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Coming up Dryden

Legendary Habs goalie may be the all-time best

Posted: Wednesday January 31, 2007 3:04PM; Updated: Wednesday January 31, 2007 3:04PM
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Not even Dryden expected the run of excellence that began in the 1971 playoffs against the defending Stanley Cup champs.
Not even Dryden expected the run of excellence that began in the 1971 playoffs against the defending Stanley Cup champs.
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I don't know why it took 28 years for the Montreal Canadiens to retire Ken Dryden's number 29. But since it did, it now occurs to me that many younger hockey fans -- and players, too -- may not appreciate just how great he was.

Dryden belongs on two very select lists. He is certainly one of the best hockey goalies of all time -- arguably the all-time greatest. And alongside the likes of Jimmy Brown and Barry Sanders, Dryden is one of a small handful of hall-of-fame athletes who retired while still in their prime.

Dryden was just 31 when he hung up his pads after helping the Canadiens capture the 1979 Stanley Cup -- the sixth time they'd won it in his eight NHL seasons. He may not have been as dominating at that point as he was in his mid-to-late 20s, but trust me, I covered the 1979 playoffs. Dryden still had a number of good years left in him.

He retired with a lifetime record of 258 wins, 57 losses and 74 ties, an unparalleled winning percentage (.663). His lifetime goals-against average was 2.24, which doesn't seem quite as gaudy today as it did in 1979. No goalie had come close to going that low since the 1930s. (As a comparison, fellow Hall of Famer Tony Esposito, whose career roughly coincided with Dryden's, retired with a 2.92 GAA.)

Dryden had 46 shutouts in just 397 games, or about one every 8.63 starts. That's an amazing statistic. Patrick Roy, for example, the goalie most often cited in a recent poll of NHL general managers as the best ever, had just one shutout every 15.59 games. New Jersey's Martin Brodeur, whose entire career has been with a team that employs the trap in the "dead puck era", has 89 shutouts to date -- one every 9.67 starts. Even Terry Sawchuk, who has the NHL record for most shutouts (105), only recorded one every 9.43 games. No one else from the modern era is even close to Dryden's mark.

But numbers don't really tell the story.

Dryden only really cared about championships (he also won an NCAA title with Cornell). In winning them, he was as dominating a presence in goal as Bobby Orr was on defense or Wayne Gretzky was at center. He emboldened his teammates and made them better. He deflated his opponents with his regal confidence.

The classic Dryden pose, which he referred to in his speech during Monday night's retirement ceremony in the Bell Centre, showed him standing tall at the edge of his crease, hands crossed over the top of his stick, relaxed, patient, commanding, as he surveyed his icy kingdom. At 6' 4", he was a giant at his position, but it was his presence that made him the goalie he was.

Dryden "didn't play big," he once told me. He stayed on his feet and held his hands in front of his body as the shooter took aim. He relied on his quickness, agility, and octopus-like reach to make stops. My word, his reflexes were fast for a big man.

He was never better than in the 1971 playoffs. Called up near the end of the season, Dryden won the final six games of the regular season for the Habs, allowing just nine goals. In a surprising move, the Canadiens then started Dryden over veteran Rogie Vachon in their playoff series against the Boston Bruins, who were defending Stanley Cup champions.

The Bruins had the makings of a dynasty. They had Orr, Phil Esposito, Johnny Bucyk, Derek Sanderson, Ken Hodge, Wayne Cashman and Gerry Cheevers. The Big Bad Bruins had won 57 games that season (still a club record) and 15 more than Montreal. But Dryden, just one year out of Cornell, was spectacular in that series...a revelation.

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