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Leclaire has been one very pleasant surprise

by Adam Kimelman

Leclaire finished the season’s first month with a 6-2 record, 1.25 goals-against average, .950 save percentage and four shutouts, numbers that earned him the NHL’s second-star for October.
On Pascal Leclaire’s biography in the Columbus Blue Jackets’ media guide, he lists his favorite school subject as history.

The way he’s playing, it won’t be long before the young netminder has his own chapter in the club’s history.

Leclaire finished the season’s first month with a 6-2 record, 1.25 goals-against average, .950 save percentage and four shutouts, numbers that earned him the NHL’s second-star for October. Leclaire is the first player in the six-season history of the club to be so honored.

Leclaire’s new marks are a serious upgrade from his previous terms. A year ago, Leclaire went 6-15-2 as injuries limited him to just 24 games, and only three after Dec. 22. With a career record of 17-32-3 in parts of four seasons, the Blue Jackets’ 2001 first-round choice was in danger of becoming history.

But with new coach Ken Hitchcock implementing his defense-first game plan from training camp this season, Leclaire finally is able to showcase the skills that made him the eighth-overall choice in his draft year.

Leclaire said he hasn’t changed much from last season. He says its better health and better play from the team in front of him that is allowing him to reap the benefits.

“Last year was a rough year because of my knee, and I missed a lot of time,” he said. “But I didn’t really change anything. I don’t think I worked harder or anything like that. I didn’t change too much. Obviously our team is playing better, so that helps with the goalie situation. Our team plays a lot better defensively, we don’t give up as many scoring chances, so that makes my job a lot easier.”

The Blue Jackets aren’t giving up much of anything. Through 13 games, Columbus has allowed just 23 goals. They’re on pace to allow just 133, more than 100 goals less than a season ago.

Their strong defensive showing has allowed the Jackets to shoot out to an 8-3-2 record, their 18 points putting them second to Detroit in the suddenly competitive Central Division.

“I know St. Louis picked up quite a few players,” said Leclaire. “They’re way more offensive. And they, too, have a new coach since last year and they have more structure. And Chicago, they’ve surprised, the young kids can play. It’s interesting. It’s actually fun to be part of that.”

It’s been extra fun for Leclaire, who stopped 36 shots in a 3-0 whitewashing of St. Louis on Oct. 25, and turned the trick again Sunday, stopping 21 Blues shots in another 3-0 win, giving him a League-best five shutouts. Those were the Blue Jackets’ first two games against a Central foe, but they’ll be seeing a lot more of their division brethren as their next seven games will be intra-divisional contests, starting Wednesday with three games in four nights in Chicago, Detroit and Nashville. Home games against the Predators and Blackhawks follow, and after a trip to St. Louis, they return home to face the Red Wings Nov. 18.

Past Blue Jackets teams might have crumbled at the daunting task, but this is a different group, bent on making its own history. There’s a confident feeling in the locker room that never has existed there before.

Much of that is attributable to Hitchcock. The coach brought his championship resume to Ohio last November, and he immediately gave the Blue Jackets something the franchise never has had before -- an identity.

“All the media built him up as big guy who yells at everybody,” Leclaire said of his new coach. “So we weren’t sure what was going on. But since Day 1 that he got here, he was an honest guy. He knew what he was expecting from us and he told us it wasn’t going to happen overnight. But he’s an honest guy and everybody really appreciates him around here. He brought something that actually works for us right now. So guys believe in him and we’re really happy to have him in Columbus.”

Hitchcock preaches accountability and defensive responsibility above all else.

“It’s a lot easier now because our defensive game has improved a lot,” said Leclaire. “It’s not a matter of not giving up shots, it’s not giving up scoring chances. You can give up 40 shots off the blue line but most goalies these days in the NHL will stop them from the blue line. We cut down on scoring chances big time.

“He wants us to push really hard to focus on defensive play first. If you play well defensively you’ll have chances on turnovers and stuff like that. So guys have really bought into it. And we’ve seemed to find a way to win by doing this. We trust the system a lot. When we do what he tells us to do, we’re usually in pretty good shape.”

Last season was the first time he spent a full campaign in the NHL, but with all the injuries, it felt like another lost season.

Also in good shape – finally – has been Leclaire. His career has been filled with fits and starts, one strong step forward, followed by two injury-related steps back. After being drafted in 2001, he played one final season in the QMJHL for Montreal, but has spent most of his pro career bouncing between Columbus and the Jackets’ American League club, the Syracuse Crunch. Last season was the first time he spent a full campaign in the NHL, but with all the injuries, it felt like another lost season.

Through it all, though, the native of Repentigny, Quebec – who turns 25 on Nov. 7 – never lost confidence.

“Maybe I got slowed down a little bit with a couple of injures, the lockout, my groin and then last year with the knee, but I never got worried. Playing in the minors is a normal thing, I think, for goalies. Everybody goes through it; it’s part of the process. And even if I was there, I wasn’t worried about it. I know what I can do. It’s just a matter of staying on the ice and doing it.”

And he’s doing it exceptionally well so far. But don’t think the historical start is going to Leclaire’s head.

“I’m a day-by-day guy,” he said. “Whatever happens in the past is done. … Whatever happens, it’s over and I always think about the next day. I live in the present.

“We’re really going forward and that’s the way I am. Whenever I have a bad game, a good game, 10 minutes after the game, I’m usually done with it.”


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