MIGHTY DUCK NOTEBOOK / ROBYN NORWOOD : Battle in the Nets Continues for Goalies

This recent business with Guy Hebert taking a temporary back seat to Mikhail Shtalenkov?

It's nothing new. It happened in Year 1. It happened in Year 2. And if Hebert and Ron Wilson stay with the Ducks for another five years, it might continue to happen.

Wilson has always said whoever is playing best in goal will play most. Over the course of a season, that will be Hebert. But here and there, Shtalenkov is going to get the chance to make a run.

Shtalenkov is a very good backup goalie, and at times the difference between him and Hebert is slim. And it is true Hebert has seemed to let in more bad goals this season than in the past. But he already has been on one hot streak and his numbers are in the impressive range goalies seek: His goals-against average is under 3.00 (2.98), and his save percentage is over .900 (.907). Shtalenkov, who started a career-high four consecutive games last week, has a 3.27 goals-against average and a .897 save percentage.

Some people in the Duck organization scoffed last year at talk of a little goaltending battle in training camp. But as coach, Wilson decides who plays, and if he says there's competition, there is.

Wilson also happens to think Hebert plays best with a little heat on his tail feathers, but it's hard to judge that because he has never waited to see if Hebert would get hot without the pressure of competition for his job.

Hebert figures he gets hot when he gets to play a string of games. But he's probably playing it right by rolling with Wilson's unpredictable rotation and resisting any temptation to respond to Wilson's recent criticism.

After sitting out four in a row, Hebert has started the last two games. The rest might have helped a chronically sore right ankle that Hebert says probably won't be 100% all season.

"It's OK. I'm going to have problems with it the whole year, but I feel I'm ready to go," he said. "It's just some pain."

Some of the other players approached Hebert during his hiatus to ask what was up, but in truth, it seems nothing was. A management source dismissed any idea that the team was considering trading either goalie.

As for the players, they are loyal to Hebert for what he has done for them for three years and appreciative of Shtalenkov's recent play, too.

"We have a couple of goalies who can play," defenseman Bobby Dollas said. "Guy's had a sore ankle since training camp, and with a little nagging injury like that you need to rest it.

"I'm a little bit like Ron. I don't care who plays. Whoever he feels is playing well deserves to get the chance to play."

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One reason Shtalenkov's turn in goal shouldn't have been a surprise is that Wilson estimated before the season that the goalies would share the work 60-40.

In Year 1, sharing the job with Ron Tugnutt until Tugnutt was traded, Hebert appeared in 52 of 84 (61.9%). Last season, with Shtalenkov as his backup, he appeared in 39 of 48 (81.3%). So far this season, he's played in 22 of 30 (73.3%).

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They'll be home for Christmas: The Ducks have been on the road more than any team except Calgary, with 17 road games in their first 30, but they get their reward now.

Nine of their next 10 are at The Pond, and the one road game is up the freeway in Inglewood. That means they don't have to get on a plane again until Jan. 4. That's nearly a month, an extraordinary luxury in midseason.

With that kind of homestand, the Ducks need to steady themselves in the standings as their injured players begin to return. Their opportunity to move up will never be better, and when the season's over, this 10-game stretch might have indicated where their season was headed.

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The list of injured should shrink considerably before the Ducks go on the road again, with left wing Garry Valk likely to be back in the lineup Sunday against Edmonton after sitting out the last game because of a swollen eye. Right wing Peter Douris also could be back after missing four games because of a groin pull.

Others who should return in the next few weeks: David Karpa (sore knee), Valeri Karpov (broken wrist), Todd Ewen (hand surgery), Shaun Van Allen (dislocated thumb) and Steve Rucchin (sprained knee ligament).

The biggest absences are Rucchin and Van Allen, the team's top two centers, both among the top five scorers.

"We're really hurting up the middle," Wilson said. "It's like pitching in baseball. If your pitchers go down in baseball, you're in trouble. We've got a pop-gun offense without them."

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