Ron Tugnutt of the Senators has emerged as an impenetrable goalie
In the summer of 1996, Ron Tugnutt's 225-game NHL career seemed about to expire. After playing goal with five organizations in five years and spending the 1995-96 season in the minors, Tugnutt was a 28-year-old free agent with few prospects. He says he was "about a day away from signing with some team in Sweden" when the Senators offered him a job.
In the summer of 1998, Tugnutt was a passenger in a speedboat that was traveling at 70 mph when it took a sharp turn and cracked. As the boat began to capsize, Tugnutt put on a life preserver and floated in the water until he was rescued. Tugnutt, who watched the speedboat sink, said he was lucky to escape with only some broken ribs.
Such experiences can give a man a sober sense of proportion, which may explain why Tugnutt seemed wholly unimpressed that through Sunday he was 17-7-5 for Ottawa, with an astounding league-best 1.65 goals-against average (nearly two goals less than his career mark coming into this season). Not even his first All-Star Game appearance in January left any lingering giddiness. "I feel stable," he says. "What this is all about is that I'm finally playing with a good team."
To be sure, the Senators, who led the Eastern Conference with a 33-18-8 record, are a much better team than the defenseless Quebec Nordiques clubs for whom Tugnutt toiled for much of his early career. Yet Tugnutt, whose .932 save percentage so far this season is second to the Sabres' Dominik Hasek (.935), is a primary reason that Ottawa had allowed the fewest goals in the conference. "Goaltending is our strength," says Senators winger Bill Berg. "It seems like when one guy does well, the other guy just wants to do better."
Ah, yes, the other guy. That would be Damian Rhodes, the peroxide-blond, chaw-chewin' goalie who led Ottawa to a six-game upset of the Devils in the first round of last year's playoffs. Rhodes doesn't have Tugnuttian numbers (16-11-3, 2.54 GAA, .903 save percentage), but he has played well enough to keep himself in the goaltending platoon. "You can't complain about the system. It works," says Tugnutt.
Given that Senators coach Jacques Martin has proved unpredictable in choosing his starting goalie for each game and that Ottawa is the only top team without a clear No. 1 netminder, the question is: If the playoffs began tomorrow, Coach, do you know who your starting goalie would be? "No," Martin says. "Well wait and see."
The uncertainty doesn't ruffle Tugnutt, who can tell you that things could be plenty worse.
Caught in a Rut
The fact that poor ice conditions can cause a puck to bounce or change direction are the least of the NHL's concerns. The Canucks' Mark Messier, the Rangers' Todd Harvey, the Senators' Daniel Alfredsson and the Stars' Brett Hull have all suffered leg injuries this season after getting a skate caught in a rut in the ice.