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March 16, 2006

Gerber, baby!


(WASHINGTON, DC) -- Remember when the only things bigger than the expectations placed on Jean-Sebastien Giguere were his pads?

In 2003, he stonewalled better teams through the Western Conference postseason and led Anaheim to the Stanley Cup Finals.

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Whether you believe he deserved it or not, he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the starting goaltender for the losing team. (For the record, I wouldn't have given it to Giguere, and if you're willing to buy me a beer sometime I'll explain my watertight rationale as for why. Fair warning: it may have to be a '40' of Olde English, because I can be a little verbose when is comes to that absurd and melodramatic overreach.)

Indeed, Giguere was the next big thing - just like Jim Carey was seven years earlier.

In hindsight, Giggy may not have even been the best goalie to come from the 2003 Ducks' roster. 

After rules changes eliminated elephantine keeper equipment and the kind of "smothering" defense Anaheim used in that Cup run, Giguere's team is struggling to make the postseason - while his former understudy is backstopping the current favorites to win it all.

Martin Gerber, 31, was drafted by the Ducks in the eighth round of the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. He played 22 games under Giguere in 2002-03, posting an impressive 1.95 goals-against average. He played 32 games the following season with a 2.26 GAA. That summer he let it be known that he wanted to be a starting goalie; with the Ducks having invested time and money in Giguere, it wasn't going to be in Anaheim. The Ducks shipped Gerber to Carolina on June 18, 2004 for Tomas Malec and a third-round pick.

I don't know if you were aware of this, but evidently some sort of labor dispute forced the cancellation of the 2004-05 NHL season. So Gerber, a native of Switzerland, returned to Europe to play for SCL Tigers Langnau of the Swiss league and Farjestad, which he led to the finals of the Swedish Elite League. He had suddenly begun to prove himself as a starting goalie, even if it took the near-destruction of the NHL to do it.

When labor peace was struck, Gerber returned to Carolina, installed as the Hurricanes' starting goaltender. The team's preseason outlook might have had Gerber checking plane fares back over the Atlantic; Sports Illustrated pegged the Canes as the 28th best team in the NHL during its pre-season previews.

And then they started winning. And winning. And winning some more. Soon, Carolina fans had fully embraced the Hurricanes, even flipping over to watch their games during commercials of NASCAR races.

As the Canes kept winning, the rumbling began, and then began getting louder: could Gerber, with all of two postseason appearances in the NHL, lead the team in the Eastern Conference postseason?

The answer came in Torino. Gerber was a star for the Swiss Olympic men's hockey team. His brightest shining moment came at the expense of Team Canada when he stopped 49 shots overall and 24 (!) in the third period alone. It was the second time Gerber had excelled on the Olympic stage, having posted two wins and a 1.51 GAA in Salt Lake City back in 2002.

That he can handle the pressure of a championship run is apparent; that he can handle the workload of the Stanley Cup playoff gauntlet is not. 

Gerber was expected to start against Montreal on Thursday night, and if he did that would make five straight starts - his longest stretch since starting 10 in a row back in December. Though he's fourth in overall wins (30) by goalies, he's 12th in games played (45) due to injury and games in which he's sat the pine for some rest time.

Of course, the X-factor in the amount of games Gerber has played is Cam Ward, the brilliant 22-year-old backup who has seen action in 24 games this season. There's no question he's the future, and being that this is Gerber's walk-year (more than a little influential in his flashy stats, by the way), Ward is waiting in the wings as the next No. 1.

Wards' is a situation Gerber should be quite familiar with, having fetched water bottles for Giguere over two seasons. The difference is that Ward is a kid, and Gerber was older than a handful of starting goalies around the league when he was backing up in Anaheim. Or at least it appeared that way, based on his hairline.

Outside of wins, Giggy and his former apprentice have strikingly similar numbers:
Gerber: 46 games, 121 GA, 2.72 GAA, .910 Save Percentage.
Giguere: 43 games, 108 GA, 2.63, .912 Save Percentage.

But there is another difference between the two, or at least there could be: If he can handle the workload, Gerber may lead the Hurricanes to their first Stanley Cup, rather than choking in the Finals like Giguere did.

And if you don't believe he did, I'm ready for that beer.


This weekend, the NHL will help raise funds for the fight against breast cancer by having players play with pink sticks.

Of course, if you ask Daniel Alfredsson, Sidney Crosby has been using one all season.

Add The Sporting News to the growing number of media cheerleaders for OLN's hockey coverage. Chris Russell, on "The variety of experienced broadcasters who cover games all do credible jobs, and while watching Monday night's game it felt like I was right at ice level. OLN had some great camera angles, terrific booming on-ice audio and some terrific replay work." 

In other words, OLN has quickly gotten its on-ice product back to ESPN's level; now all it needs is the kind of mass-media platform that ESPN provided and which the league is sorely missing in its current deals with OLN and NBC. Oh, and someone who can actually be a compelling commentator on the studio show. Where art thou, Jeremy Roenick?

In Commissioner Gary Bettman's recent state-of-the-league comments in Chicago, it was clear that returning to a divisional postseason format is not something he sees as a viable option for the league: "There are probably 25 teams still in contention for a playoff spot. I don't think you get that in divisional playoffs. Everyone says, in our regular season, every game is important. That's the huge benefit of conference-based playoffs."

Two more thoughts:

1. Nothing this man says will ever convince me that a Florida/St. Louis game is important.

2. Reading between the lines, could the commissioner be hinting at a potential expansion of the postseason, as has been rumored? I hope not, but it's obviously on the table.

Greg Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is a columnist for and the Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. 
His book, "
Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" is now on sale.



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