Jocelyn Thibault knew it was there all along. He just needed to uncover it.
Thursday night, he found it in a big way at Mellon Arena.
Thibault, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ goalie, came through with a stellar performance in a 3-2 overtime shootout win over the Montreal Canadiens. The veteran netminder stopped 30 of 32 shots, including all three Montreal shootout attempts, stood on his head at times and – most importantly – played like the goaltender the Penguins were in search of when they traded for and signed him to a multi-year deal in August.
“I am happy we won. We played hard [Thursday] night,” he said. “I have to tip my hat off to the team. I am glad these guys played hard in front of me. It was a special game for me. I think it’s always a confidence booster for the whole team when you win a game like that.”
It certainly was a huge confidence boost for No. 41, who picked up his first win of the season.
“It feels great. I don’t know why it’s always hard to get that first win,” Thibault said. “Again, I needed a game like that. I needed a game where I went home happy. I did a lot of good things the last couple games, but I was going home unhappy. Everybody needed that and I needed that. Knock on wood, we’ll keep going.”
It’s been a trying two years for Thibault. He played 14 games for the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2003-04 season before he injured a hip. Surgery on Nov. 15, which happened nearly two years ago Thursday, shelved him for the remainder of that season. He did not play last year, when an NHL labor dispute wiped out the entire schedule.
Healthy to start this season, Thibault seemed poised to establish himself as Pittsburgh’s No. 1 goaltender. However, he and the rest of the team struggled in a season-opening 5-1 loss at New Jersey. Thibault did not start the second game, a road contest in Carolina, but was slated to be in net for the third – the home opener against Boston a day later.
He never got a chance to play in that game as he took a shot off the top of the kneecap in the morning skate. It landed him on injured reserve for a week and impaired his progress. Once cleared to play, he lost his next three games before Sebastien Caron made seven-straight starts between the pipes. Thibault played 33 minutes combined in two of those games, but got another chance to be the top netminder when Caron went down with an injury on Wednesday.
So far, so good for Thibault.
“He played really well and made some key saves. That’s going to give him some confidence,” Penguins captain Mario Lemieux said. “I know his confidence was really low before [Thursday] night’s game and he really didn’t feel comfortable. This is what he needed. To go in there and play the way he did, especially in the shootout to stop all three guys, that’s tough to do.”
While Thibault delivered a clutch performance against the Canadiens, his former squad and the team with the most points (26) in the Eastern Conference, he’s taking the win in stride.
“It’s a good game. I am not going crazy. It’s just one game,” he said. “I am a composed guy and play a technical game. I haven’t played in a while. With the new rules, it’s tough. There have been some adjustments for me to make. It takes some comfort to get back for me.
“This year, I did a lot of good things in some of the games I have played, but I never got a reward. I was making some mistakes. Still, I was feeling like something was going to fall into place soon. I was working very hard in practice the past couple weeks. Hopefully, we’ll get things going.”
Thibault made a series of unbelievable saves with about 4:30 left in the first period on a Montreal power-play. Diving and stretching across his crease, he stopped several in-close Canadiens scoring attempts.
“The first couple saves of the game, I thought I made some good, solid saves. I didn’t know what kind of game it was going to be, but I knew I was going to give a good effort and a good game,” he said. “It’s great. I needed a game like that. I think the team, too, needed a game like that at home. We haven’t been very good at home this year. You win like this – it’s a great, emotional win. It’s a great confidence booster and it’s great for everybody.”
Thibault continued to shine throughout the game. While he gave up two goals, he had no chance on the first Montreal score. It deflected off the skate of a Penguins defenseman and into the net.
“Jocelyn played extremely well. He did a great job early,” Penguins coach Eddie Olczyk said. “As the game went on, they started coming and I thought he kept getting better and better. That’s what we needed.”
Thibault was strong in a chaotic overtime period. He stopped several good Canadiens scoring chances in a wild frenzy to force the shootout, which made its NHL debut this year – yet another new challenge for Thibault, a 12-year veteran.
“The shootout is great when you win,” he said with a laugh. “Before, we would have gone home with a 2-2 tie. Now, we go home with a 3-2 win and it feels much better. Every time you win in the overtime or shootout, it’s a great feeling.”
Thibault stoned three of Montreal’s best offensive weapons in Michael Ryder, Alex Kovalev and Alexander Perezhogin.
“There were a couple guys I really know. Ryder, I knew he was a shooter; Kovalev, I thought he was going to do some crazy move; I didn’t know Perezhogin at all. I thought he was going to put on a real good move,” Thibault said. “It’s always a guessing game. It’s kind of a chess game. You don’t want to make the first move. When they are coming down at you, you want to get a good read at what they are going to try to do. I am glad I did the right things.”
So are the Penguins.