After watching from the end of the bench as Kari Lehtonen
started each of the 2010-11 season’s first nine games, Raycroft finally got his first taste of action late in that ninth contest, the Stars’ 5-2 loss to Los Angeles on Thursday night, stopping all eight shots he faced.
Then Saturday, he stepped into the Dallas crease from the beginning and not only did he make 34 saves to help end the club’s three-game losing streak, but Raycroft shut out the Buffalo Sabres in a huge 4-0 victory in which he earned the game’s number one star.
That was especially huge because of the way the Stars have struggled on home ice over the past week, dropping those three games by a combined score of 11-4, all but erasing the confidence gained during a quick 5-1-0 start.
Raycroft was particularly impressive during the first five minutes of the third period, with Dallas holding a somewhat tenuous 2-0 lead, when the surging Sabres outshot the Stars 7-0 over that span.
“Unfortunately that’s not going to happen (every night), no matter how hard I work,” Raycroft said of the shutout, the eighth of his 10-year NHL career. “Obviously, I got a great effort in front of me tonight. We got a few bounces here and there and it’s a big win for us.”
“Andrew Raycroft coming in and playing as solid as he did, that was a huge boost for our guys,” Stars coach Marc Crawford said. “I think they wanted to play so hard in front of him. Tonight it was important that we took it all the way and I was pleased with the way he did that tonight.”
Overall in his two appearances this year, which total 75 minutes, Raycroft has yet to allow a goal on 42 shots. It’s a nice beginning for a guy that had to beat out Brent Krahn in training camp for the backup goaltending job and then watch Lehtonen get off to such a great start that Crawford hesitated to put Raycroft in at all.
Now, though, Raycroft has proven himself capable and shouldn’t have to wait another nine games for his next start.
“I think you know off of that performance we’ll be excited to put him in again,” Crawford said. “Those things are good. We tell our players all the time, play well and make our decisions tough and that goes for our goaltenders as well.”
There’s no question it takes a special breed of player to excel as a backup goalie. He has to be ready to step into the crease at a moment’s notice, continue to work as hard as possible in practice to remain sharp and maintain a positive attitude without knowing when the next chance will come. But Raycroft, who has been both a starter and a backup in the NHL, has done just that.
“Obviously, you want to play,” said the 30-year-old Raycroft, who served as Roberto Luongo’s backup in Vancouver last season before signing a two-year free agent contract with Dallas on July 1. “But I looked at the schedule at the start and knew if we got off to a good start, I probably wasn’t going to play until November. That’s just the way the schedule was. The way Lehts played, that’s just the way it goes and that’s my job. I felt good in practice and that’s important.”
“That’s one of the tough jobs, preparing yourself to get in there,” added captain Brenden Morrow
, who scored an important power play goal late in the second period to give the Stars a 2-0 cushion Saturday. “The life of a backup goalie isn’t easy. When you’re not playing for nine, 10 games, to come in and close the door like he did was good. But he works hard to stay sharp. He was focused and determined and made some real good saves.”
Crawford indicated that the commitment Raycroft has displayed in practice over the past month was clear to all.
“It’s terrific that he played as well as he did,” Crawford said. “I thought he had real good focus today. I think we saw from him this morning his concentration. He’s a pro. When you’ve been around the battles as much as he has, moreso what we expect from him, he knows what he has to do to get prepared. He was very prepared tonight and we played a solid game in front of him.”
That may be the most important by-product of Raycroft’s performance. Perhaps his presence in net induced his teammates to bear down a little more, combined with the fact that Buffalo was a tired team playing its second of back-to-back games in different cities, had an impact on the result but regardless of the situation, Raycroft came up with the saves when he needed to and was instrumental in stopping their slide.
“That’s the best part of tonight,” Raycroft said. “It’s better at the end of the day to fight through another close one and have it go our way and feel good that we are doing the right things. We just have to stay focused through those second periods and keep plugging away and sooner or later, it breaks free.”
“Razor made some timely stops to keep the momentum,” Morrow noted, “and the special teams did what they hadn’t been able to do the last few games, capitalize on the power play and close the door on the penalty kill.”
How much Raycroft had to do with that part of it can only be speculated. And although it’s unlikely he’ll be back in net for the Stars’ next game Wednesday against Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, it is clear that he has earned the confidence of his teammates and coaching staff now, and will very likely be back in net sooner rather than later.