DALLAS — Goaltender Jonas Hiller tried to make the best of the bad situation he had helped create through his shaky play in the last weeks of the regular season, but there were times uncertainty overtook him and despair crept in.
He lost his starting job to rookie Frederik Andersen and for a while appeared to have dropped to third on the depth chart behind another rookie, John Gibson. He was the Ducks' forgotten man, left by the wayside as the Ducks forged to the top of the Western Conference and designated Andersen their playoff starter against the Dallas Stars.
"It's definitely not easy. I had days where I'd go, 'Hockey sucks,' " Hiller said. "Then you come to the rink, and I think we have a great group of guys here and they always kind of like helping each other out. It's just fun to come to the dressing room. It's almost impossible to be miserable around those guys."
Funny game, hockey. The forgotten man became the man of the hour Sunday, coming off the bench to stabilize the reeling Ducks. By stopping all 12 shots he faced after he replaced Andersen midway through the second period, Hiller provided the backbone for the late and stunning comeback the Ducks staged in a 5-4 overtime victory that launched them into the second round of the playoffs.
"It's the stuff we knew he could do," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "We know he's a great goalie, but he hadn't done it in the month of March and April."
Hiller did it when he and the Ducks needed it most, not only so they could advance in six games and avoid the physical and mental strain of a Game 7, but so they could banish some demons, too.
It was an emotional moment for Hiller, who hasn't started a game since April 6 and hadn't won a game since March 26. And it was a major feat for the Ducks, who led their first-round playoff series against Detroit, 3-2, a year ago but lost Game 6 on the road and Game 7 at home.
This comeback, distinguished even in a season in which 10 teams have rallied from two-goal deficits to win games, might have lifted the Ducks over the mental hump of that loss to Detroit, a defeat that has driven them all season.
"Maybe this will catapult us a little further toward the next series. We're hoping," Boudreau said. "There's jubilation tonight but not a lot of satisfaction yet. That's the key."
That applied to Hiller, too. He was happy but realistic, knowing how quickly things can change.
"It was a little more special for me, I guess," said Hiller, who can become an unrestricted free agent after this season.
"At the end, it's a great feeling to kind of find a way to win. Sometimes you're kind of not really believing in yourself but we found a way. I thought I had a couple good stops right away when I came in, which gave me some confidence. And we kind of never looked back."
Dallas held a 4-2 lead when Hiller entered the game and Hiller made sure it didn't get worse.
"I think when he came in and how he played just showed how he's been preparing the last couple weeks," forward Andrew Cogliano said. "It's been quite a while since he's been in, so for him to come in and play like that in the second and third is pretty cool."
Boudreau took a page from Colorado Coach Patrick Roy and replaced Hiller with an extra skater earlier than the minute or so remaining that has been the standard ploy in coaches' playbooks, and he was rewarded when Nick Bonino scored with 2:10 left to bring the Ducks within one.
Hiller watched from the bench again when Devante Smith-Pelly tied the score with 24 seconds left in the third period, entirely focused on the task ahead.
"I think it definitely helps to have some experience," Hiller said. "You have played a few playoff games and that definitely helps to not worry too much about the whole thing around you and focus on your game. And that worked out pretty well."
Boudreau wouldn't identify his starter for the second round against the winner of the Kings-San Jose Sharks series, but Hiller surely will figure into the equation.
"I'm sure that thought's going to cross my mind," Boudreau said.
Meanwhile, the forgotten man has become a very much appreciated man.
"I'm enjoying it right now and then kind of go from there," Hiller said. "I don't know what the call is going to be for the next games, next series, or whatever. Right now I'll enjoy it and kind of take that confidence or that good feeling about that one with me, and hopefully I get the chance to play again."
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