SUN Hockey Pool

Puck stops here

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 10:35 AM ET

When obstruction, oversized pads and defensive standoffs ruled the day, goaltender was a position that coaches and fans simply took for granted.

Every team had a premier stopper and every shooter's lament was always: "The goalies in this league are too good, you're not going to score on the first shot.''

That was then, an entirely different time and place from where the NHL is now. Back then, they allowed clutching and hooking and hacking so players almost never got that first good shot, and goalies were so big there wasn't anything to shoot at when they did.

Back then, defencemen were allowed to punch and slash and crosscheck any forward who dared plant a screen or go for a rebound. Back then, teams had to kill five penalties a game, not nine.

Of course all goalies were great. It was the easiest job in hockey, next to Mark Messier's hair stylist.

"Well, I wouldn't say it was easy,'' chuckled Buffalo's Ryan Miller, one of the best young keepers in the business. "But players are definitely getting a lot more quality chances than they ever did before. A few years ago it was a surprise if anyone got a good look. It was like 'Oh wow! He was open!' Now you expect it. Guys are getting open all the time.''

And it's showing in the numbers. Now, the goalies pads aren't bloated, their goals against averages are.

While Miller, Miikka Kiprusoff, Dominik Hasek, Manny Fernandez and Martin Brodeur (after some terrible struggles early on), are still on top of their games, other former greats, like Jose Theodore, Nikolai Khabibulin and Ed Belfour are doing David Duval impressions.

Clearly, as slimmed-down netminders see more and more rubber from more and better angles, we're seeing a separation between the real deals, the great goalies, and the good goalies who were made great by the old system.

"It's tougher around the net,'' admits Kiprusoff. "It's tougher for them to move the guys so there's a lot more screened shots and more traffic. So it's even more important now than it ever was to control your rebounds.

"There are more scoring chances, better scoring chances, and that's what they wanted.''

The best GAA in the NHL this year belongs to Ottawa, 2.28. That would have only been good enough for 10th last season, when the New Jersey Devils finished first with a 1.97.

This season there are only 13 teams with a GAA lower than 3.00. Last season there were 26.

Last season Chicago's 3.10 was second worst in the NHL. This year, 3.10 gets you 19th spot.

New York's Henrik Lundqvist watched the NHL for years, then came over from Sweden just in time to see the league declare all-out war on his position. "The first couple of weeks it was tough for me to adjust my game,'' he said. "The game has changed a lot in the last couple of years. It's a lot faster, more similar to the style in Europe now. They play a lot of pucks across the zone so you really have to be quick post to post.

"But our team has been working really hard and playing well. That helps a lot when you have a good team in front of you.''

The team in front of you makes a huge difference. Backchecking, clogging up passing lanes and pressuring opposing offences are key to a goalie's survival. The ones with the best numbers are the ones getting the most help.

"My success has a lot to do with our team, we have great skaters on defence,'' said Kiprusoff. "The new rules don't affect them too much, which has been helping me a lot.''

At the other end of the spectrum, Patrick LaLime, two years removed from a 39-win season in Ottawa, went to St. Louis and is now trying to resurrect his career in the minors. Nikolai Khabibulin, a Conn Smythe candidate in Tampa's Cup win last season, floundered in Chicago.

"Teams have to be willing to come back hard instead of relying on the D to stand guys up,'' said Miller. "The game hasn't changed all that much, it's just that the teams that are committing to the little things are finding success. And so are their goalies.''

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T'S TOP FIVE

TOP FIVE REASONS WHY ANAHEIM GOALIE J.S. GIGUERE WENT OFF THE DEEP END WEDNESDAY.

5 - Ryan Smyth just watched Slapshot and decided to try the same thing Reggie Dunlop did on Hanrahan.

4 - Giguere is stuck with George Costanza hair, and then Smyth skates by with that long, flowing mullet.

3 - You can only play for a team named "Mighty Ducks'' for so long before something snaps.

2 - The 2003 Conn Smythe winner was mad at Kevin Lowe for not getting him on the Canadian Olympic team.

1 - How would you like it if Smyth stuck the Blue Moon in your face all night?

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THEY SAID IT

- "That shutout shouldn't even count.'' Sens goalie Dominik Hasek, after facing just 12 shots in a 3-0 win over Montreal.

- "I'm not going to go into the corner and say 'Excuse me, I'm going to hit you, make sure you don't get hurt.' '' Darius Kasparaitis, defending the hit that shelved Tim Connolly for six weeks with a sprained knee.

- "The media kind of blew it out of proportion. They made me sound like I came from Tijuana and traded a bottle of tequila for a pair of skates and learned how to play.'' Alaskan-born Scott Gomez, on his Mexican heritage.

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T'S TEAM OF THE WEEK

C - PATRICK MARLEAU (SHARKS): Back to back three-point games in a big sweep over rival L.A.

LW - DANIEL ALFREDSSON (SENATORS): Captain Senator heating up again, with 10 points in the last five games.

RW - TEEMU SELANNE (MIGHTY DUCKS): Eight points in five games since returning from groin strain.

LD - CHRIS PRONGER (OILERS): Solid physical play in addition to four points in the last two games.

RD - FRED MEYER (FLYERS): Rookie erupts for two goals, three assists and a tidy plus five in his last five.

G - MANNY FERNANDEZ (WILD): Secures top job by going 4-0 with a 1.50 GAA and .944 save percentage.

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T'S QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"I think Danny is thinking too much. When Danny starts thinking, he's an average player.''

-- Tampa coach John Tortorella wants Dan Boyle to rely more on instinct.


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