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Pacific: Bernier could be L.A.'s saving grace in goal

by Doug Ward

19-year-old goaltender Jonathan Bernier won his NHL debut in London by making 26 saves and giving up only one goal in the Kings' 4-1 victory.
At 9:11 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time last Saturday, the Los Angeles Kings’ season began halfway around the world, with the playing of The Star Spangled Banner followed by God Save the Queen.

Right about then, it felt like the Kings, too, might need a little divine intervention to save themselves.

Then, Jonathan Bernier showed up. Whether he was sent to the Kings from the heavens, or just from Quebec, remains to be seen.

Playing in his first NHL game in the 2007-08 season opener in London, the 19-year-old goaltender sure looked like the answer to a lot of prayers over a lot of years in Los Angeles. He turned aside 26 of 27 shots from the Anaheim Ducks, and the Kings had a 4-1 win over the defending Stanley Cup champs.

More importantly, they might have gotten a glimpse of their future. Bernier did not look like a teenager as he calmly stopped the Ducks on seven of their eight power plays. He also stood his ground and pounced on loose pucks in the goalmouth. Best of all, he did not look like a Kings’ goalie. At least not the ones the team has trotted out in recent years.

“I don’t think you could have expected a better game from a 19-year-old goaltender,” Kings coach Marc Crawford said. “Looked like a real solid, solid goaltender.”

There were 17,551 fans in the house and the defending Stanley Cup champs on the ice, but Bernier was not fazed.

“It’s the same game,” he said.

In the past, it has sometimes seemed as if Kings’ goaltenders were playing an altogether different game.

Last season, after Dan Cloutier’s season was ended by a hip injury that required surgery in January, Mathieu Garon, Barry Brust, and Yutaka Fukufuji were all able to stanch the bleeding. Sean Burke arrived to play out the final days of his 21-year career, going 6-10-3 with a .901 save percentage, and the 40-year-old looked pretty good by comparison, officially qualifying as a sight for sore eyes.

This season, the job seemed destined to land in hands of Jason LaBarbera, a minor leaguer who spent 29 games (11-9-2) with the Kings two years ago. LaBarbera had a terrific season at Manchester in the American Hockey League a season ago, going 39-20-1 with a 2.20 goals-against average and .933 save percentage. The Kings still hope the 27-year-old can be a late-blooming NHL goaltender.

Now, though, the Kings are more preoccupied with the goalie that could be an early arrival. Bernier had been ticketed for a return to his junior team in Lewiston (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League), but following his strong training camp and impressive debut, the possibility exists that he might have already graduated.

Bernier was the Kings’ first-round selection (11th overall) in the 2006 Entry Draft. He was also the first pick on the watch of General Manager Dean Lombardi, and the Kings are determined not to rush him.

While building the foundation for a San Jose Sharks’ team that is now a Stanley Cup contender, Lombardi drafted Vesa Toskala and Evgeni Nabokov, so he knows how to evaluate a goalie. Still, he insists the best ally in judging a player is time, and, so far, Bernier has played in exactly one NHL game.

A year ago, in his first NHL game, Anze Kopitar had a pair of goals, and suddenly there was the unfamiliar air of possibility around the Kings’ El Segundo, Calif., training center. Kopitar’s coming-out party was no fluke. He went on to score 20 goals and pick up 41 assists, while drawing comparisons to Mark Messier.

There’s a similar sense of wonder this year. The Kings are 1-1, and the young goaltender has one game of NHL experience. A lot of things will have to go right for the Kings if they are to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2002. But if you’re a Kings fan, you can’t help but wonder if Bernier is the real deal. If he is, he’s joining a young nucleus that includes Kopitar, Alexander Frolov, Jack Johnson, Michael Cammalleri and Dustin Brown. Suddenly, things begin to look very promising.

In the Kings’ second game of the season, Crawford started LaBarbera, who gave up four goals on 25 shots in a 4-1 loss to the Ducks. If nothing else, Crawford’s decision to start LaBarbera allows the team a week to bask in the afterglow of Bernier’s sparkling debut.

For much of the Kings’ 40-year history, the goaltender position has put a drag on the club’s future planning, as if it were an anvil around its neck. For now, at least, there’s the possibility that the position could turn out to be the team’s saving grace.

Around the Pacific

Anaheim -- A 4-1 win on Sunday behind rookie goaltender Jonas Hiller’s 22 saves enabled the Ducks to depart Europe with a split in the NHL Premiere Series with the Kings in London.

Hiller, 25, became the fourth product of Switzerland to make his way to an NHL net, following the lead of David Aebischer, Martin Gerber, and Pauli Jaks.

The European excursion is over for the Ducks, but the road trip is not. Randy Carlyle’s team will make stopovers in Detroit (Wednesday), Columbus (Friday) and Pittsburgh (Saturday), for those teams’ respective home openers. Anaheim will not open its home season until Oct. 10, when they host Boston.

Dallas -- When the Stars open their season Wednesday at Colorado, they’ll do so without Chris Conner, a rookie who led the team in pre-season scoring (three goals, six assists) but fell short in his bid to make the team. A Michigan Tech product, Conner had 19 goals and 37 points last season at Iowa of the AHL. The Stars originally signed Conner as a free agent July 13, 2006.

Phoenix -- Coyotes captain Shane Doan and his wife, Andrea, were recently honored with the Pat Tillman Community Leadership Award. Doan was recognized for his many charitable contributions, which include purchasing tickets for students at the Thomas J. Pappas School, which educates homeless youth. In conjunction with Mark Recchi, he has also established the “Recchi-Doan Charity Classic,” a golf tournament that has raised more than $500,000 for charity. Andrea Doan is also active in several charities in the Phoenix area. Along with the couple’s eight-year-daughter, Gracie, the Doan family donated more than eight inches of hair for the Pantene Beautiful Lengths project.

San Jose -- The Sharks have settled on Dimitri Patzold as their backup goalie. Patzold beat out Thomas Greiss for the No. 2 job behind Evgeni Nabokov, but coach Ron Wilson said he envisioned Greiss rejoining the team at some point this season.

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