Stand and deliver
Boucher resurrected his career by bailing on the butterfly
Goaltending is based largely on instincts, and Coyotes netminder Brian Boucher can credit a great trust-your-gut call last year for turning around his sinking career.
At 27 and in just his fifth season, Boucher has already gone through plenty of peaks and valleys in his young career.
After blanking the Capitals 3-0 on Wednesday, Boucher is just 43:37 away from breaking Bill Durnan's modern-era shutout streak of 309:21 set in 1949.
Boucher joined Durnan as the only two netminders to record four shutouts in a row since the addition of the center red line in 1943-44. Only 18 goaltenders have recorded three consecutive shutouts, putting Boucher in elite company along with Hall of Famers (and future Hall of Famers) like Terry Sawchuk, Glenn Hall, Tony Esposito, Turk Broda, Patrick Roy, Ed Belfour and Martin Brodeur.
"Brian's personality is ideal for a goaltender," Coyotes general manager Mike Barnett said. "I'm not sure if he was born with it or if it was created by virtue of becoming a professional goaltender at the NHL level, but seldom do you ever see him flustered or let the highs get too high or the lows too low. He's a very well- balanced young man and it shows in the way that he approached the game [Wednesday] night while trying for his fourth straight shutout. He's just happy that he's contributing and the team is enjoying success with him in the net."
The Coyotes' four consecutive shutouts have been the result of a new commitment to total team defense by a team that has never been confused with defensive stalwarts like the Devils or Wild. Boucher is 5-0-3 in his past eight games and has stopped 107 shots during his four-game streak. The only other Coyotes goaltender to post three shutouts in a row is Nikolai Khabibulin, who blanked the Panthers, Lightning and Blackhawks from March 2-10, 1997.
"I went 85 games without a shutout and now I've got four in a row," Boucher said. "I'm just trying to enjoy it. The attention is nice, but the fact that we're winning games is really nice, too."
Boucher burst onto the scene at the 1997 World Junior Championships in Geneva, Switzerland, posting a 4-1-1 record to help lead the U.S. to the gold medal game, where it lost to Marc Denis and Canada. Drafted by the Flyers in the first round of the 1995 NHL Entry Draft, Boucher made the All-Rookie team in 1999-2000 by going 20-10-3 with a 1.91 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage. But Boucher fell out of favor the following season when Roman Cechmanek took his starting job, and Boucher struggled for two years in Philadelphia before getting shipped to Phoenix in June of 2002 for Michael Handzus and Robert Esche.
With the Coyotes, Boucher got the chance to work with goaltending coach Benoit Allaire who turned him on to the butterfly style in training camp before the 2002-03 regular season. As the backup to Sean Burke, Boucher thought he would get plenty of practice time to adjust to this new style, but an injury to Burke forced Boucher into the starting lineup for 28 games in a row. Midway through his consecutive starts streak, Boucher admitted that he was struggling to adapt to the butterfly and decided to chuck it out the window and return overnight to his old standup style.
Boucher won a few starts in a row after switching back to his more natural style, but he still finished the year with a disappointing 15-20-8 record, as well as a 3.02 goals-against average and a .894 save percentage. With Zac Bierk joining a healthy Burke on the Coyotes' roster, Boucher began this season as the team's No. 3 goalie and didn't even practice at times. Boucher was left unprotected by Phoenix in the Oct. 3 NHL Waiver Draft, as the Coyotes successfully gambled that no team would pick up his $2 million salary as a backup netminder.
"I certainly don't want to live in the past," Boucher said. "It wasn't a happy time for me, but things are going well right now and I just want to keep playing well. I'm happy that I'm getting a chance to play and be a part of it."
Bierk suffered a hip injury on Nov. 9 that gave Boucher the opportunity to suit up as Burke's backup. Phoenix initially expected Bierk to return quickly, but he has remained on IR and hasn't been able to practice for more than one day at a time because of the lingering injury.
While Burke remains the Coyotes' unquestioned starting goalie, he admits that he has been enjoying Boucher's magical run along with everyone else, even though it has kept him on the bench for longer than he is used to.
"I haven't seen anything like this in my 16 years in this league," Burke told the Arizona Republic. "What am I going to say? You've got to think about what's best for the team and you don't worry about individuals. Everybody's playing hard to keep this thing going right now, and I'm not going to start anything."
Playing his aggressive standup style, Boucher has moved his positioning farther out toward the top of the crease to challenge shooters and cut down angles. Even though his goalie coach is one of the butterfly gurus, Boucher realized that it wasn't working for him and relied on his instincts to tell him that he should play how he grew up playing.
"Now we're really seeing even the byproduct of the style that he's comfortable with and the confidence that comes from winning," Barnett said. "We're achieving the success as a team that comes from 23 guys paying attention to team defense. We're not taking anything from what Brian has remarkably been able to accomplish, because it's extraordinarily hard to get a shutout, period, let alone to think of four in a row. But it really is an entire roster sacrificing anything and everything needed to get in front of pucks or deflect pucks or controlling positions defensively to be aware of taking away scoring opportunities."
Barnett estimates that Phoenix has reduced opposing scoring opportunities by 10 to 12 per game over the past three weeks. While Boucher has been making the big saves when he's tested, he has also been getting a lot of help from his blueliners and forwards, who have been blocking shots regularly and taking away the passing lanes to eliminate scoring chances.
"It's unbelievable," Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. "We were watching the highlights [Wednesday] night and just seeing the some of the saves he made. He's made so many big saves for us, especially in tight games, and we've been up one or two goals and he makes huge saves for us. It's pretty remarkable. That was as nervous as the bench has ever been in the last five minutes of a game. Nobody wants to be the guy that kind of lets him down."
Or as rookie forward Fredrik Sjostrom said after Wednesday's game, "Those last five minutes, I was ready to block a shot with my face if I had to."
Superstition has set in and the Coyotes have treated Boucher like a pitcher who is closing in on a no-hitter.
"None of the guys really talk about it," Boucher said. "I think going into a game you can't focus on getting a shutout. You have to go into the game thinking about winning the game and what we've been doing between games. We stayed out of the penalty box, which has been really big for us. And as a team we're playing awesome and it makes all our jobs a lot easier. Nobody really talks about the streak. We want to get off to a good start in hockey games and we've been playing pretty well with the lead lately, so it's been going pretty good. "
After he was initially believed to be an afterthought behind Mike Dunham, John Grahame, Rick DiPietro, and perhaps even Esche, Boucher has thrust himself back into the mix for the USA netminding job for the 2004 World Cup.
The Coyotes might also be able to trade Burke once Bierk is healthy again, though Barnett concedes that only a fool would mess with team chemistry right now. Phoenix isn't seeking trade partners and hasn't received any calls lately, as Barnett says the team wants to ride out this hot streak and continue to build a solid chemistry on its young roster.
After starting the season on the bench, Boucher realizes that merely getting playing time is an improvement over not even getting practice time. And after enduring a roller-coaster wide over the course of his first five seasons, Boucher is enjoying the ride and not trying to overanalyze the streak or its place in history.
"I'm just trying to go out there and stop the puck." Boucher said. "Sometimes things just happen instinctively; you don't really think about the game. I think that's when you play your best, when you're not thinking out there. Things have gone well. I can't explain why, but you can see the team is really starting to play well now and that's really nice to see."
And he can thank himself for putting his career back on track by being a standup guy and trusting his instincts.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.