 11-6-2 with a 2.75 goals-against average and .909 save percentage in support of Theodore, who went 14-7-1 with a 2.89 GAA and .895 save percentage. Theodore was signed by McPhee as a free agent this summer.

In New Jersey, Clemmensen never imagined he would be playing this much in the NHL -- especially when he broke camp as the No. 1 for New Jersey's minor-league team in Lowell. That all changed when Brodeur went down and backup Kevin Weekes struggled in a few starts as the new No. 1.

Now, Clemmensen is playing regularly -- and succeeding -- for the first time since making his NHL debut in 2000.

"I'm the same goalie now as I was eight years ago," Clemmensen said. "Only now I've been given more of an opportunity to kind of show it and that's what every backup goalie needs in order to get their break."

Clemmensen has compiled a 16-9-1 record, ranked eighth in the NHL with a 2.38 GAA and 10th with a .918 save percentage at the midway point. Not bad for a guy who rented an apartment and moved his wife and infant daughter to Lowell at the start of the season thinking he'd spend more time with the Devils' AHL affiliate.

"People say guys like Tim Thomas came out of nowhere but that's not the case," Clemmensen said. "He's been a pro for eight, nine years, and it was just a lot of hard work before he got his break in Boston. I've always believed I could play at this level. It's unfortunate because in losing Marty, we lost our best player; but I looked at it as an opportunity to prove and show that I belong here."

It's the exact attitude most backups take.

"When you get the call you have to be ready and I think everybody is comparative in this sport and, just being an athlete alone, you always want to be the go-to guy," Minnesota Wild backup Josh Harding said. "Whenever you get that chance, you have to take full advantage of it and there are a lot of goalies doing that this year."

Florida's Anderson, who backed up Nikolai Khabibulin in Chicago before his trade to the Panthers in 2006, is a good example. In Florida, Anderson, 27, has backed up Tomas Vokoun, who earns almost 10 times his salary. This season, however, Anderson has proven to be priceless. In 21 first-half games, he was 9-4-5 with a 2.34 GAA, .933 save percentage and career-best three shutouts.

"You have to take advantage of your opportunities," Anderson said. "Sometimes you see guys who get opportunities because of an injury or guys aren't playing as well and they don't do anything with it or maybe they miss out and get labeled (as a backup)."

Minnesota goaltending coach Bob Mason feels today's athletes are better prepared.

"Technically, you don't see a big difference in a lot of guys now," Mason told "They have a lot of good coaching and many play the same style. Don't forget, team defenses are pretty good too and that helps. All these guys are also pretty strong, mentally."

Carolina's Michael Leighton accepted his backup role to Cam Ward when he joined the team for the start of the 2007-08 season, but certainly looks forward to the day when he receives his big break.

"Obviously when I came here, I accepted the backup role because Cam's record speaks for itself," Leighton, 27, said. "He's done enough to show that he is the No. 1 goalie on this team and I definitely support that. But when I do get a chance to play, I want to play well and push him to be better. Obviously, the better he plays, the better I want to play because someday I want to be a No. 1 goalie."

Still, not every backup goalie starring in the League this year has been a journeyman.

Consider the fact Nashville's Rinne and Columbus' Mason are the first rookie goaltenders since 2000-01 to post at least four shutouts in their first season.

The 26-year-old Rinne (10-5-0, 2.17 GAA, .921) has allowed two-or-fewer goals in 10 of his 16 starts this season. Since being pulled in two of first four starts, he's posted a 1.84 GAA and .933 save percentage in 14 games as the backup to Dan Ellis.

"Mentally, my comfort and confidence level wasn't there early on, but after that things started rolling well and it got a little easier for me," Rinne told "When I began to feel that confidence, things kind of slowed down in my eyes."

Rinne doesn't feel pressured to play an 'A' game each time he's given an opportunity.

"I'm prepared and I knew I'd have a good chance to compete in the NHL out of training camp this year," he said. "I feel it's the same pressure for everybody, not just the goalies. Dan (Ellis) has been fantastic to me. We kind of have the same backgrounds coming through the AHL and it was only last year that he experienced what I've been going through this season. I'm really not surprised that backups are doing well in the League because everyone is so prepared today."

Mason (15-9-1) was the best at his position in GAA (1.75), save percentage (.938) and shutouts (6) during the first half and hasn't looked back since then-No. 1 Pascal Leclaire (9 shutouts in 2007-08) went down with an ankle injury in November.

The 20-year-old Ontario native has fans in Columbus thinking playoff berth for the first time in team history after setting a franchise record with three consecutive shutouts and a scoreless streak of 199 minutes, 19 seconds, earlier this month.

Contact Mike Morreale at
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