Mike Richter's strong return in goal boosts U.S. chances at the Salt Lake City Games
Mike Richter's quick recovery from reconstructive right-knee surgery last February has enabled the Rangers to overcome their defensive failings and put together an 11-7-1-0 record through Sunday, a development that bodes well for the U.S. Olympic team.
Richter was one of five goal-tenders invited to the U.S. Olympic camp in early September, a less-than-inspiring group that also included the Predators' Mike Dunham, the Coyotes' Robert Esche, the Blues' Brent Johnson and the Thrashers' Damian Rhodes. "Back then Richter was about 70 percent in terms of mobility," says Team USA goalie coach Warren Strelow. "We didn't know what to expect from him this year."
At week's end the 35-year-old Richter had a .916 save percentage even though the porous New York defense had yielded the most shots in the NHL. Richter's acrobatic play, along with the fact that he was MVP of the gold medal team at the 1996 World Cup, virtually ensures that he will be one of three goalies chosen for the Olympic squad, which must be named by Dec. 22. Dunham has already been selected, and the third U.S. goalie could be another comeback story: Flyers third-year netminder Brian Boucher, who struggled last season but has regained the confidence that helped him lead Philadelphia to the Eastern Conference finals in May 2000.
As of Sunday, Boucher sported the league's best save percentage (.940) and had recently completed a 184:30 shutout streak. He's the top candidate to unseat Johnson, who was the front-runner for the third position entering the season.
America's corps in net isn't as impressive as that of Canada, which includes the Avalanche's Patrick Roy, the Devils' Martin Brodeur and the Maple Leafs' Curtis Joseph; or the Czech Republic, which has the Red Wings' Dominik Hasek and the Flames' Roman Turek; or even Sweden, which has the Oilers' Tommy Salo. Yet while the U.S. goal-tending can't match the depth and quality of other countries', there's no doubt the overall net-minding picture looks much better than it did in September.
Golden Boy Hits A Rough Patch
Shortly after Tampa Bay's 3-0 loss to the Islanders on Nov. 6, Lightning center Vincent Lecavalier stood at his locker knotting his navy necktie, slipped into his navy blazer and tried not to look blue. Although he had been active in the offensive zone, drawing a penalty and taking four shots on goal, Lecavalier had been indecisive with the puck, and his shots were weak and poorly located. With a fifth of the season gone, the 21-year-old Lecavalier, one of the most promising offensive players in the game, had two goals. "It's not coming for me—I'm not putting the puck where I want it," he said. "This has been a hard year, but I feel positive. Things will get better."
In three-plus seasons with Tampa Bay, Lecavalier has been dubbed the Phenom, the Savior and, most conspicuous, the Captain. Now he'd like to add another title: the Stoic. He's had a difficult time staying upbeat since signing a four-year, $10.2 million deal on Oct. 5. Lecavalier missed the preseason because of the squabbling over that contract, and the day after he signed, coach John Tortorella stripped him of the captaincy he'd held since March 2000. "We're trying to take pressure off Vinny," Tortorella says.
"That hurt," says Lecavalier. "I didn't see it coming."