One of the better descriptions about what it means to play goalie in hockey comes from Arturs Irbe, who spent 12 NHL seasons with four teams despising that tiny red light behind him.
“The goalie is like the guy on the minefield,” Irbe once said. “He discovers the mines and destroys them. If you make a mistake, somebody gets blown up.”
Imagine if the guy in charge of destroying those mines doubles as a Neil Diamond impersonator or someone who builds cell-phone towers. Imagine the carnage.
The Wranglers earlier this season were on some nights an injury away from witnessing such lunacy when Diamond’s double and Mr. “Can You Hear Me Now?” actually dressed as emergency goalies, allowing a few locals to live their dream while at the same time frightening the skates off real players searching for constancy in the net.
For the tenants of the Orleans Arena, that position this season has been more of a revolving door than any office building entrance this side of Manhattan.
And still, the Wranglers sit in first place.
Las Vegas comfortably leads the Pacific Division (when doesn’t it?) over a Fresno team it lost to 3-2 in overtime Saturday night, and yet it wasn’t until Friday morning when Wranglers coach Glen Gulutzan had to make a decision about who to start in goal for the first time all season. He finally had two capable ones from which to choose.
Kevin Lalande played that night’s 5-4 overtime loss and was replaced by Daniel Manzato for Saturday’s defeat. “Average” best describes the recent play of Las Vegas’ goalies, so the fact Manzato is bound for the ECHL All-Star Game and looked decent in facing 37 shots before allowing two late power-play goals doesn’t necessarily indicate a permanent conclusion.
How could it given the uncertainty?
Good coaches prioritize. Gulutzan can’t name every goaltender he has watched during morning skates this season, but he can identify all those who have stopped shots in games. It’s a small chore. There have been five.
It has been wacky even for a minor league level where tryouts and callups and pickups are standard procedure and excessively unique for a team that in recent seasons has featured the all-time leader in ECHL shutouts (Marc Magliarditi) and another (Mike McKenna) who went 46-6-8 the last two years before signing with the American Hockey League during training camp.
Terrific goalies have for some time been more a sure thing for the Wranglers than their early playoff exits.
“We had this joke before the season that we could grab anyone and they were going to have a .930 save percentage and win five to eight games in a row,” Gulutzan said. “I do think goaltender is that one part you can fit into a system a little easier than all the others.”
It’s even easier when you play the Wranglers’ way. Gulutzan is Calgary trained, meaning his teams are more concerned about refusing odd-man rushes than creating them.
They are almost always among the league leaders in fewest shots allowed — you couldn’t have known that from Saturday’s loose play — and are built on the concept that you sacrifice offense for the sake of not making your goalie stand on his head to make saves and win games.
Tight defense is usually more of a requirement than desire for Las Vegas, which wants its goalies involved, playing and moving and sharing the puck. You can do that when the guys in front of you are so organized and don’t feel a need to sacrifice limbs to ensure a puck doesn’t reach the crease.
“You need the trust of those guys that they can jump in a play for extra time and take extra chances because they know you’ll back them up,” said Lalande, reassigned from Quad City of the AHL last week after going 5-0-1 with a .955 save percentage and a shutout for Las Vegas earlier this season. “We have a really good system here. Really good players.”
But not even the best players might have overcome a night when someone who pretends to be Neil Diamond — Riviera entertainer Jay White — stood one injury to Lalande away from playing. Death might have removed him from the ice that night, but not much else.
“Absolutely not,” Lalande said. “I don’t even want to think about what might have happened. Let’s not go there.”
In other words, there are issues and there’s asking a guy to go straight from blasting out “Sweet Caroline,” to destroying those mines.
Good times they wouldn’t be.
Ed Graney’s column is published Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. He can be reached at 383-4618 or firstname.lastname@example.org.ED GRANEYMORE COLUMNS