LOS ANGELES -- Anaheim Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau made a very bold goaltending decision Saturday night, and the other 18 skaters on his team showed their support of the move with their play on the ice.
Boudreau tabbed 20-year-old rookie John Gibson, he of the three career NHL games, to start the most important game of the 2013-14 season for the Ducks to date. They responded with a committed defensive effort.
The Ducks didn't have the puck nearly enough to ensure long-term success, but for one night they befuddled the Los Angeles Kings in a 2-0 victory by clogging shooting lanes and lightening the load for the young goaltender, who made 28 saves.
"I'm sure those guys were frustrated," Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler said. "They put a pretty good push on in the third. I thought we did a good job of limiting their really quality scoring chances. I thought [Gibson] could see most of the pucks and they were from the perimeter, but he came up huge on a number of occasions too. We can do a little bit better job in front of him, but he did some really key saves tonight and that's why we were able to win."
Anaheim blocked the seventh-most shots in the NHL this season, averaging 15.2 per game. The skaters in front of Gibson blocked 22 in his NHL debut April 7 against the Vancouver Canucks.
They turned aside 25 shots from the Kings in Game 4, including 21 in the first 40 minutes alone. The biggest save of the game might not have been made by Gibson, but by captain Ryan Getzlaf, who got in front of a Drew Doughty shot in the second period with Gibson on the ground and an open net waiting.
"I don't think they think have to protect him," Boudreau said. "They obviously have a lot of belief in him, but we talked about protecting our house a lot better today than we did in the last couple games and paying the price. That's what you do when you pay the price and get in the way. I think [Daniel] Winnik is more of a shot blocker than the other guys. [Kyle] Palmieri and [Rickard] Rakell will block shots more than the other guys that they replaced."
Gibson is a goaltending prodigy, the most anticipated prospect at the position since Carey Price showed up at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh for his NHL debut in 2007 sporting all white pads, a white mask and a success-filled resume.
The pride of Whitehall, Pa., a small borough about seven miles south of downtown Pittsburgh, Gibson was not a high draft pick like Price, but his performances in big moments have fed into the anticipation.
He won gold at the IIHF World Junior Championship. He won bronze as a 19-year-old at the IIHF World Championship. He was in the process of dominating the Calder Cup Playoffs in the American Hockey League before the Ducks decided they needed him.
Boudreau had also already turned to Gibson in one of the previous "biggest games of the season." When the Ducks played the San Jose Sharks on April 9 with first place in the Pacific Division still in doubt, Gibson stopped 36 of 38 shots in the second of three victories in as many starts with Anaheim.
In Game 4, Gibson became the youngest goalie in NHL history (20 years, 330 days) to have a shutout in his Stanley Cup Playoffs debut. Chris Osgood (21 years, 145 days), held the previous mark on April 20, 1994 with the Detroit Red Wings, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Gibson is also the second goaltender in League history to earn shutouts in his first regular-season and playoff games since Tiny Thompson of the Boston Bruins in November 1928 and March 1929, and is the youngest to win a playoff game since Carey Price (20 years, 238 days) of the Montreal Canadiens on April 24, 2008 against the Philadelphia Flyers.
"Quite frankly, with the San Jose game to me, which was for first place in the division and really important, he came in as cool as a cucumber," Boudreau said. "We thought at that point that we could start him [in Game 1 of the first round]. I didn't really want to jump the gun because these two guys had been with us the whole year and done a great job. The confidence I have in this young man is great. I knew he was going to do a good job."
This isn't the first time Boudreau has made the unorthodox decision with his goaltenders in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Gibson was the first 20-year-old goaltender to start an NHL playoff game since Semyon Varlamov started Game 2 of an Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series for the Washington Capitals against the New York Rangers.
Varlamov had six games of NHL experience at that point. He played the final six games of that series, helping the Capitals to the second round by allowing a total of seven goals. The coach who went with Varlamov instead of veteran Jose Theodore, was, of course, Boudreau.
THROWN INTO THE FIRE
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Anaheim is just the fifth team in the last 28 years to start multiple rookie goaltenders in a single postseason, with each team doing so within a single series:
The Ducks have now started three different goalies in their first four games versus the Kings: Jonas Hiller
(Games 1 and 2), Frederik Andersen
(Game 3) and John Gibson
(Game 4). According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Rangers were the last team to start three goalies in the first four games of a best-of-seven series, starting Bob Froese
, John Vanbiesbrouck
and Mike Richter
in their four-game sweep at the hands of the Penguins in the 1989 Division Semifinals.
"That helped," Boudreau said of that decision in 2009. "If he didn't pass the test, then we could come right back with [Hiller] on Monday. And I don't think it would affect him the way it might affect a young guy. If we didn't have success on Monday and we'd lost today, then he's taking the weight of the world on his shoulders. I didn't think that would be fair."
This Western Conference Second Round series is now tied 2-2, and Gibson will now likely start the next biggest game of the season for the Ducks. Whether he was scooping up pucks in traffic or fielding questions from about two dozen media members after the game, Gibson showed he has something else in common with Price, and in common with a 20-year-old Varlamov.
He acted like this was a Tuesday night in November, not Game 4 of the second round of the NHL playoffs.
It's obviously exciting, but we haven't won anything yet," Gibson said. "I think we'll be excited if we win. That's the time to celebrate. Obviously you enjoy this for a bit, but you got to get back to work."
There's another reason Boudreau isn't afraid of using a young goaltender, and Price was involved with that too. Boudreau won the Calder Cup as a coach in 2006 with the Hershey Bears, but he still remembers the two he didn't win.
One came as a player in 1985, when a young goalie with little AHL experience showed up beat his Baltimore Skipjacks in the final. That goalie's name was Patrick Roy.
The year after Boudreau's Hershey Bears won in 2006, he thought they were en route to back-to-back titles. Another young goaltender with almost no AHL experience again beat his team in the final.
That goaltender's name was Carey Price.
Boudreau has plenty of experience with young, great goaltenders in his career. He's not afraid to let Gibson try to be the next Price, or the next Roy, for that matter.
Even if he and Gibson played coy about Game 5 on Monday night. When asked if he thought this was the beginning of his tenure as the starting goalie in Anaheim, Gibson replied, "I don't even know if I'm starting on Monday or not."
"Jeez, I don't know. We've still got [Igor] Bobkov that we haven't used yet," Boudreau said to a chorus of laughter.
Make no mistake, the John Gibson era has begun in Anaheim. Boudreau, and the other 18 players on the Ducks, are too confident in him to turn back now.