|Chris Osgood doesn’t care about the No. 1 and No. 2 titles in Detroit any more, even if he’s playing like he’s second to none rather than backup to Dominik Hasek.
Backup. Being No. 2 and trying harder. Caddie for No. 1.
There was a time when the distinction between starting and backup goaltender in the NHL meant a big difference in terms of a team’s perception of its goaltending insurance.
Not this season, where we see Martin Gerber running away from former No. 1 goalie Ray Emery in Ottawa, Pascal Leclaire easily regaining his starting job in Columbus from Fredrik Norrena, career No. 2s like Martin Biron and Ilya Bryzgalov claiming top jobs in Philadelphia and Phoenix, respectively, and Jason LaBarbera starting in Los Angeles after waiting to see Dan Cloutier, Jonathan Bernier and Jean-Sebastien Aubin all get their shot before he stepped in and clearly won the job.
But the most high-profile backup making news this season is Detroit’s Chris Osgood.
Backup? That’s hardly the right definition of a player who ran his record to 12-1-1 with a 1.78 goals-against average and .924 save percentage after 25 games this season. Or a player who ran his lifetime record to 16-0-0 against the former Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning with a 4-2 win Nov. 29. At best, Osgood is considered 1A to No. 1 Dominik Hasek with the Red Wings.
But that’s OK with Osgood.
There was a time in his career that Osgood would have bristled at the thought that he wasn’t good enough to be a starting goaltender. That was back when he was a youngster sitting behind veterans like Tim Cheveldae and Mike Vernon, before he left Detroit to be the No. 1 with the New York Islanders and St. Louis Blues.
Since his 1993-94 debut with Detroit, he has had 39 wins in a season as a No. 1, served as backup to Vernon in the Wings’ 1997 Stanley Cup run and was the No. 1 goaltender in the team’s 1998 Stanley Cup championship.
Osgood, who just turned 35 this week, doesn’t care about the No. 1 and No. 2 titles in Detroit any more, even if he’s playing like he’s second to none rather than backup to Hasek.
"In the 1990s," Osgood said, "there was always a definite No. 1 and No. 2 goalie. There was a big difference. Now there are a lot of good young goalies and there are a lot of veterans. The difference between 1 and 2 isn't as much as it used to be.
"All I know is that I feel like I’m a better goalie than I was my first time around in Detroit. When I was young we didn’t have goalie coaches. You played and taught yourself. Now they’ve got a technique for every kind of save you have to make – and I’d like to think that this old dog has learned a few of those tricks.
"I tell you one thing: I haven’t lost my hunger to be a No. 1 goalie. Not at all."
Osgood paused for a second to catch his breath and kind of explain his deep-down love for Detroit before he added, "I’ve experienced both sides of the fence. And being here with Dom on a real good team is not only comfortable for me, but it’s competitive as well. Plus, I’ve got another great chance to win a Stanley Cup. And that’s huge."
Chris was a combined 31-9-11 the last two seasons. And he’s been even better this season, playing more while “The Dominator” tries to find the form that helped him win two NHL MVP’s in Buffalo, a Stanley Cup with Detroit in 2002 and a stingy mentality that helped the Red Wings get to the Western Conference final before losing to Anaheim last spring.
"When you have a duo like this, it’s hard to say who’s No. 1 ... or even if you have to make a distinction," said Dallas Drake, back with the Red Wings this season after starting his career with Detroit. "I’ve seen Ozzie as a kid in Detroit, played against him a lot of years when I was in Winnipeg, Phoenix and St. Louis and now I’ve played with him with the Blues and Red Wings. The thing that has never changed is his competitiveness.
"I think now he’s even a smarter goaltender. He plays his angles even better than I remembered – even when we were together in St. Louis just a couple of years ago."
Truth is, Osgood used the lockout in 2004-05 to refine his style – to bring his pads tighter together so that some of those pucks that used to ooze through the 5-hole or through his arms and chest are stopped dead.
Osgood never has lost the mindset that he's a starting goalie. He’s in the final year of his contract with the Red Wings this season, but ...
"Being a backup to a guy like Dom has helped me, because it's kept me driven," he said. "Dom and I have a good relationship. There’s no jealousy if he carries the load ... or I do. By the same token, I can look around the league and see how jobs are changing and backups are getting a chance to be No. 1 – and I know I’m as good as they are.
"But the older I get the more I appreciate things. I’ve always felt that I knew when I was playing well when I look forward to each game. And that’s how I feel now. Coming back here has been great for me."
The Peace River, Alberta, native was 13-0-5 over the last two seasons before he lost for the first time. He wouldn’t even get into a discussion of whether he would be better starting with another team. Been there. Done that.
"We like both guys," said coach Mike Babcock. "They’re a good 1-2 punch. You can’t take away how important Dom was for us getting us to the Western Conference final last spring. But ..."
The pause in Babcock’s voice tells how much he values what Osgood has done for the Wings this season ... and gives the rest of the team pause to know that the coach knows Osgood could be the man in the playoffs for this team.
"I’ve never seen Ozzie look so relaxed in goal," Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom said. "He’s not scrambling around like he once did. He’s real solid positionally. Bottom line: He’s strong for the entire 60 minutes ... and that gives the whole team confidence."
No. 1 vs. No. 2? For now, it’s just a General Motors vs. Ford argument in Detroit. There’s no arguing what the Red Wings have with Dominik Hasek and Chris Osgood.
Around the Central Division -- Just a few hours after the Nashville Predators were sold by Craig Leipold to a local group of investors for $193 million, the team went out and knocked off the Ottawa Senators, the best team in the Eastern Conference, in a wild, 6-5 triumph Nov. 29. The key, however, according to David Freeman, head of the new ownership group, is to increase home attendance to somewhere near 14,000, which is a number locals feel is needed to break even and keep the Preds in Nashville. So far this season, the Predators have averaged 12,924 in their first 11 home games. No doubt, Freeman and Co. will want a full house when the team returns to Nashville for the first of four straight home games, starting Dec. 6, against Vancouver, Anaheim, Detroit and Colorado. ... Good luck charm Martin Erat fired home the game-winner in the victory at Ottawa. It was Erat’s eighth goal of the season, but more important, it was his fourth game-winning goal in the last 10 games. ... Last week, we described J.P. Dumont’s play as stealth, under-the-radar, for the Predators. Against Ottawa, that stealth performer set up Erat for the winner and had one goal and three assists.
... Three assists in his first four games might sound like a lot for a highly skilled player like Nashville defenseman Shea Weber, but after being sidelined with a kneecap injury in the season-opener, a rusty Weber was making a nice contribution to the team. The hard-shooting Weber, who had 17 goals last season, quickly gave the team’s power play a presence. Plus, it wasn’t a coincidence that the other defensemen on the Preds began to contribute offensively when Weber returned – like, for instance, the three-goal production from Dan Hamhuis, Greg de Vries and Ryan Suter at Ottawa. Until recently, coach Barry Trotz was looking long and hard for offensive contributions from his defense. ... To show the closeness in the division, here are the results from the recent stretch when all of the teams played one another – Nashville 5-1-2, Chicago 5-2-1, Detroit 4-4-1, St. Louis 4-4-0, Columbus 2-4-2. Last season, Detroit dominated, going 22-4-6 in the division. ... The Red Wings surpassed Ottawa for the NHL’s best record with a 5-3 win over Calgary Nov. 27. The triumph gave the Wings a 3-0 record against the Flames and 7-0-0 record against the Northwest Division this season. ... Recently, I asked Henrik Zetterberg what his definition of magic would be. He said Pavel Datsyuk, because he makes moves that even surprise Zetterberg. Twice recently, Datsyuk had key late goals in games against Columbus and Calgary Nov. 24 and 27. He’s still making those magical passes that only he can envision and carry out, but he’s also shooting more and connecting. In a 4-2 triumph over Tampa Bay Nov. 29, Datsyuk netted his eighth goal this season. ... Tomas Holmstrom’s goal in the 5-3 win over the Flames gave the net-crashing winger a league-leading nine power-play goals this season. ... There was once a time when most Detroiters didn’t think the Wings could win without “Grind Line” players Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby. But both missed the triumph over Tampa Bay – Draper out 2-3 weeks with a sprained left knee, Maltby day-to-day with a shoulder ailment. ... Henrik Zetterberg’s 27-game home point streak dating back to last season was snapped in the Tampa Bay contest. ... Things certainly have been different in St. Louis this season. The most obvious thing you notice about the Blues is the eight healthy defensemen – Eric Brewer, Bryce Salvador, Jay McKee, Barret Jackman, Christian Backman, Erik Johnson, Steve Wagner and Matt Walker – they have, after seeing two or more out with injuries for long stretches in any of the last four or five seasons. Recently, veteran McKee, who signed a big free-agent contract before last season, was a healthy scratch in five straight games. When he returned, the shot-blocking whiz deflected eight shots in his first game back against Vancouver Nov. 23 and five more in another win against Calgary two nights later. At that point, the Blues had allowed the fewest goals in the NHL. President John Davidson and GM Larry Pleau were OK with the depth and were not looking to find a scorer or two to improve an offense that has struggled much of this season (the Blues have gone from fifth in shots on goal under coach Andy Murray to last in the NHL this season). ... One of the goals of Davidson and Co. was to be more difficult to play against at home, where the Blues fell to 18-19-4 last season. A 3-0 victory over Calgary Nov. 25 gave the team five straight home wins – the longest
such streak since Nov. 4-25, 2003. ... Of Brad Boyes’ 14 goals, 11 have come at home. In fact, he has 11 of the team’s 35 goals at home this season. ... When Lee Stempniak scored his first goal of the season in the Blues’ home opener Oct. 10, most thought the Buffalo native would be off and running to better the 27 goals he scored last season. But following a 4-3 win at Buffalo Nov. 28, Stempniak had gone 19 consecutive games without a goal. He’s changed skates, sticks – nothing. But a five-shot effort against Calgary Nov. 25 gave everyone optimism that the slump soon would be over. ... Sometimes fans write to us asking why we keep referring to a tentative return to the lineup for an oft-injured player such as Chicago’s Martin Havlat. Well, 43 seconds into his first game since the season-opener, Havlat scored. And early in the second period of a 5-1 victory over Tampa Bay, he had another goal while playing on the Blackhawks’ No. 1 line, along with Robert Lang and Jason Williams. ... In the same game, Patrick Sharp got a promotion from third-liner to play alongside rookie sensations Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Sharp tallied his 12th goal, Toews added another and Kane had three assists. Having two productive lines is exactly what coach Denis Savard has been trying to find. ... Nikolai Khabibulin finally played in his first game against his old Tampa Bay teammates Nov. 28, stopping 21 of 22 shots in the win over the team he helped lead to the Stanley Cup in 2004. That raised Khabibulin’s record to 9-6-2 this season – more like what the Blackhawks had envisioned from the big contract they gave Khabibulin to come to Chicago in 2005. After having just 17 and 25 wins in his first two seasons with the Hawks, Khabibulin is on pace to approach his season-high of 32 wins with Phoenix in 1998-99. ... More life from super-talented Nikolai Zherdev in Columbus. The shifty winger, who had two goals and four assists in his previous four games, gave the Blue Jackets their first shootout win in five tries this season when Michael Peca, Rick Nash and Zherdev went 3-for-3 in the shootout against Detroit Nov. 25. Quite a quantum leap from the 0-for-9 the Jackets had in their first three shootouts this season. ... Speaking of shootouts, the microscopic numbers that Pascal Leclaire has been putting up this season, with a League-leading five shutouts, didn’t have the same kind of luck in shootouts before he beat the Red Wings. He had given up three goals on just five shots before that contest. ... Good luck? Or just plain good, smart player? That’s Michael Peca, who had one goal and one assist in a 4-0 win against Minnesota Nov. 23 and then added that shootout goal two nights later against Detroit. That ran the Jackets’ record to 9-4-2 in games that Peca has played in this season. ... David Vyborny, who has been slump-ridden most of the season, contributed his 300th career point in his 500th NHL game in the win against the Red Wings.
The week ahead -- Patrick Sharp rallied the Chicago Blackhawks to a 3-2 victory at St. Louis Nov. 3 with the second of his two short-handed goals in the third period in the last meeting between the two divisional rivals in Missouri. The Hawks go into a Dec. 1 game in St. Louis with a 2-1 lead head-to-head with the Blues. Rene Bourque added a third man-down goal against the Blues this season in a 4-2 triumph at Chicago Nov. 9. ... After beating his former Dallas team three times in four tries last season, Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock was edged 3-2 on a shootout goal by Jussi Jokinen Oct. 17. The two teams face off in Columbus Dec. 3. ... The Predators play their first game at home under new local ownership Dec. 6 against Vancouver in the first of four straight games at Sommet Center.