What does a hot goalie look like? He resembles a bird of prey. In this case the raptor's name is Clint Malarchuk. His nose has been broken eight times, hammered into a beak. His eyes are a clear, intense green. He has the mien and visage of a hawk, until his smile breaks it up.
Since replacing a sick Pete Peeters in the Washington Capitals' net in the second period of a game against the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 17, Malarchuk has been voraciously feeding on flying pucks. In the nine consecutive games he has played, concluding with Sunday's 7-2 defeat of the Vancouver Canucks, he has put together a goals-against average of 1.56 and has raised his save percentage to .891. He also had four shutouts and led the Caps on an 8-1 tear that swept them past the Philadelphia Flyers and into a one-point Patrick Division lead.
A duck is hardly a bird of prey, but Mallard, nonetheless, is the nickname Malarchuk's teammates have given him. "He quacks between periods. Actually quacks," says defenseman Garry Galley, referring to Malarchuk's pen chant for sounding just ducky after big saves. "If Mallard were really a duck, he'd never get shot," says defenseman Greg Smith. "Well, not lately."
Last week, in the first of back-to-back games against the Devils, the Caps won 5-3. Three goals represents a tidal wave against Malarchuk these days. "Better to win 6-5 than to lose 2-1," he said after the game at the Capital Centre. "I've always had to grab and search for confidence. It's not in me. A goalie gains confidence by winning. Right now, I feel like I can stop the puck no matter how it comes. I'm sick, but I feel good."
Malarchuk, who had played with the flu, was vomiting between periods. The next night, feeling better, he beat the Devils 6-1 in New Jersey. He lost the shutout with 4:15 to play.
"We've got a hot goalie, no question," says Warren Strelow, Washington's goaltending coach. "You can tell because he's making clean saves, not sloppy ones. He battles. We've been outshot in some of these games."
"Maybe, but I can't even remember the last time I had to block a rebound," says Malarchuk, giving credit to the Caps' strong defense. "Not one time during the streak."
"We spend a lot of time with defense," says Washington coach Bryan Murray. "For a team to have any chance to win, it must start there. Clint works hard in practice, very hard. He eats up five-on-one power-play drills. Loves them. He complements our style."
Through Sunday the Caps had given up fewer goals—196—than any other team in the league. And nobody has more big, clever defensemen. They include the reliable Kevin Hatcher, Scott Stevens, Larry Murphy and Rod Langway, who, says Malarchuk, "is a goalie's dream" because of his consistent defensive style of play. Peeters, who had a bruised ankle but was ready for action on Sunday, has the NHL's best save percentage (.904) and goals-against average (2.57), while Malarchuk is tops in shutouts with his four. " Grant Fuhr [of the Edmonton Oilers] and Ron Hextall [of the Flyers] are given due credit," says Murray, "but we feel we have the best pair of goalies on one team."
The people around the hot goalie are often as responsible for his success as he is—though that fact is rarely acknowledged. "I think that Clint has learned to play with his defense, and his defense has learned to play with him," says Malarchuk's brother, Garth, 33, who was once a goaltender in the Caps' system and is now a policeman in Calgary and a part-time scout for the Flames. "The unity of the team makes a difference to the goalie."