It's never easy following a legend. Shemp could not match the comedic stylings of Curly, no amount of breast-beating could turn Mighty Joe Young into King Kong, and Colorado Avalanche goaltender David Aebischer is not likely to replicate the feats of the recently retired Patrick Roy, a colossus of the crease who won more NHL games than any other netminder. But it is Aebischer, 25, who has Roy's old job and the same pressure to uphold a winning tradition in Colorado. While he goes about his work in expert fashion—through Sunday, Aebischer had a seven-game unbeaten streak, his .927 save percentage ranked fifth among regulars, and his 14 wins were third most in the league—he is bombarded with questions about succeeding Roy. "I don't mind being the one to follow Patrick," he said last Friday. "If it wasn't me, it would be somebody else."
When he was 13 years old, Aebischer, who grew up in Fribourg, Switzerland, was in Canada to play in a peewee tournament and saw Roy matched against Dominik Hasek at the Montreal Forum, but he never dreamed of becoming the next Roy. He was simply hoping to be the next Dino Stecher, who tended net for the pro team HC Fribourg-Gott�ron. Yet if Aebischer, who was drafted in the sixth round by Colorado in 1997, becomes a dominant NHL goalie and helps the Avalanche win the Stanley Cup, he will go down as the best Swiss player in history. (O.K., so there have only been five Swiss players in the NHL.)
"This is a great situation for Abby," says Avalanche defenseman Rob Blake. "When he looks around the dressing room, he sees some great offensive talent. He sees a solid defensive team. This is a place where you can shine as a goalie."
There is an intriguing dynamic in Colorado as Aebischer and his teammates get comfortable on the ice. After a combined three seasons in the East Coast and American hockey leagues, Aebischer was promoted to Roy's backup in Denver in 2000-01. Over his first three NHL seasons he played in only 69 games and never started a playoff match. Last Thursday's Avalanche-Canucks game in Vancouver, the first meeting in 10 months between the Northwest Division heavyweights, promised to be Aebischer's first true test. He handled it well.
After the game ended 1-1, the TV newscasts in Vancouver showed Canucks defenseman Ed Jovanovski's wrist shot that dipped under Aebischer's glove for the tying goal, a shot that came at the end of a four-minute power play in the third period and that Aebischer appeared unprepared for. Too bad the producers edited out his stops on the Canucks' 19 other shots in the period. Aebischer had an extraordinary game, finishing with 37 saves, including eight each against high-scoring wings Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi. On one play Aebischer stopped a shot with his shoulder after losing his stick in a goalmouth scramble. He also foiled a breakaway as well as a three-on-one. He slid from post to post with alacrity, squared himself to shooters and handled the pressure when the hulking Bertuzzi got in his kitchen and lingered long enough to make an omelet with a side salad. The next morning Avalanche defenseman Adam Foote said, "Abby's played sound all year, but this one was impressive because he got us that point by himself. That's a big confidence builder."
Not that Aebischer was lacking in confidence, having understudied for the Sultan of Swagger. There always had been similarities between Roy and the 6'1", 180-pound Aebischer—the lanky body, the butterfly style, a penchant for yapping at opponents and even putting a little extra flourish on a glove save—but being Roy's backup increased Aebischer's sense of self-worth. "I learned from Patrick that sometimes you could make a save just because you were confident," he says.
Aebischer has none of Roy's puck-handling hubris, which is fine with Colorado's defensemen. They may have to skate deeper into their own zone to play the puck (instead of peeling off for Roy's breakout passes), but Aebischer rarely leaves them vulnerable to forecheckers; he chips the puck to safe places.
No other team in the Western Conference is as talented as Colorado, but Aebischer's mere 35 minutes of playoff experience will be a concern in April. Says Blake, "No goalie wins a Cup until he gets the opportunity."
Indeed, only four active netminders have won Cups as starters—the New Jersey Devils' Martin Brodeur, the Toronto Maple Leafs' Ed Belfour, the St. Louis Blues' Chris Osgood and the Detroit Red Wings' Hasek. "People say Colorado needs a goalie for the playoffs, but other than Brodeur, is there anyone out there who's a clear-cut upgrade [over Aebischer]?" asks one general manager. "Of the guys who might be available [in a trade], who's better? Olie Kolzig [of the Washington Capitals]? Never won a thing. Sean Burke [of the Phoenix Coyotes]? Good goalie, but he's played for 20"—actually seven—"teams and been hurt a lot. Who?"
The answer, for now, is no one.