Saving grace

Lower-ranked nations need goalies to be their best players

09.05.2008
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Norway's Pal Grotnes made another stretching save against Finland. Photo: IIHF/HHoF/Jukka Rautio

QUEBEC CITY – Edgars Masalskis, Pal Grotnes, Vitali Koval, and Robert Kristan, welcome to the club. The Vulcanized Rubber Club, that is.

At the 2008 IIHF World Championship, these four men became part of a long tradition of underdog netminders who have shone in international competition - win, lose, or (in the old days) tie.

Masalskis posted 61 saves for Latvia versus Finland in a 2-1 loss on Friday, and Grotnes had 50 in goal for Norway during a 2-1 defeat versus Canada the day before. In goal for Belarus on Friday, Koval frequently frustrated Russian snipers as he recorded 52 stops. Kristan, meanwhile, made 60 saves in a 5-1 tournament-opening loss to the Canadians. Looking at the scoresheet afterwards, Slovenian coach Mats Waltin said: “I see here it says Canada had 65 shots. I thought it was 95.”

These beleaguered backstops aren’t leading the luxurious lifestyle of their NHL counterparts.

For example, Grotnes, who celebrated his 31st birthday with an emotional 3-2 comeback win over Germany on May 7, works as a carpenter when he isn’t between the pipes for Comet IK of the Norwegian Eliteserien.

“He was outstanding,” Canada’s Mike Green said of Grotnes. “I had a couple chances I thought I could bury on him, but he made some great saves. I think he was their best player tonight.”

So internationally, who else has come close to emulating Ron Tugnutt’s 70-save performance for the Quebec Nordiques in a 3-3 tie with Boston on March 21, 1991?

Go back more than 40 years, and you may find Swedish fans who recall the heroics of East German goalie Peter Kolbe (nicknamed “The White Mask”). His finest hour came at the 1966 IIHF World Championship in Ljubljana, Yugoslavia, where the GDR pulled off a shocking 4-1 win over Sweden, and Kolbe, wearing the unusual #16, made 73 saves.

Here is a handful of other standout showings from more recent decades.

Stan Reddick, Slovenia (April 29, 2002 versus Sweden):
At age 32, the Toronto-born brother of Eldon “Pokey” Reddick suited up for the nation where he’d played four pro seasons for Olimpija Ljubljana of the Alpenliga. Versus Tre Kronor, he made 21 saves in the first period, 15 in the second, and 21 in the third. Sure, the final score was an unflattering 8-2, but Reddick deserved the applause he got from the Gothenburg crowd of 8,356.

Naoya Kikuchi, Japan (April 28, 2002 versus the Czech Republic): Talk about making a splash in your World Championship debut. The unknown netminder for the Land of the Rising Sun foiled Jaromir Jagr on multiple breakaways and recorded 41 stops in a 5-3 loss, in which the score was tied 3-3 midway through the third period. Obviously, Kikuchi enjoyed the pre-game sushi that one of his teammates’ mother and sister prepared.

Jim Corsi, Italy (April 21, 1982 versus Canada): So you think goalies at the 2008 IIHF World Championship have it tough against snipers such as Alexander Ovechkin, Dany Heatley, and Ilya Kovalchuk? How about going up against Wayne Gretzky the year he scored an NHL-record 92 goals? That’s what the Montreal-born Corsi successfully did in a 3-3 tie in Tampere, Finland, also fending off the likes of Bobby Smith, Dino Ciccarelli, and Mike Gartner. He had some idea of what to expect from Gretzky, since he’d played 26 games for the Edmonton Oilers in 1979-80. Today, at age 53, Corsi doubles as the goalie coach for the Italian national team and the Buffalo Sabres. He’s the author of The Hockey Goalie’s Handbook.

Peter Hirsch, Denmark (April 26, 2003 versus the USA): To date, this 5-2 remains Hirsch’s finest outing, and it was the Copenhagen native’s first game at the Worlds. He made 53 saves as Denmark announced to the world that it was truly back in the elite division after a 53-year absence. At the other end, Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres was yanked in favour of German League veteran Chris Rogles. Hirsch didn’t stop here, either, as he also recorded 41 stops versus Canada in a 2-2 tie.

Andrei Mezin, Belarus (February 20, 2002):
Mezin was the man of the hour in what was the second most famous upset in Olympic history after the USA’s 4-3 victory over the Soviet Union in the 1980 “Miracle on Ice”. The diminutive 28-year-old goalie dove, flopped, and stretched out with a nothing-to-lose attitude, making 44 saves as Belarus beat Sweden 4-3 in the quarter-finals. “I don’t understand how we could lose against this team,” said Swedish captain Mats Sundin. Tre Kronor had amassed a perfect record in Salt Lake City before this stunning defeat. “Sometimes a gun without bullets can shoot,” Mezin said afterwards of his team’s improbable feat. Belarus finished fourth.

Martin Gerber, Switzerland (February 19, 2006 versus Canada):
The Swiss had never beaten Canada in seven tries at the Olympics in 86 years. That era of futility came to an end at the Torino Esposizioni thanks in large part to Gerber’s brilliance, as the veteran NHLer made 49 saves for a 2-0 shutout. Paul DiPietro, a 1993 Stanley Cup winner with the Montreal Canadiens, did the rest of the damage with both goals.

LUCAS AYKROYD

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