What does a hot goalie look like? He resembles a bird of prey. In this case the raptor's name is Clint Malarchuk. His nose has been broken eight times, hammered into a beak. His eyes are a clear, intense green. He has the mien and visage of a hawk, until his smile breaks it up.
Since replacing a sick Pete Peeters in the Washington Capitals' net in the second period of a game against the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 17, Malarchuk has been voraciously feeding on flying pucks. In the nine consecutive games he has played, concluding with Sunday's 7-2 defeat of the Vancouver Canucks, he has put together a goals-against average of 1.56 and has raised his save percentage to .891. He also had four shutouts and led the Caps on an 8-1 tear that swept them past the Philadelphia Flyers and into a one-point Patrick Division lead.
A duck is hardly a bird of prey, but Mallard, nonetheless, is the nickname Malarchuk's teammates have given him. "He quacks between periods. Actually quacks," says defenseman Garry Galley, referring to Malarchuk's pen chant for sounding just ducky after big saves. "If Mallard were really a duck, he'd never get shot," says defenseman Greg Smith. "Well, not lately."
Last week, in the first of back-to-back games against the Devils, the Caps won 5-3. Three goals represents a tidal wave against Malarchuk these days. "Better to win 6-5 than to lose 2-1," he said after the game at the Capital Centre. "I've always had to grab and search for confidence. It's not in me. A goalie gains confidence by winning. Right now, I feel like I can stop the puck no matter how it comes. I'm sick, but I feel good."
Malarchuk, who had played with the flu, was vomiting between periods. The next night, feeling better, he beat the Devils 6-1 in New Jersey. He lost the shutout with 4:15 to play.
"We've got a hot goalie, no question," says Warren Strelow, Washington's goaltending coach. "You can tell because he's making clean saves, not sloppy ones. He battles. We've been outshot in some of these games."
"Maybe, but I can't even remember the last time I had to block a rebound," says Malarchuk, giving credit to the Caps' strong defense. "Not one time during the streak."
"We spend a lot of time with defense," says Washington coach Bryan Murray. "For a team to have any chance to win, it must start there. Clint works hard in practice, very hard. He eats up five-on-one power-play drills. Loves them. He complements our style."
Through Sunday the Caps had given up fewer goals—196—than any other team in the league. And nobody has more big, clever defensemen. They include the reliable Kevin Hatcher, Scott Stevens, Larry Murphy and Rod Langway, who, says Malarchuk, "is a goalie's dream" because of his consistent defensive style of play. Peeters, who had a bruised ankle but was ready for action on Sunday, has the NHL's best save percentage (.904) and goals-against average (2.57), while Malarchuk is tops in shutouts with his four. "Grant Fuhr [of the Edmonton Oilers] and Ron Hextall [of the Flyers] are given due credit," says Murray, "but we feel we have the best pair of goalies on one team."
The people around the hot goalie are often as responsible for his success as he is—though that fact is rarely acknowledged. "I think that Clint has learned to play with his defense, and his defense has learned to play with him," says Malarchuk's brother, Garth, 33, who was once a goaltender in the Caps' system and is now a policeman in Calgary and a part-time scout for the Flames. "The unity of the team makes a difference to the goalie."
And this goalie makes a difference to the unity of the team. Malarchuk, 26, was traded along with center Dale Hunter from the Quebec Nordiques last June for forwards Alan Haworth and Gaetan Duchesne and a No. 1 draft choice. Yet in the locker room you would think Malarchuk had been a Washington fixture for years.
"No doubt we've been playing for the goaltender," said right wing Mike Gartner after practice last Friday.
"Don't let him give us credit," added Galley.
"Right during play he'll say something to break us all up," said Smith.
Malarchuk's reputation for wise-quacking stems largely from his on-ice impressions of Donald Duck. It's his way of relieving the pressure. "Ask Greg Adams," says Malarchuk when pressed for an explanation. "He's our team psychologist."
"Malarchuk?" says Adams, who's actually a left wing. "Clint Malarchuk is the mayor of Pluto. I've got a few patients in this room, but he's one of my favorites. How can you make any sense at all out of the guy?"
"See what I mean?" says Malarchuk.
When Clint was a boy, his father, Mike, was a goaltender in a senior men's league in Grand Prairie, Alberta. Mike and Clint's mother, Jean, were divorced when Clint was 14. "I took it harder than most," says Malarchuk, who sees his father infrequently. "That's why my mother and I are so close. Anytime I have a problem, I call her, and I'm not ashamed of being called a mama's boy. We went through so much together. She drove me to the rinks at six in the morning."
Jean, who has since remarried, gets on her son for not claiming more credit for his success. "But I'm not really that humble," says Malarchuk. "It's just that I'm not cocky. Mom's here visiting now [at his Upper Marlboro, Md., house, which he shares with his wife, Lori, and their daughter, Kelli, 2], and the night before the Quebec game we were talking about some of my accomplishments. I had back-to-back shutouts in 1985 for Quebec. I guess no one had done it again until I did it against Winnipeg and Minnesota [on Feb. 19 and 20]. Somebody brought it up, and I said, 'Hey, that's right, I did do that, didn't I?' And Mom said, 'Damn right you did it. Wake up, son. You're right up there with the best.' "
Against the Nordiques on Friday, the Caps spotted Quebec two goals but roared back to win 6-2. Malarchuk stopped 26 shots, 17 from point-blank range. In the locker room afterward, Langway crowned and bearded the Mallard with shaving cream.
How do you beat a hot goalie named Malarchuk? These days you usually don't.
Malarchuk has eight victories in his last nine games and a league-leading four shutouts.
Mallard says Cap defenders are all they're quacked up to be.