When you hear that a player was “rusty” in their first game back from an injury, what images start dancing in your head? Do you envision him lacking energy or a powerful first stride? Or maybe he’s mishandling the puck and making bad passes? Whatever it is, you know the tell-tale signs and they are fairly recognizable. But for goaltenders, the signs or “symptoms” are not quite as noticeable – especially if your name is Ryan Miller.
I have suffered an injury late in a regular season, so I know it’s significantly harder to return and play strong as opposed to being injured in October. The reasons are obvious – the pace is so much faster and feverish in March and April than at any other point in the season and the pressure is intense. Teams are fighting for the playoffs and need to win every game possible. And what “bubble” team needs their goalie more than Buffalo?
Because of the pressure continuing to build up in every game, timing and focus instantly become the biggest factors in a goalie successfully returning from an injury. Let’s also not forget that on top of the pressure to perform at the highest level instantly upon return, there’s also the physical pressure from more traffic and rough play in front of the net. Welcome back to the NHL Mr. Miller, would you like one of our complimentary barf bags on your flight?
Miller didn’t need one – he defied all odds by returning from a high ankle sprain without missing a single step. He made 33 saves on 36 shots against Toronto on Friday night and followed it up on Saturday by making 32 saves on 35 shots against Montreal. I was totally silenced by how well Miller did in both games because not only was he physically up for the challenge, mentally he showed not one sign of rust.
Now Nikolai Khabibulin returned from his groin injury a few weeks ago and lost three straight games and allowed 12 goals against during that stretch. Chicago lost two of those games by only one goal. He broke the streak by only having to make 14 saves on 15 shots in a 4-1 win over the Kings and then won his third straight game after making 28 saves in a 3-2 win over the Devils on Saturday night. It seemed like all was back to normal for the Bulin Wall.
But it all came tumbling down again last night against Vancouver in a 4-0 loss, one in which he only made 18 saves on 22 shots. So Chicago still has net issues on top of their inconsistency in the scoring department. Now the pressure has built to the point where Huet might get one more chance to turn things around, despite Quenneville’s decision to roll with Khabibulin for the rest of the season. It’s a tough choice, but that’s why he’s paid the big bucks. I say toss Huet in for one more game – it wouldn’t hurt anything and Khabibulin could use another kick in the rear.
What made Khabibulin “rusty” in the first place was the lack of consistent focus, the terrible placement of rebounds and the unfortunate mental lapses that resulted in goals. He just couldn’t keep up in his first three games; he was called for playing the puck outside the trapezoid and the timing of his movements and the inability to safely re-direct rebounds was not very efficient. Basically it looks like with only 35 games played, it will be nothing more than a frustrating season – for when was the last time Khabibulin played less than 40 games in a season anyways?
Again, Miller’s feats over the weekend were so impressive because he didn’t just lack the “rust” that most g