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Osgood the best of the backups

by Mike G. Morreale /

With a 20-3-2 record this season Detroit Red Wings' goaltender Chris Osgood is the undisputed top backup in the League.
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It’s ironic the first recipient of the Vezina Trophy, presented to the top goaltender in the NHL each season, was awarded to George Hainsworth of the Montreal Canadiens following the 1926-27 season.

That’s because Hainsworth, who posted a League-high 14 shutouts that winter, was Georges Vezina’s replacement between the pipes.

Following the untimely death of Vezina in March 1926 due to tuberculosis, Hainsworth was given the nod and never looked back. The 5-foot-6, 150-pound Toronto native would win the Vezina again after the 1927-28 and 1928-29 NHL seasons. He recorded an astounding 22 shutouts and a microscopic 0.98 goals-against average – both League records – in 44 games during the 1928-29 campaign.

The importance of the backup goalie is well-documented, particularly this season, when many of the League’s elite have been sidelined due to injury at some point. The backup goalie is expected to play a major role in practice and game preparation, in addition to spelling the starter for short or even extended periods during the season. At times it is a thankless job, but one that carries as much, if not more, weight than any other position on the roster.

Now that the second half of the season is upon us, here’s a snapshot of the top 10 backup goalies, according to Additionally, we have included a wild-card pick, and one goalie who supplanted a starter in Edmonton after beginning the season as a replacement.

The Takeover: Mathieu Garon  (15-11-1, three shutouts, 2.53 GAA, .914 save percentage): The seventh-year veteran, who was signed as a free agent in July, has taken over for Dwayne Roloson as the Oilers’ full-time starter. Garon has won five of his last seven starts, including a 35-save, 4-0 shutout of the Islanders on Jan. 7. Garon was a second-round choice (44th overall) of the Montreal Canadiens in 1996.

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Wildcard: Jonas Hiller  (4-3-1, 2.27 GAA, .911 save percentage): The 6-2, 196-pound rookie, who backs up nine-year veteran Jean-Sebastien Giguere, was voted the best goalie in the Swiss National League in 2006-07 after posting a 28-16 record and 2.60 GAA. Hiller had a track record for winning high-pressure games in the Swiss League, possesses good lateral movement and has plenty of confidence. He’s won three of his last four starts, including a pair of one-goal wins over Chicago and Colorado.

The Top 10

10. Curtis Sanford, Vancouver (4-3-1, 2.80 GAA, .905 save percentage): The 28-year-old Sanford, signed in July, registered his third win in three starts on Dec. 6, 2007, when he turned away 26 shots in a 5-2 victory against the Nashville Predators. He filled in for starter Roberto Luongo last month while the All-Star goalie was recovering from a rib injury. His proven experience and professionalism have afforded him high praise from the Canucks. Sanford was undrafted out of the Ontario Hockey League before receiving a tryout with the St. Louis Blues seven years ago. He played in more than 200 games in the minors before making 34 starts in the 2005-06 season, finishing 13-13-5 with a 2.66 GAA, three shutouts and .910 save percentage.

9. Fredrik Norrena, Columbus (6-11-3, 2.62 GAA, .903 save percentage): In 55 games last season, the 33-year-old Finn went 24-23-3 with a 2.78 GAA to become the first goalie in the team’s eight-year history to finish with a record above .500. Norrena, second on the lineup card to Pascal Leclaire, was a member of the silver medal-winning Team Finland at the 2006 Olympic Games in Turin, Italy. Norrena’s last victory came Jan. 3 in a 4-3 victory over Los Angeles.


8. Alexander Auld, Boston (8-11-1, two shutouts, 3.02 GAA, .897 save percentage): Auld, in his seventh season in the League, made his first appearance in a Boston uniform on Dec. 8, 2007, making 25 saves in a 2-1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs. One week later, he notched his first shutout, stopping 32 shots in a 2-0 triumph against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Auld will provide No. 1 Tim Thomas some needed relief.

7. Kevin Weekes, New Jersey (2-2-1, 2.63 GAA, .906 save percentage): Three-time Vezina Trophy winner Martin Brodeur has been white-hot since mid-November, so Weekes hasn’t been given many opportunities. His last start was in a 4-3 loss to Boston on Jan. 5. Still, the 6-2, 215-pounder is athletic in the goal crease and capable of making the spectacular save look routine. The nine-year veteran got married on Saturday while the NHL was on its All-Star break.

6. Mike Smith, Dallas (9-9-0, one shutout, 2.60 GAA, .900 save percentage): A fifth-round draft choice by the Stars in 2001, Smith was named to the 2006-07 NHL All-Rookie Team last season when he finished 12-5-2 with a 2.23 GAA. He has provided veteran starter Marty Turco with quality substitutions, including a stretch of four straight victories in November over Colorado, Los Angeles, Anaheim and the Rangers. His most recent triumph was a 29-save, 3-1 decision over Columbus on Jan. 19, snapping the Blue Jackets’ four-game winning streak.


5. Dan Ellis, Nashville (11-5-1, four shutouts, 2.25 GAA, .924 save percentage): The 6-foot, 185-pound Ontario native, whose only NHL start prior to this season was a victory against Los Angeles on Feb. 8, 2004, has played remarkably well in his first full season in the big leagues while backing up starter Chris Mason. In 2006-07, Ellis, originally Dallas’ second choice (60th overall) in the 2000 Entry Draft and signed as a free agent by Nashville on July 5, 2007, ranked third in the AHL in minutes played (3,194) and fourth in wins (30). He’s won four of his last six starts, including a season-high 38 saves in a 4-0 victory over Colorado on Jan. 22.

4. Jose Theodore, Colorado (12-12-2, one shutout, 2.53 GAA, .905 save percentage): Theodore, who is in his 13th NHL season, always has been a reliable stopper. For instance, he helped the Avalanche snap a four-game skid on Jan. 5 with 23 saves in a 2-1 overtime decision against the Islanders. Theodore currently has won four of his last seven games. Prior to the All-Star break, the 31-year-old Quebec native had started the Avalanche’s last 10 games, going 5-4-1 with one shutout, a 1.97 GAA and .930 save percentage. Peter Budaj, 25, received his last start on Jan. 3 in a 5-2 loss to Phoenix.

3. Antero Niittymaki, Philadelphia (9-5-1, one shutout, 2.59 GAA, .919 save percentage): After suffering through an injury-plagued 2006-07 campaign due to a torn labrum to his left hip, Niittymaki lost the No. 1 spot to Martin Biron. But the reliable Finn has recovered nicely, winning six of his last eight. He earned his first shutout of the season on Dec. 30, turning aside 38 shots in a 1-0 decision over Florida. He followed that with victories over Toronto (56 saves), Atlanta and the Rangers. The Flyers currently are second in the Eastern Conference with 59 points, and the 6-1, 192-pound Niittymaki, a seventh-round pick (168th overall) in 1998, has become a viable force.


2. Ty Conklin, Pittsburgh (10-2-2, two shutouts, 1.97 GAA, .941 save percentage): There’s no question Conklin’s 36-save performance in a 2-1 shootout victory over Buffalo in the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day was one for the ages. While filling in for the injured Marc-Andre Fleury (high ankle sprain), who could be sidelined another month, and then-backup Dany Sabourin (who failed to impress), Conklin had been extraordinary, winning 10 of 11 at one point before losing his last three starts prior to the All-Star break. He was signed by Pittsburgh on July 18, 2007, to a one-year, $500,000 contract.

1. Chris Osgood, Detroit (20-3-2, three shutouts, 1.87 GAA, .925 save percentage): Should the 14-year veteran, who signed a three-year extension with Detroit in January, even be considered a backup? Well, the fact that he works in tandem with the impeccable Dominik Hasek is the reason Ozzie tops our list. At 35, Osgood has been a big reason the Red Wings currently own the best record in the League (37-10-4), while allowing the fewest goals (110). He’s perfectly capable of playing the every-day role or stepping in and leading the Red Wings if Hasek, who turned 43 on Tuesday, suffers a setback.

Contact Mike Morreale at

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