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Goaltender battles raging around the NHL early on this season

Ilja Bryzgalov and J.S. Giguere have both shone early on for Anaheim, much like Vesa Toskala and Evgeni Nabokov in San Jose and Cristobal Huet and David Aebischer in Montreal. Elsewhere, Tim Thomas and Hannu Toivonen have both started in Boston, as have Manny Legace and Curtis Sanford in St. Louis, Alex Auld and Ed Belfour in Florida, Dan Cloutier and Mathieu Garon in Los Angeles and Robert Esche and Antero Niittymaki in Philadelphia.

It's an unusually high number of clubs sharing starts in a league steeped in tradition when it comes to No. 1 goalies.

"Conventional wisdom used to be you wanted 60 to 65 games out of your No. 1 guy but now I think you want a lower number and more of a shared load," Ducks GM Brian Burke said Tuesday. "But I still think you're going to see most teams have a clearly designated No. 1 goaltender who is going to play 50-55 games."

Burke believes the sharing won't last.

"I think the teams that are using a tandem right now by the end of the season will have sorted things out," he said. "By the end you'll see one guy clearly playing the majority of the games."

There are reasons for this. One is that the defence corps needs to develop a relationship on the ice with their goalie, instinctively knowing when he will come out to play the puck and where his tendencies are to kick out rebounds. Just think back to Ty Conklin's mishap behind the net in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final last spring after he replaced the injured Dwayne Roloson to understand how important this is.

Another reason to establish a No. 1 goalie is to avoid the daily media focus. A goalie controversy is a juicy story, much like a quarterback battle in football. Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau needs to be careful in his market that the Aebischer-Huet situation doesn't become a distraction.

And what about the Ducks? Trade rumours have swirled around Giguere since last March's trade deadline. The 29-year-old is in the last year of his deal which pays him US$3.99 million this season, and will be an unrestricted free agent next summer.

"Giggy asked me this summer if I was trying to trade him and I said 'No,"' said Burke. "But I also told him I won't guarantee that I won't trade him. I received a number of calls this summer on both goaltenders. I told Giggy, 'My job is to improve this team and if that includes you it includes you.' But I have not tried to trade him."

Keep an eye on this battle. Giguere has played two of the first three games and has looked tremendous.

"The goaltenders will sort it out themselves as far as who plays," said Burke. "Right now they've both been outstanding."

The Ducks, Stanley Cup contenders this season, have to be 100 per cent sure about Bryzgalov before and if they move Giguere ahead of the Feb. 27 trade deadline.

A look at the other goalie battles:

San Jose: Both Nabokov and Toskala have been outstanding. GM Doug Wilson has said repeatedly that his team is lucky to have two great goaltenders but the reality is that if he can move Nabokov's $21.5-million four-year contract, he will. Nolan Schaefer is more than ready to be an NHL backup.

Montreal: Huet, entering a new $5.75-million two-year contract, came to camp as the unofficial starter but suddenly Aebischer has turned up the heat. His 36-save performance in Saturday's win at Toronto earned the Swiss 'keeper another start Wednesday at Philly. Huet has the edge here, but this could be one heck of a battle. If anything a solid start to the season may make Aebischer, an unrestricted free agent next summer earning $1.9 million this season, a hot commodity on the trade market.

Florida: Coach/GM Jacques Martin insists he has two No. 1 goalies but Auld has the early lead after a win over Boston and a 47-save effort in a shootout loss to Toronto. The 41-year-old Belfour got shelled for four goals on nine shots against Atlanta over the weekend and finds himself behind the eight-ball. We see Auld taking this one and running with it.

St. Louis: Legace has played two of three games but Sanford was sharper in his one start, making 32 saves in a 2-0 loss at Anaheim on Monday night. Legace allowed nine goals in two losses at San Jose and Los Angeles. These two may end up splitting most of the season with Legace getting the slight edge in games.

Boston: Thomas allowed seven goals in his debut last Friday night while Toivonen looked solid in beating Tampa 3-2 on Saturday. One NHL scout said weekend he wouldn't be surprised if Thomas wins out this season. We're not convinced. Toivonen should be the guy by the end of the season.

Philadelphia: Niittymaki is the better goaltender but his tender hips have opened the door for Esche. The Flyers will try to keep Niittymaki healthy so both goalies should get their fair share of starts. Come playoff time we like the Finnish Olympic silver medallist to take over for good.

Los Angeles: Cloutier was anointed the No. 1 goalie by his former Canucks coach Marc Crawford with the caveat that the split would probably be in the 60-40 range. Garon has the early edge, a 34-save win Saturday over St. Louis. Cloutier made 28 saves in a 4-3, opening-night loss to Anaheim. Given their past relationship, we see Cloutier hanging on as the No. 1 guy.


FLYERS ALUMNI: The Philadelphia Flyers' alumni are trying to get in touch with six players from the 1967-68 team: Art Stratton, Wayne Hicks, Jimmy Johnson, Roger Pelletier, Terry Ball and Dwight Carruthers.

Joe Kadlec of the Flyers can be contacted at 215-389-9421.



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