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'Be prepared' remains the creed of backup goalies

by Dan Rosen /

Playing behind Olie Kolzig, the Capitals' Brent Johnson uses every game to show that he has the stuff to be a No. 1 goalie.
Brent Johnson [VIDEO] hasn’t forgotten that he’s Olaf Kolzig’s backup in Washington, but he won’t call himself a No. 2 in the NHL.

While they may seem like one in the same, Johnson’s explanation is what keeps players like him motivated despite the struggle to crack the lineup.

“I’ve always looked at myself as someone fighting for a starting role and not just a backup position,” explained Johnson, an eight-year NHL veteran. “I know my role here is as a backup, but I still feel like a No. 1 goalie in this League.”

Such is life for every veteran backup in the NHL. Every day they drive to the rink buoyed by one simple belief: Anything can happen, so stay ready.

While hoping to get another crack at being a No. 1, these veteran goalies have to take a different approach than starters.

“It’s just the realization that there are only 30 teams in the League, and only 30 No. 1 spots in the world,” said Kevin Weekes, backup to Martin Brodeur backup in New Jersey. “That’s the first thing; and the second thing is I don’t believe you can have too much pride. You have to realize you’re in the NHL, and because there are limited opportunities to play at this level, to have a spot is difficult. You just have to make the most of your situation.”

Most backups do, but in the process their jobs become quite different than a No. 1’s.

Backup goalies are subject to an abundance of extracurricular work and practice becomes a difficult, important, and thankless part of their jobs.

“It’s certainly one of the hardest things about the job unless you enjoy people shooting pucks at your head,” said Ottawa GM Bryan Murray.

Backups usually take the ice earlier than the other players for extra conditioning or as a practice dummy for a player working on his shot.

Unless the starter is ultra-intense -- such as Dominik Hasek, who demands players shoot to score in practice -- the backups take the brunt of the hard, and sometimes high shots because the skaters don’t want to rattle the No. 1 guy.

The backup is also one of the last players off the ice in practice. They remain on the ice taking extra shots and doing extra conditioning.

“Stevie (Yzerman) was always dragging me out for early shots,” said Manny Legace, a former backup in Detroit, who has found a starting role in St. Louis. “There were breakaways and one-timers after practice, too. That was my job. That’s what I was there to do. We had some great goalies that I was behind, so this was my role and when you accept it I think it goes better. You can work on your game by trying to stop the pucks.”

Chicago’s Patrick Lalime was once the starter, during his time in Ottawa. Today, he is a backup to Nikolai Khabibulin in Chicago. He understands both sides of the equation.

“You can be out there for about two hours in the middle of the season,” said Lalime. “You have to do extra work in the gym, too.”

The job can be mentally draining because the No. 1 is expected to be close to perfect on a nightly basis.

The No. 2 has to be ready at all times in case of injury or bad play.

“Sometimes you can get to the rink and think; ‘Oh, I’m not playing, so it’s going to be a long night sitting on the bench,’ ” Johnson said. “But you have to be ready no matter what. You can’t use anything as an excuse as a backup goalie. You can’t say; ‘I was cold, which is why I wasn’t that sharp.’ ”

Backup goalies can only play the “I’m just honored to be in the NHL” card so many times. Surviving the all-work, no-play lifestyle can get to them, which explains why some don’t last long in the NHL.

A trade from Detroit to St. Louis helped Manny Legace emerge from the second-string shadows and into the starting spotlight.

“It’s like you’re a kid and you want a piece of candy that is front of you every day, but you can never grab it,” said Marty Biron, a former backup in Buffalo, who is starting for Philadelphia. “You get to the game and it all gets played out in front of your very own eyes and you can’t get involved in it.”

Backups who remain disciplined set themselves up to be recognized down the road.

Sometimes, as in Biron’s case, it takes a trade to vault them into a starting role. Other times, an injury to a starter will open the door for a backup, which was the case for Ottawa’s Martin Gerber when Ray Emery was sidelined with a wrist injury at the start of this season.

Phoenix’s Ilya Bryzgalov and St. Louis’ Manny Legace both needed a change of scenery to capture a No. 1 spot.

“I always wanted to be the front guy on the team,” Biron said. “I’ve always wanted to say; ‘This is my team and I’m taking it to where I want it to go.’ Maybe early in my career I didn’t understand it fully, but as I got older and more mature I got to understand what that meant. This was my big chance.”

The pendulum does swing the other way and Lalime knows just how far and fast it can go. A victim of three different surgeries during the course of the last 18 months, Lalime lost his starting job in Ottawa.

As a starter for the Senators for four years, Lalime won 127 regular-season games, including a career-high 39 in 2002-03, when the Senators won the Presidents’ Trophy. But Lalime was a bust for the Blues in 2005-06, posting a 4-18 record with a 3.64 GAA in 31 outings. He was demoted to the AHL until he signed a one-year deal with Chicago on July 1, 2006.

Since then, Lalime has served as the perfect backup to Khabibulin. This year, he’s 4-5 with a 2.82 GAA in 11 outings.

“I would love to play more, and that’s what I’m aiming for,” Lalime said. “As it is right now, I do whatever I can control. If I have to spend extra time on the ice in practice, I look at that as getting myself better. Being a No. 1 again is what I would love to do, and you never know. Anything can happen.”

So stay ready.

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