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Hiller came long way in little time

by Larry Wigge /
There are more pressing things on Jonas Hiller's mind right now than how he got from Switzerland to the Western Conference Semifinals in Detroit between the Red Wings and Anaheim Ducks, and how long it took.

Like how to see through the notorious crease-crashing methods of Tomas Holmstrom, Johan Franzen and Dan Cleary, among others.

"In the first round, the San Jose Sharks threw a lot of pucks on goal and went to the net," the late-blooming, undrafted, 6-2, 193-pound Ducks netminder from Felben Wellhausen, Switzerland, said prior to Game 2. "The Red Wings have made going to the net an art form. What makes them so difficult to defend is that they are so patient in everything they do with the puck."

Hiller stopped 34 of 36 shots against the Red Wings in Game 1 with the score tied 2-2 before he was nicked for the winning goal on a rebound by All-Star defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom with just 49.1 seconds left in regulation time. The goal came right after Franzen was taken out of the play by Anaheim defenseman Chris Pronger. But there was no help for Hiller on the rebound.

The fact that Hiller is in the Ducks' goal crease instead of J.S. Giguere, who was the playoff MVP in 2003 and Stanley Cup-winning goalie four years later, is just a part of the fascination with this tall and talented puck-stopper who some might say came from nowhere.

If Hiller is nervous, he certainly hasn't shown it behind his black and gold Ducks goalie mask in his first seven NHL playoff games.

"I won championships back home in Switzerland, but this is the most fun I've had in hockey," Hiller said with a big smile. "I can't wait to get up in the morning."

Coming into this series against the Red Wings, Hiller had reason to be excited after posting two shutouts, a 1.64 goals-against average and a .957 save percentage as the Ducks upset the Sharks in six games.

"Everyone looks at him as a rookie, but he's not a raw rookie at all," said Ducks coach Randy Carlyle. "He's 27 years old, he's won two Swiss Elite League championships (actually three in Davos in 2002, 2005 and 2007, and Spengler Cup titles against Canada in 2004 and 2007). He's big. He doesn't give shooters much to look at. And he really works hard to be square to every shot. Most of all, he's back there battling for his team every night."

Hiller has a quiet demeanor off the ice, but he's every bit the fierce competitor in that 4-by-6 foot goal crease.

"He battles for every puck," said Marian Hossa, the Red Wings' leading goal-scorer. "We need to get rebounds against him, plain and simple."

"There's a reason why he's put up such good numbers," Holmstrom said. "He's good low … and when he's on his knees he covers a lot of the top of the net as well.

"We need traffic in front of him. We think there will be rebounds."

That type of commentary shows obvious respect for a guy who only played in 23 games for the Ducks in 2007-08, before he broke out this season beginning in December -- posting a 23-15-1 record with four shutouts, a 2.39 goals-against average and a .919 save percentage.

For the Ducks, getting to the playoffs became possible when Hiller tied a club record by winning seven straight games in March and April to tie Guy Hebert's club record (February-March 1995) for consecutive victories. With each game he became more comfortable and confident. One game after having his streak snapped, he stopped 42 of 45 shots and three of four shootout attempts to help the Ducks clinch their fourth consecutive playoff berth with a 4-3 victory over Dallas on April 10.

You'd be right if you said it's Hiller Time.

"An NHL goalie is not something you find on every corner of the street," said the Ducks' goaltending guru Francois Allaire, who has trained more than 40 NHL goaltenders over the years -- most notably Patrick Roy, Roberto Luongo, Giguere and Marc-Andre Fleury. "It's rare, rare, rare kind of people. You have, what, thousands and thousands of doctors in this country? Only 60 goaltenders."

Anaheim Ducks Playoff GearThere was a smile on Allaire's face like a proud father when he speaks of Hiller, whom he first began to work with 10 years ago at one of his goaltending camps in Verbier, Switzerland, where he's worked with NHL goalies Martin Gerber and David Aebischer in the past.

"I remember thinking, 'He's big and athletic, the kind of goalies I like to work with,' " Allaire explained. "Most of all, he wanted to stop pucks … and like all Swiss players he was quiet, he'd listen and he has a great work habit.

"I started telling our people in Anaheim about him several years ago when I knew there was something exceptional about him."

Former Ducks general manager Brian Burke took some heat after he outbid a dozen other clubs for Hiller on May 25, 2007, during Anaheim's Stanley Cup run. Burke still had Giguere and promising Ilya Bryzgalov under contract at a time when the team was having salary cap problems. But Burke thought so highly of Hiller that he waived Bryzgalov, losing him to the Phoenix Coyotes.

"Frankie (Allaire) wanted to sign him three years before anyone else really took notice of him," Burke said.

But Hiller, who said it came down to three teams -- Anaheim, St. Louis and another team -- wasn't sure he was ready to make such a big jump from Davos of the Swiss Elite League to the NHL.

"I was patient. I didn't want to rush it," Hiller said. "I wanted to be sure back home what I'm capable of. I made the step at the right point."

He paused to think about where he was and where he is now and then continued, "I never really dreamed it could happen because it was just too far away. I was never in the junior national team. I was never drafted. When I was younger, people told me I'd always be a backup. Even my parents wondered if I shouldn't do something else. But I told them, 'It might not look like it, but I feel like I'm getting closer and closer.' "

"I won championships back home in Switzerland, but this is the most fun I've had in hockey. I can't wait to get up in the morning." -- Jonas Hiller
That attitude was the obstacle he had to overcome. He said he became convinced that he had a chance in 2004-05, during the NHL lockout when Joe Thornton, Rick Nash and Niklas Hagman all ventured to Davos and played on the same team with Hiller … and then encouraged him to give the NHL a try.

"He kind of came out of nowhere over there, to be honest with you," Thornton said during the first round of the playoffs, when Hiller beat Thornton's Sharks. "He just blossomed into a great goalie, actually, my first year there."

From undrafted puck-stopper to a developing prospect to a sought-after free agent to starting goaltender in the NHL playoffs in just a few years.

"I'll never forget my first game in the NHL, in London -- I wasn’t expecting to play that soon. It was kind of funny," Hiller said, with a halting excitement in his voice. "At that moment I didn't realize it. To play in this League, which I was probably dreaming about before childhood and wasn't even close to being here three years before that. This whole process, it's been a dream come true."

Dream? Gerhard and Esther Hiller brought basketball to Jonas' attention early -- Gerhard was a basketball coach when he wasn't working at a printing company in Felben Wellhausen, and Esther was a member of the Swiss national basketball team and is a sport teacher.

"People were always telling me that I should play basketball, but hockey was my sport -- even if my parents didn't always understand," Hiller said, adding that he started out as a forward, then played both forward and in goal until he was 12 and began playing goalie full-time.

Now, Hiller chooses to relax in the summer by playing tennis and water sports. But what he loves most is lifting the hood of a car and tinkering at home with some of his buddies he grew up with.

On Sunday, the Detroit Red Wings will try to get under Jonas Hiller's hood and in his face once again. But this hungry-for-success netminder would love nothing more than to motor past his Motor City opponents, just like he did the Sharks.

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