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Leclaire on a mission to prove he's No. 1 in Columbus

by Larry Wigge /
There’s something motivating about getting injured and seeing someone else step in and basically whisk your job right out from under you.

If you don’t believe it, just ask Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Pascal Leclaire, who injured his left knee in mid-February and missed the remainder of the season following surgery. In the process, he lost his job as the Jackets’ No. 1 goalie to 33-year-old Fredrik Norrena, who went on to post a 24-23-3 record and become the first Columbus goalie to post a winning record in the team’s six NHL seasons.

But if his first two outings in 2007-08 are any indication, Leclaire, 24, the eighth-overall selection of the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, isn’t ready to give up the job he thinks is rightfully his.

"It drives you. It pushes you to do a little more to get your job back," Leclaire admitted following a 3-0 victory against the Phoenix Coyotes on Oct. 10, that gave him shutouts in each of his first two games this season.

Leclaire doesn’t begrudge Norrena his surprise success for the Jackets last season, but how else do you explain him coming out of the gates this season? In those two games, he stopped all 60 shots he faced against Anaheim and Phoenix. Impressive, considering he had only one shutout in his first 59 NHL games during the past three seasons.

In posting those back-to-back shutouts, Leclaire became only the sixth goaltender in the expansion era (1967-68 to date) to post a shutout in each of his first two games of a season. The others were Gerry Cheevers (1969-70 Boston Bruins), Bernie Parent (1973-74 Philadelphia Flyers), Roman Turek (2001-02 Calgary Flames), Jeff Hackett (2003-04 Flyers) and Roberto Luongo (2005-06 Florida Panthers).

Let’s face it, Leclaire, a native of Repentigny, Quebec, has been the team’s goalie-of-the-future forever. He was groomed for the No. 1 job, not Norrena, who was a throw-in in Columbus’ June 2006 trade of goalie Marc Denis to Tampa for veteran left winger Fredrik Modin.

"Pascal was clearly the best asset," rememered former NHL goalie Rick Wamsley, who was then the Blue Jackets’ goaltending coach and is now an assistant coach with the St. Louis Blues. "We liked Leclaire because his skill level was so high. His technique was terrific ... just another in the long line of great young goalie prospects from Quebec. I remember what I really liked was his efficiency in the goal crease -- no unnecessary movements. To me, he had he potential to be a top NHL goalie.”

What is also driving Leclaire now is a chance to show his old/new coach just how good he can be after posting a 1-6 record in the seven games he played after Ken Hitchcock took over as coach in late November. That one win came in relief.

"There’s nothing like having a little friendly competition in goal," Hitchcock said, with a wink. "Pazzy has worked real hard on his fitness and getting ready for this season. I think you could see the competitive fire in his eyes the first day he reported to training camp."

Leclaire is a smart kid. He saw the numbers from last season -- Norrena 24-23-3 with three shutouts and a 2.78 goals-against average, compared to his 6-15-2 and 2.97 GAA. He knew he had to work hard to get his minutes in the nets this season.

"Physically, I came into camp feeling real good," Leclaire said, noting he had lost five pounds this summer. "Mentally, I just wanted to forget about last year. It’s tough enough trying to stop shots at up to 100 mph without adding more to it."

Because he was still rehabbing the surgically-repaired knee, high-impact drills were frowned on by his doctors. So he stuck to goaltender-specific exercises, the kind that work on sliding side-to-side for quickness and flexibility and at the same time strengthening the entire leg.

This early season success should serve to motivate both Leclaire and Norrena -- thereby giving the Blue Jackets solid goaltending almost every night. And Hitchcock knows how much great goaltending can boost a team to be in games night after night.

At the same time, no one would blame management for smiling a little wider after seeing the "goalie of the future" finally showing signs of being the franchise goaltender the team’s scouting staff thought he was back in 2001.

Hitchcock has had pretty good goaltending wherever he’s coached, from Andy Moog and Arturs Irbe in his first full season on the job in Dallas, to Ed Belfour and Roman Turek, to Marty Turco and Manny Fernandez. In Philadelphia, Hitchcock had Robert Esche and Antero Niittymaki. Stingy goaltending and a disciplined, yet mobile, defense are the trademarks of Hitchcock-coached teams.

It’s a fact that discipline on defense is what reduces the number of shots per game from the kind of nights like Leclaire had to face in his first season with the Blue Jackets, when he tied the NHL rookie record set by Mike Richter of the New York Rangers when he was asked to make 40 or more saves six times. To show you the kind of skills Pascal has, he won three of those games and earned a tie in another.

This Columbus team figures to be tighter defensively or else the players will incur the wrath of Hitchcock. And, yes, in turn, life should be a little easier in goal for Leclaire and Norrena.

Around the Central Division -- Is it as simple as Paul Kariya being the pivotal puzzle part in the Nashville-St. Louis rivalry? The Predators won 15 of their last 16 meetings against the Blues during the last two seasons. But with Kariya moving to St. Louis from Nashville in free agency in the summer, the Blues took Round 1 vs. the Preds this season, 4-1, Oct. 1, as Kariya accounted for assists on a pair of first-period goals by Brad Boyes. ... Chris Mason’s season-opening victories against Colorado and Dallas, plus a perfect 14-save relief appearance by Dan Ellis in Nashville’s Game 3 in St. Louis likely answers any questions about the Predators’ goaltending minus Tomas Vokoun (traded to Florida in June). Ellis had one previous NHL game on his resume -- a win while with Dallas in 2003-04. ... David Legwand’s second career hat trick came in Nashville’s Oct. 6 win against Dallas. In the process, Legwand joined Scott Walker and Steve Sullivan, with two, as the leaders in hat tricks in franchise history. ... Radek Bonk, signed as a free agent primarily to be the Preds’ third-line checking center, scored his first two goals of the season (he had 13 with Montreal last season) in a 6-3 loss to Phoenix on Oct. 11. ... Last season, it was a given from the start of last season that goaltender Dominik Hasek was rarely going to start consecutive games coming off the season-ending groin injury he had in Ottawa in 2005-06. The bottom line for the Detroit Red Wings was having a healthy “Dominator” for the playoffs. No problem. Hasek, 42, was 38-11-6 with eight shutouts and a 2.05 goals-against average in the regular season and 10-8-1 with two shutouts and a 1.79 GAA in taking the Wings to within two games of the Stanley Cup Final. Right out of the gates this season, Hasek plays in the first three games (2-0-1) and then bruises his kneecap. No problem. Chris Osgood steps in from the bullpen and stops 19 of 21 shots in a 4-2 victory against Calgary on Oct. 10. Bottom line: We all know that Hasek wants to play every game, but who’s going to argue with Chris Osgood playing one of every three or four games? ... Wings coach Mike Babcock has the luxury of depth at more than just goaltender -- meaning he can go to the bullpen with confidence. After losing Johan Franzen with a knee injury for a few weeks, Babcock went back to his old reliable -- putting star centers Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk together on power plays with Tomas Holmstrom in a 4-2 victory against Edmonton on Oct. 8. Two days later, they played together on a regular basis (even though Detroit had outscored the opposition 10-8 in their first three games) with Zetterberg netting his second goal this season and Datsyuk adding a pair of assists in the Wings’ win against Calgary. ... With 872 career points, Nick Lidstrom surpassed Peter Forsberg as the second-highest scoring Swedish player in NHL history. Only Toronto’s Mats Sundin, with 1,249 has more. ... Bet you didn’t know that among players 33 and under, Central Division players Paul Kariya and Jason Arnott rank 1-2 in points -- Kariya with 866, Arnott with 698. ... St. Louis coach Andy Murray switched long-time left winger Keith Tkachuk to center last season to have one big body against big centers like San Jose’s Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Arnott. In the Blues’ win against Nashville on Oct. 10, Tkachuk and checking center Ryan Johnson alternated checking assignments on Arnott -- with Arnott being a minus-2 with only two shots on goal after getting two goals and two assists and seven shots on goal in the Preds first two games. ... Brad Boyes, who had three goals in his first three games with St. Louis this season, didn’t get goal No. 3 last season in Boston until his 12th game on Nov. 6. ... Erik Johnson’s (first overall pick in the 2006 Entry Draft) first NHL goal was a game-winner in a 5-3 victory at Los Angeles on Oct. 6. ... Central focus on the 1999 draft: Leading goal-scorer from that draft class is Chicago’s Martin Havlat with 130 goals. Second, coming into the season, was Mike Comrie with 123. Havlat was the 26th player selected in the first round. but fourth on that list -- and closing fast -- was Detroit’s Zetterberg (210th pick) with 109 and 10th was Nashville’s Martin Erat (191st pick) with 62. In fact, the only player in the top 5 of that goal-scoring list from the ‘’99 draft who was picked in the first round other than Havlat is Vancouver’s Daniel Sedin, who was second. ... Following the draft theme in Chicago, Jonathan Toews needed only 13 minutes, 43 seconds of his first NHL game, Oct. 10, to score on his first big-league shot. But the Blackhawks lost to San Jose, 2-1. Four days earlier, Patrick Kane, playing in his second NHL game, netted his first goal to help Chicago beat Detroit in a shootout. Hawks coach Denis Savard has Toews centering first-round line that includes Kane and Tuomo Ruutu. The first-round count in Chicago is impressive, with Kane (first overall in 2007), Toews (third overall in 2006), Jack Skille (seventh overall in 2005), Cam Barker (third overall in 2004), Brent Seabrook (14h overall in 2003) and Ruutu (ninth overall in 2001). ... By the numbers: The Blue Jackets trailed for just 13:25 through in their first three games. After those three games, Nikolai Zherdev, Jiri Novotny and Duvie Westcott were the only minus players (each at minus-2). This for a team that had Gilbert Brule at a whopping minus-21, Ron Hainsey and Zherdev (minus-19), Adam Foote (minus-17). Well, you get the picture. ... Hottest line in Columbus? Manny Malhotra centering Jason Chimera and rookie Jared Boll. Each had a goal in the Jackets’ 3-0 win against Phoenix on Oct. 10, with Chimera contributing three points in the game. ... Chimera, who had four points in just three games this season, didn’t get four points last season until his 13th game on Nov. 8.

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