When did the emergence of Sharks goalie Steve Shields really begin? Was it last month when a groin injury to San Jose keeper Mike Vernon gave Shields the NHL opportunity he'd never had? Was it last June when the Sabres traded him, getting him out of the shadow of Dominik Hasek, for whom Shields was a rarely used backup for two seasons? Or was it in the autumn of 1995, when Shields stood with Buffalo's goal-tending consultant Mitch Korn in a medical center, slapping a weird light board?
There were 100 squares on that board each with a red lightbulb at its center. The lights flashed in rapid and random succession, and Shields's task was to smack each light on sight. The apparatus measured swiftness of recognition. "He was amazingly good at it," says Korn, who was working with Shields al the Sabres' American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester (N.Y.) and who's now a goaltending coach for the Predators. "It became a great teaching tool. When he would let in a puck he hadn't followed, I'd yell at him, 'How can you hit a light within one-one-hundredth of a second and not see that puck?' He could see it He just had to learn to focus.'
For six weeks Shields has been a dominating force in the NHL. After stopping 28 of 29 shots in a 4-1 win over the Mighty Ducks last Friday night, he had gone 9-0-2 in his most recent 11 games and had moved among the league leaders with a .923 save percentage and a 2.16 goals-against average. Perhaps such a stretch should have been expected when Shields left Michigan following the 1993-94 season as the winningest goaltender in NCAA history. But after his first season in the minors, no one was predicting stardom for him.
In college the 6'3", 210-pound Shields thrived because of his size and reflexes. In Rochester the Sabres, who had drafted him in the fifth round in 1991, discovered that Shields didn't put his pads down to take away low shots, paid scant attention to his angles and didn't follow the puck off a shooter's stick, instead picking it up in flight. It was like finding out the valedictorian of typing class was a hunt-and-pecker. After a month with the Americans, Shields was 0-6 and had allowed nearly five goals a game. "We got some paper and literally designed where his arms and legs should go in given situations," says Korn. "He's so intelligent, and he wanted to get better."
By the next season, Shields had learned the butterfly style and had sharpened his focus. He led the Americans to the 1996 Calder Cup, going 15-3 with a 2.50 goals-against average in the playoffs. Still, when you're the backup to Hasek, as Shields was the next two seasons, you rarely get to play. Shields filled in brilliantly for the injured Hasek during the 1997 playoffs (2.74 goals-against and one shutout), but mainly he warmed the bench and tried to learn from the best goalie in the world. "You have to take something away after watching a guy like that," says the 26-year-old Shields. "I saw things I needed to remind myself of, especially how hard he fights to see the puck."
When the Sharks acquired Shields for a journeyman goalie and draft picks, they believed they had landed the long-term successor to the 36-year-old Vernon. In his recent run Shields had three shutouts and lifted the Sharks from the playoff bubble into the middle of the pack in the Western Conference. "When I got out of school I wanted to play in spots like this," says Shields, "but looking back I wasn't ready, not nearly?'