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Lalime rediscovers success in Chicago

by John McGourty

Patrick Lalime has posted a 15-12-2 record and a 2.88 goals-against average in 31 games with the Chicago Blackhawks. Patrick Lalime video
From the earliest days of professional hockey, goalies have known that they are no more than one bad stretch, one bad game, one bad period, even one bad play away from obscurity.

Since Ty Conklin fumbled a puck that led to a goal in the 2006 Stanley Cup Final, he has played for five teams. Tiny Thompson lost his job with the Boston Bruins due to a brief eye infection.

Success is not unknown to Patrick Lalime, who set an NHL record by starting his career 14-0-2 in 1996-97 with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He was also the top goalie in the IHL in 1998-99, posting 39 wins. But like Conklin, Lalime has spent recent seasons trying to re-establish his reputation. His nomination for the 2008 Masterton Trophy shows he has made big strides in that direction.

After several years of playoffs disappointments, the Ottawa Senators gave up on Lalime, after the one time it really was his fault. He had been terrific on many occasions for Ottawa, particularly in the 2002 playoff victory over the Philadelphia Flyers, when he allowed only two goals in five games. That year, he became one of only four goalies to post four shutouts in the postseason, and he only played two rounds.

But fan frustration had grown by the spring of 2004 and Lalime became the target.

Lalime, who had sprained his left knee in 2000, was bitten by the injury bug again in 2004. He caught his skate in the net and twisted his left knee on March 27, 2004, in a regular-season game against Toronto. He was replaced in that game, but got the start and the win in the first game of the playoffs against the Maple Leafs. The Senators lost the next two games, won Game 4, lost Game 5 and won Game 6 in double overtime.

The Senators had a big challenge in trying to win Game 7 in Toronto, but they had confidence in their goalie. But Lalime was shelled for three goals in the first period and was replaced. The Senators lost, 4-1, and the season was over and so was Lalime’s tenure in Ottawa.

"I had some very good times in Ottawa, but the last period I played for Ottawa wasn't the best," Lalime said. "I played well for most of that year but ... it's part of hockey. I had to move on and I have to bounce back. It was a shame because my family, my wife and kids, liked Ottawa and it was close to home.”

He was traded that summer to the St. Louis Blues. Lalime split a disappointing, injury-filled season between St. Louis and its AHL affiliate in Peoria.

"It was tough in the beginning when I got to St. Louis,” he said. “I didn't know a single player on the team and I was facing players in a new conference. I ran through some injuries there and it was a tough year. It was quite a change from being in Ottawa and making the playoffs every year. You learn from experiences like that."

Last season, he signed with the Chicago Blackhawks to be Nikolai
Khabibulin's backup. The Blackhawks had made the playoffs in only one of the previous eight seasons and they would miss again in 2007 with a young lineup plagued by injuries.</p>

"I knew it was a young team, but the only one I knew was Marty Lapointe," Lalime said. "After the injuries, all I wanted to do was get back in net. I knew the goalie coach, Stephane Waite, a little bit because we both represented Sherwood at one time. My friend, Jocelyn Thibault, worked here with Stephane and told me good things. It was great to have someone like that to work with."

Chicago’s lineup is notably improved this season and Lalime has been a contributor, especially when Khabibulin has been sidelined by back and knee problems. Lalime has posted a 15-12-2 record in 31 games with a 2.88 goals-against average. That the Blackhawks still have a fighting chance at a playoff spot is due in large measure to the quality play of Lalime.

Head coach Denis Savard was one of the great hockey heroes to youngsters like Lalime who were growing up in Quebec during his great career. Lalime is impressed with Savard as a coach.

"I think it's great to play for a guy who has done so much and seen it all," Lalime said. "He had a great career and did a lot for hockey in Chicago. He's a well-respected man and it's an honor to play for him, no doubt about it. This is only his second season as head coach and I can see him growing with the team. We have a young team that needs to be well coached and well prepared."

This has been an historic and emotional season in Chicago in the wake of the September death of longtime owner William Wirtz. That led to Wirtz's son, Rocky, taking over and hiring John F. McDonough as club president.

"It was not a great time at the beginning of the year, when Mr. Wirtz passed away," Lalime said. "That was sad to see. But then we met Rocky and he has made quite a bit of change in the front office. It has been great. Hockey is being talked about a lot. The fans are coming back and it's a great place to play right now.”

The season also has featured the debuts of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, who rank first and fourth, respectively, in NHL rookie scoring.

“Toews is so talented at both ends of the ice. He's very skilled and very strong in the corners. He can take on guys one-on-one and he has very good speed, great cuts and a good shot. He's got a great future ahead of him. You can tell he is very mature about the game. He really wants to win. He's been great for this organization and this city."

Lalime didn't need to be reminded that Toews is that rare Westerner who is fluent in French.

"Right! We have PSP games on the plane and he's on the French team," Lalime laughed. "His mom is from Quebec City. I did some broadcast work at the World Juniors and saw him doing interviews on French TV.

"Kane complements Toews very well. Kane is just a little guy, but he's very strong on the puck and a very sneaky skater. He's not afraid to split two big defensemen. Pat sees the ice very well and has great hands. He's done so much for this team this year. Both Toews and Kane put the team ahead of everything. I really enjoy these kids and it's great for the fans."

The days are dwindling down to a precious few and the Blackhawks face a steep challenge in trying to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Many people think they're a lock to be a contender next year but the Blackhawks haven't cued up that song yet.

"We're still right there and we have a few games left to play so I believe we'll have a big finish," Lalime said.

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