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Backup goaltenders do their best to stay involved

by Matthew Mankiewich

The job has often been compared to Vice President of the United States -- as in not very significant unless something happens to the big guy.

If you're a backup goalie in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, your chances of getting into a game are something close to a three-legged horse winning the Kentucky Derby -- and if you're backing up a superstar like Henrik Lundqvist or Martin Brodeur, make it a two-legged horse.

But like the guy who hangs around the White House a heartbeat away, the backup has to be ready to go into the action cold -- a moment that could be seamless on one extreme or a turning point in a series on the other. That's why during a practice day or a morning skate, Martin Biron and Johan Hedberg will stay out on the ice long after their teammates have returned to the locker room, running drills, taking shots from some of the playoff call-ups and other guys looking for extra ice time, making it as intense as possible.


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"You know, being an extra you have some time to work with (goaltender coach Benoit Allaire) and some guys who are not playing," Biron said recently in an empty locker room. "It gives you good practice, keeps you sharp. We've talked all year about it, it's how a guy like me especially and some of the other guys to do those quick drills, quick explosions. It's how you stay in the game and how you stay sharp."

"I work on my whole game," Hedberg concurred. "For me, it's staying on top of the whole game and try to stay as sharp mentally as I can, go for every puck and enjoy it."

Hedberg began his NHL career being the go-to guy in a pinch, and it's even how he earned his nickname. Called up to the Penguins late in the 2000-01 season from the Manitoba Moose, he started a game on short notice and wore his Manitoba mask with a moose depicted on the front with his Pittsburgh uniform. The Penguins fans picked up on it and he's been greeted with "Mooooose" calls ever since. Hedberg went 7-1-1 down the stretch and then backstopped the team all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they lost to Brodeur and the Devils in five games, a time and place well-remembered by both Devils goalies.

"We've talked about it." Hedberg said. "They went on and beat us. I thought they were by far the stronger team in that series. We kind of ran out of gas after the first two games. But for me, it was a great experience and one of the biggest things I've been involved in in my career, and for Marty it was just another playoff run."

Biron's big go-to moment came a bit later. After spending his entire career in Buffalo as an understudy to Dominik Hasek and Ryan Miller, he was dealt to the Flyers at the trade deadline in 2007, making enough of an impression in that lost season to win the starting job the following autumn. Biron went on to lead Philadelphia to a conference-final showdown with the cross-state rival Penguins, also falling in five games.

Given their history, though, it might present more of a challenge to carve a niche for oneself in the teams' success, but experience triumphs for both, and they have their ways of staying in the action.

"It's a lot more nerve-wracking watching than being in the game because you have little control of what's going to happen," Biron said about his time on the bench, a sentiment Hedberg shares. "But you have to be that person who can settle things down, talk to some guys. I'm still young, but I'm the oldest guy in this locker room, so I try to use that experience."

The slight detachment from the thick of the action can be an advantage at times, and Biron can take a coach's point of view.

Martin Biron
Martin Biron
Goalie - NYR
Record: -
GAA: - | Sv%: -
"I pay attention to game situations, pay attention to how we're doing, pay attention to players' tendencies," he said. "Most times, guys will come back to the bench and ask, 'Did I have room to make that play? Was he open on the back door? Could I have shot that quicker?' So you have to pay attention to what they're doing and what we're doing so you can help out. It's always the same guys who like to sit by my end of the bench and like to talk, so you pay attention to those guys and what you can do to help. It keeps you sharp and it keeps you in the game. There's a lot of communication on the bench and I'm not one to shy away from a conversation."

Hedberg had his own views on the role he plays.

"I always try to be encouraging and more than anything a positive guy around the room, give some cheers and positive reinforcement," he said. "If there's something technical, the coaches usually see that. I don't think guys would be too happy about a backup goalie trying to adjust their games."

It's not just about watching what everybody's doing, however. Sometimes, the backup gets involved in other ways.

"In New Jersey, I'm going to be sitting on the end where the sticks are," Biron said about lending an occasional hand to the support staff. "And when there's a broken stick, you have to react quickly, yell a number, trainer grabs a stick, he gives it to me, I'm reaching over, I gotta know who's coming in, then another one comes in. One time this year, I wasn't ready and I took a [Brandon] Dubinsky stick right in the face. You always have to be ready."

The worst thing, however, is when the backup can't share the bench with the rest of the team, which does happen in some venues with shorter benches.

"Sometimes when you don't sit on the bench, those are the longest games ever," Biron said. "Long Island is like that, Carolina, Montreal … you sit where the locker room is. When you go into a playoff series and you're sitting there in that corner, like I was playing Carolina in a conference final when I was with Buffalo, you're totally disconnected and you have to keep yourself in. You go back to the locker room, watch the game there, anything you can. You don't have the flow of the game, you don't know what adjustments are being made, what the coaches are talking about."

On any team, the goaltending units spend time off on their own, working with their coaches and functioning as a separate group. For Biron, the chance to work with Lundqvist and Allaire was the perfect fit.

"I work on my whole game. For me, it's staying on top of the whole game and try to stay as sharp mentally as I can, go for every puck and enjoy it." -- New Jersey Devils' backup goalie Johan Hedberg

"Benny knew exactly what his goals were for me, what direction he wanted me to go, it fit the direction I wanted to go, it was perfect," he noted. "And when all three of us started to work together, it just really worked well, to the point where [coach John Tortorella] and [assistant coach Mike Sullivan] were saying we go in a corner and just hug and kiss all the time because we don't want to deal with these guys, we just want to stay in our own cocoon."

Brodeur and Hedberg get their work in with full-time goalie coach Chris Terreri and special consultant Jacques Caron, but the Devils goalies in particular make sure they don't stray too far from the rest of the team.

"I think we're very much a team, no one's anything more or less than anyone and that goes for the goaltenders," Hedberg said. "Marty's a very approachable, great guy, just very nice to be around, I have a lot of fun with him. And with Chris and Jacques around, too, the goalie unit is having a lot of fun, but we're very much part of the team."

Since they've occupied space on opposite sides of the Hudson River, they've earned praise for playing like No. 1 goalies in a No. 2 role, Biron compiling a 12-6-2 record and a 2.46 goals-against average in Rangers blue, while Hedberg rocked the red at a 17-7-2, 2.23 GAA clip this season. At least from the fan and media point of view, they excelled at spelling a pair of superstar goalies that hated to take a night off, making them that much fresher for this deep playoff run. Hedberg, though, says none of that entered any conversation he had with Devils management.

"They wanted my services as a player on the team," he said. "There were never any numbers said. More often it's the media that make up the stories and you go with it. For us, it's a long season, so many things happen. You might start in one situation and two weeks later, it's totally different. If you're the starting goaltender and you're not performing well, you might not be the starting goaltender. If you're the backup, you might see yourself in the minors.

"I wanted to come here because I've heard tons of positive things about the organization. Everybody knows it's very professional and I always wanted to see how it would be to be part of something that well-run and have a chance to win the Cup. I was very honored to get a chance to be part of this and a chance to come back and redeem ourselves from last year's less-than-good performance was a big reason why I wanted to come back this year."

And after coming so close to being in the Stanley Cup Final in the past, one of them will get a shot at it this spring.

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