A New Reality

Times Staff Writer

Jean-Sebastien Giguere stood, frantically waving his arms as the minority dissenter. Detroit Red Wing fans cheered and howled, jeering Giguere, thinking that their team had just won the playoff opener on an overtime goal in April.

Giguere tried to tell them that Luc Robitaille's shot had hit the crossbar. He flapped his arms in a preview of playoff greatness to come.

That attitude continued, as a confident, unbeatable Giguere toted the Ducks through the first three rounds and into the Stanley Cup finals.

It's that defiant, arm-flapping guy the Ducks have been looking for since this season began.

Giguere has labored through the first month, searching for the rhythm that put the Conn Smythe Trophy on his shelf.

"I have to say, [goalie is] the most difficult position in all sports," said ESPN analyst Darren Pang, who spent three seasons as one with Chicago. "Maybe a pitcher in baseball comes close. But if you make a bad pitch, you have guys backing you up. If you're a goaltender and make a mistake, it's in the back of the net."

Giguere knows about that.

As of Saturday, he ranked 32nd with a 2.88 goals-against average and 34th with a .899 save percentage among goalies who had played five or more games.

This is a delicate subject in the Ducks' inner circle. So much so that Coach Mike Babcock was quick to rave about Giguere's performance in a 2-1 overtime loss to St. Louis on Tuesday.

"Any time your starting goaltender leaves the rink feeling good about himself, that's a big plus," Babcock said.

Giguere did stop 30 shots in St. Louis but admitted he was guessing on the game-deciding play, thinking that the Blues' Keith Tkachuk would shoot high.

"When you're not doing well, there's a tendency to start thinking," Pang said. "If there's thinking involved, there's little instinct.

"When a goaltender gets on a three-month roll that is so phenomenal, like J.S. last spring, you literally go to the rink, put your equipment on and never worry about anything.... The pucks just come to you. The minute you start searching for something else is the minute you get away from things you do so well."

The Ducks' woes can't be laid solely at Giguere's crease. Through Saturday, they have scored only 27 goals. Only four teams have scored fewer.

Giguere certainly couldn't be blamed in the Ducks' 4-3 overtime loss to Phoenix on Saturday, because he was hung out like laundry on more than a few occasions.

However, he also didn't come up with the type of huge saves that would get his teammates off the hook.

"A confident goalie is making better saves," Giguere said recently. "The puck is going to touch him, but it's not going to bounce all over him all the time. That transfers to the players. If a goalie has good confidence, it is going to make the players in front of him much more loose."

To play in goal involves exhibitionism, combined with masochism.

"I think it attracts people who want to be in the spotlight," said Duck TV analyst Brian Hayward, an NHL goalie for 11 seasons. "You're totally influential in the final result of the game."

There are two types of goalies, Hayward said, "good-team goalies and bad-team goalies."

"Good-team goalies are guys who never make a mistake, " he said. "

The Ducks made the transition from bad team to good team last season. That brought high expectations for this season.

A 4-7-1-3 start by the Ducks has made Giguere's struggles a topic of conversation in every city the Ducks have visited. Questions come often about whether he can match last spring's performance.

And goalies in Giguere's tax bracket are expected to steal a few games.

He signed a five-year, $20-million contract on the eve of training camp, yet has one victory this season, that a 4-3 overtime decision against Philadelphia, after the Flyers had scored the tying goal with less than a second left.

"I'm confident that I can do the job," he said. "You don't lose your confidence overnight.... I'm confident that if I work hard and do the little things the way they should be done, I will be successful at some time."

Just when that will be is the $20-million question.

Giguere started slow last season, as well. His numbers were similar at the same point, although he had four victories. He then went on a puck-stopping spree in December with 237 minutes of shutout hockey.

Then there was his spectacular playoff run. He had a 1.62 goals-against average and .945 save percentage, highlighted by a shutout streak of 217:34.

Yet, that playoff run may be an albatross.

"That three months may be the best he ever plays," Pang said. "That's setting a very high standard. It doesn't mean he can't get back to that or close to that."

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