ANAHEIM, Calif. – Jonas Hiller watched the Anaheim Ducks’ playoff chase from the stands instead of the crease last spring, sidelined by a mystery ailment that put his NHL career in doubt.
“It isn’t very fun not to be on the ice,” he said. “I hate it.”
That’s why the Swiss goalie isn’t missing a minute of Anaheim’s latest playoff push.
Hiller has started 30 consecutive games for the Ducks, a franchise record capped by a 4-0 shutout of powerful Detroit on Wednesday night. He hasn’t taken even a period off since Jan. 10 during the longest streak of consecutive starts by an NHL goalie since Antti Niemi started 34 straight for San Jose last winter.
“He’s got to be exhausted, but he still keeps coming in and getting a little bit better every day,” Ducks forward Bobby Ryan said. “Even on days when he’s not taking all the shots, he’s working on something. He’s been a rock back there for us. He has carried this team to a lot of wins since Jan. 1.”
Indeed, Hiller is playing the same spectacular hockey that made him an All-Star last season right before his apparent case of vertigo struck, going 17-8-5 with a 1.90 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage during the streak. Those statistics would put Hiller among the NHL’s top handful of goalies if he hadn’t struggled along with his teammates during the first half of the season.
“I’m having a lot of fun playing hockey right now,” Hiller said. “We’re getting better as a team, and I think I’m playing better now, so it’s fun to get them both together and to win some games.”
Hiller, who has earned three shutouts and won two shootouts during the streak, insists the extra work load hasn’t tired him out, saying he could keep starting every game indefinitely. Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau has limited Hiller’s practice time, and the goalie has adjusted his routine to stay as reliable as a Swiss watch.
“I’m still feeling all right, and Bruce has been great about giving me days off from practice,” Hiller said. “Pretty much all I have to focus on is playing. It’s also great mentally to be able to get away from the rink and come back mentally excited to play again.”
Boudreau didn’t intend to rely so heavily on his starting goalie in his first season with the Ducks, but backup Dan Ellis went down with a strained groin two games before Hiller’s streak began. Anaheim has been grinding since January just to have a shot at a playoff spot, and the Ducks apparently didn’t feel they could risk even one start from backup Jeff Deslauriers, even during six back-to-back sequences during the streak.
“He’s been all we had some nights out there,” Boudreau said. “He’s been a professional about the amount we’re playing him, and it’s working out well for us. I don’t have to worry about whether he’s ready to go. He’s always been ready, every time.”
Boudreau never had the luxury of a standout goalie during his four seasons with the Washington Capitals, shuffling Jose Theodore, Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth and Tomas Vokoun through his crease without finding anybody with Hiller’s consistency and durability.
Boudreau has put the Ducks firmly back on track now with one of the NHL’s best records in 2012, but they’re still deep in the hole they dug in 2011. They’re in 12th place in the Western Conference, nine points out of a playoff spot with 11 games to go, likely to miss the playoffs for the second time in three years.
But they can’t blame their goalie, who is back in the form that allowed him to unseat franchise favourite Jean-Sebastien Giguere for the starting job three seasons ago. Hiller steadily improved into an All-Star last season, but his still-unexplained vertigo struck after the All-Star break and wouldn’t go away until the off-season.
Hiller is expected to start Friday in the season’s final Freeway Faceoff against Los Angeles, and 31 straight starts would match Buffalo’s Ryan Miller for the second-longest streak in the past two NHL seasons.
“All we can do is keep winning to give ourselves a chance,” Hiller said. “We’re going to keep trying to make the playoffs, and I don’t mind being out there every night.”