Stand Up Back-up

Tuesday, 01.11.2005 / 12:00 AM / News
Vancouver Canucks



By: Kevin Kinghorn
11/01/05

Goaltenders are like options: the more good ones you have, the better off you are.

Unfortunately, neither is overly abundant in the new NHL - especially with injuries, the salary cap, and the rules restricting minor league call-ups.

Just ask anyone in Edmonton or Atlanta, and they're not alone. A cigar box has more depth than half the teams in the league.

The Canucks, thankfully, are a happy exception.

When Dan Cloutier took a post to the back of his head Saturday night in Denver and had to be helped off the ice, fear didn't grip Canuck management nearly as tight as it might have in the past.

It's never a joy losing your starting goaltender - especially one who has racked up three straight seasons with 30 or more wins - but this year, more than most, the Canucks feel equipped to weather adversity.

Marc Crawford has one of the strongest tandems in the west, if it is one of the most abnormal.

In Cloutier, the Canucks have a veteran number one keeper with a competitive edge so sharp it could saw a soda can in half and still slice tomatoes.

Cloutier once skated out to his own blue line to give tough-guy Scott Mellanby a stiff blocker in the head after the two exchanged words in the crease.

On the other hand, you're more likely to catch the bank teller leaning over the counter to take a poke at a pensioner than you are seeing the 24-year-old back-up brandishing the knuckles.

"Dan and Alex are totally different," says former Canuck goalie Kirk McLean, who now does spot duty as a television analyst on Canuck pay-per-view broadcasts. "Mind you, Dan has certainly calmed down from what he used to be. But I think it's good for the team. I think it brings different elements to the locker room, and when you have a team that plays the way the Canucks have been playing the last three or four years, they can adapt to either goaltending style."

The 6'1", 195-pound Cloutier is described as a battler. He considers the crease his front porch, and he doesn't take kindly to visitors. It's not hard to picture a retired Cloutier in a pair of overalls kicking back in a rocking chair with two loaded barrels across his lap. That competitive fire, they say, instills confidence in his teammates.

After four minor league seasons, the mild-mannered Auld is finally starting the year with the big club in Vancouver - though he's seen enough of the Canuck dressing room over the years to feel comfortable. The lanky kid from Thunder Bay has 19 games on his resume including three playoff blood-curdlers against the Flames in 2003/04.

Auld is a like a librarian in net. He's competent, confident, and not likely to raise his voice while working. That poise, they say, also instills confidence his teammates.

Thus far, it hasn't seemed to matter who's been guarding the pipes. Through 12 games, Vancouver has an impressive 8-2-2 record and sit atop the Northwest Division.

Cloutier has five wins under his middleweight belt. The soft-spoken Auld has three win to go with a pair of relief efforts.

While opposing forwards aren't likely to confuse the two keepers, there is a benefit to such divergent personalities.

"Dan has always been a fiery, emotional type of goaltender," explains McLean. "In his early years, he got himself into situations where he didn't really need to, and it got him away from his game. I think Alex can read off that - not that Alex is that type of goaltender."

"He seems to be more calm at a younger age than Clouts was. He knows what it takes. But [Auld] has a good man to work with in Cloutier, and I know they both get along. They work well together."

With Cloutier sitting next to the popcorn cart up in the press box, Auld is set to get his first string of consecutive NHL starts. The experience, says the veteran, certainly won't hurt him.

"He's good already and he's only going to get better," says Cloutier, who spent the past three summers working alongside Auld, with Canuck goaltending consultant Ian Clark. "There's definitely a very bright future ahead for him."

"He's more of a technical kind of guy that uses his size well. Usually the big guys are a bit slower, but he moves well, and the thing about him is he works hard."

"His style has changed a bit since he's been here, and it's changed for the better. I think that Ian Clark has done a great job with him. That's where he's at now, and he's only going to get better."

It's a sentiment that's echoed throughout the Canuck dressing room.

"People are wondering if he can take that next step and I think he's starting to prove that right now," says Nolan Baumgartner, who watched Auld set team record for wins (25) and starts (42) last season with the minor-league affiliate Manitoba Moose. "He's worked extremely hard on his game."

As Baumgartner points out, Auld doesn't get caught up in the context of each save or goal. That's a rare strength in young goalie, and an especially important one given Auld would face bitter divisional rivals in four of his next five starts if Cloutier sits out that long.

"If you watch him out there, nothing really bothers him. If he gets scored on, he just lets it go right away and he concentrates on the next play coming down on him. I think that's going to be huge for him."

So far it's working. Auld's 2.25 goals against average ranks him ninth among goalies with five or more games. His .914 save percentage ranks him tenth.

"It's the first time I've started the year here, but at the same time, there's a real comfort level," says Auld. "The guys here make everyone feel welcome. But I've spent parts of the past four seasons here so it makes it a bit easier."

As far as butterflies go, Auld might have a few, though nobody's likely to notice.

"I think it's important, whether it's a bad goal or a big save, that you don't let the other team see anything in you - just as long as you show confidence all the time. I think that's so important."

"It doesn't matter if you let in four that night, or if you've got a shut out going, you've got to maintain that same attitude, especially on a team like this, because there's so much firepower."

Hopefully Auld won't need the goal support from the big guns, but he would probably be happy working with a cushion of a goal or two.

"Then again, you wouldn't know it even if he was."