It's never easy following a legend. Shemp could not match the
comedic stylings of Curly, no amount of breast-beating could
turn Mighty Joe Young into King Kong, and Colorado Avalanche
goaltender David Aebischer is not likely to replicate the feats
of the recently retired Patrick Roy, a colossus of the crease
who won more NHL games than any other netminder. But it is
Aebischer, 25, who has Roy's old job and the same pressure to
uphold a winning tradition in Colorado. While he goes about his
work in expert fashion--through Sunday, Aebischer had a
seven-game unbeaten streak, his .927 save percentage ranked
fifth among regulars, and his 14 wins were third most in the
league--he is bombarded with questions about succeeding Roy. "I
don't mind being the one to follow Patrick," he said last
Friday. "If it wasn't me, it would be somebody else."
When he was 13 years old, Aebischer, who grew up in Fribourg,
Switzerland, was in Canada to play in a peewee tournament and saw
Roy matched against Dominik Hasek at the Montreal Forum, but he
never dreamed of becoming the next Roy. He was simply hoping to
be the next Dino Stecher, who tended net for the pro team HC
Fribourg-Gotteron. Yet if Aebischer, who was drafted in the sixth
round by Colorado in 1997, becomes a dominant NHL goalie and
helps the Avalanche win the Stanley Cup, he will go down as the
best Swiss player in history. (O.K., so there have only been five
Swiss players in the NHL.)
"This is a great situation for Abby," says Avalanche defenseman
Rob Blake. "When he looks around the dressing room, he sees some
great offensive talent. He sees a solid defensive team. This is a
place where you can shine as a goalie."
There is an intriguing dynamic in Colorado as Aebischer and his
teammates get comfortable on the ice. After a combined three
seasons in the East Coast and American hockey leagues, Aebischer
was promoted to Roy's backup in Denver in 2000-01. Over his first
three NHL seasons he played in only 69 games and never started a
playoff match. Last Thursday's Avalanche-Canucks game in
Vancouver, the first meeting in 10 months between the Northwest
Division heavyweights, promised to be Aebischer's first true
test. He handled it well.
After the game ended 1-1, the TV newscasts in Vancouver showed
Canucks defenseman Ed Jovanovski's wrist shot that dipped under
Aebischer's glove for the tying goal, a shot that came at the end
of a four-minute power play in the third period and that
Aebischer appeared unprepared for. Too bad the producers edited
out his stops on the Canucks' 19 other shots in the period.
Aebischer had an extraordinary game, finishing with 37 saves,
including eight each against high-scoring wings Markus Naslund
and Todd Bertuzzi. On one play Aebischer stopped a shot with his
shoulder after losing his stick in a goalmouth scramble. He also
foiled a breakaway as well as a three-on-one. He slid from post
to post with alacrity, squared himself to shooters and handled
the pressure when the hulking Bertuzzi got in his kitchen and
lingered long enough to make an omelet with a side salad. The
next morning Avalanche defenseman Adam Foote said, "Abby's played
sound all year, but this one was impressive because he got us
that point by himself. That's a big confidence builder."
Not that Aebischer was lacking in confidence, having understudied
for the Sultan of Swagger. There always had been similarities
between Roy and the 6'1", 180-pound Aebischer--the lanky body,
the butterfly style, a penchant for yapping at opponents and even
putting a little extra flourish on a glove save--but being Roy's
backup increased Aebischer's sense of self-worth. "I learned from
Patrick that sometimes you could make a save just because you
were confident," he says.
Aebischer has none of Roy's puckhandling hubris, which is fine
with Colorado's defensemen. They may have to skate deeper into
their own zone to play the puck (instead of peeling off for Roy's
breakout passes), but Aebischer rarely leaves them vulnerable to
forecheckers; he chips the puck to safe places.
No other team in the Western Conference is as talented as
Colorado, but Aebischer's mere 35 minutes of playoff experience
will be a concern in April. Says Blake, "No goalie wins a Cup
until he gets the opportunity."
Indeed, only four active netminders have won Cups as
starters--the New Jersey Devils' Martin Brodeur, the Toronto
Maple Leafs' Ed Belfour, the St. Louis Blues' Chris Osgood and
the Detroit Red Wings' Hasek. "People say Colorado needs a goalie
for the playoffs, but other than Brodeur, is there anyone out
there who's a clear-cut upgrade [over Aebischer]?" asks one
general manager. "Of the guys who might be available [in a
trade], who's better? Olie Kolzig [of the Washington Capitals]?
Never won a thing. Sean Burke [of the Phoenix Coyotes]? Good
goalie, but he's played for 20"--actually seven--"teams and been
hurt a lot. Who?"
The answer, for now, is no one.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID ZALUBOWSKI/AP OUT OF THE SHADOWS After playing only 69 games as Roy's backupfor three seasons, Aebischer has emerged as the Swiss savior forthe Avalanche.