COLUMBUS, Ohio - Something special is happening in the Columbus Blue Jackets crease.
Pascal Leclaire has posted four shutouts in his first seven starts and has arguably been the best goalie in the NHL this season. The 24-year-old has credits his teammates for the hot start, but they're not exactly buying that explanation.
"He's going to credit us for some of the shutouts he's gotten but I'll tell you what, all you need in this league is a goalie to make big saves at big times," veteran Columbus centre Michael Peca said recently. "He's come up numerous times to make those saves. ...
"He's been doing something special for us."
While elite netminders like Miikka Kiprusoff, Martin Brodeur, Ryan Miller and Roberto Luongo have struggled in the first month of the season, Leclaire has blossomed. He is 5-2 with a league-best 1.29 goals-against average.
Leclaire's explanation for the gaudy numbers is simple - he owes everything to the system coach Ken Hitchcock has his team playing.
"We don't give up as many scoring chances," said Leclaire. "We have a great system that everybody bought into. Turnovers are down, and there's a whole bunch of those things that you can mention. Guys are very focused and we know that if we want to win, the defensive part of the game comes first.
"Ken (head coach Ken Hitchcock) came in and put in a good system that guys bought into. People talk about the shutouts but that's just a result of team play."
Columbus certainly has tightened up as a group, which has translated into the best start in franchise history. The team entered the week with a 6-3-1 record, placing them second in the competitive Central Division.
The Blue Jackets began the season platooning Leclaire and Finnish veteran Fredrik Norrena, who became the first goalie in team history to finish a season above .500 when he went 24-23 with three shootout losses last season.
But Leclaire has taken the reigns.
The native of Repentigny, Que., has allowed just four goals in his past four appearances. The early consistency has to be encouraging for the eighth overall pick from the 2001 draft.
He got his first taste of regular NHL action in the season following the lockout, posting an 11-15-3 record in 33 appearances. But last year, problems with his left knee limited him to just 24 games and six wins, one of which was his first and only career shutout before this season.
Leclaire had arthroscopic surgery on Boxing Day before re-aggravating the injury in February, which ended his season. Jackets strength and conditioning coach Barry Brennan consulted with some physiotherapy experts in Montreal and constructed a program to help Leclaire's recovery.
"I couldn't really do any weights until July because of my knee," he said. "I had to find ways to play around and build strength in my legs without doing weights. So I rode the bike a lot.
"I enjoyed it quite a bit. And I feel pretty good now. For me, (returning at full strength) was never an issue. I knew it would come back. The doctors made it clear to me that everything would be fine. I just needed the time."
While the injury impacted Leclaire's training regimen, it has had no effect on his style. He is not a pure butterfly goaltender like so many players his age that grew up in Quebec.
"I like the way I play," said Leclaire, a lifelong Canadiens fan who idolized Patrick Roy as a kid. "It's a little bit of both. I do butterfly quite a bit but I'm not going to go down first on every shot.
"I like to be really active in front of my net and use my legs as much as possible. And I catch the puck instead of trying to get hit by it. For me, it's more fun to play that way. To be like a robot, I'm not comfortable, and I wouldn't be good at that."
Whatever Leclaire is doing is working right now.
So far this season, he's had the good fortune of playing behind a disciplined group that has provided him leads on most nights. Leclaire has responded with timely saves, while allowing little in the way of second and third opportunities for opposing players crashing the net.
But he insists that he has no interest in numbers - especially the shutouts.
"I keep repeating it but it's not important to me," Leclaire said. "It's important to get the win. The win column is the most important thing.
"To me, shutouts are just a bonus. They look good on paper but that's not important."