Legace won't get tangled in goaltending controversy
He keeps level head through ups and downs of being No. 2
By Tom Gage / The Detroit News
--Back when Manny Legace was an impressionable young goalie compared to the semi-impressionable 30-year-old he is today -- happy birthday, by the way -- an incident took place in front of him that he'll never forget.
Or hasn't yet anyway.
A goal he still regrets? A fight with another goalie? Not even close. Something entirely different. Something alive.
In net for Niagara Falls of the Ontario Hockey League during a game being played at Windsor Arena, Legace was well aware of how boisterous the Spitfire fans could be.
He thought nothing of it when something landed on the ice in front of him. Whatever it was hadn't hit him, so he continued to follow the play.
Until whatever was on the ice began to move. And crawl.
From somewhere above him, up with the dust and the rust, a rat had fallen onto the ice near Legace. Not one of those rubber rats the fans in Florida used to toss, but a real live sewer rat that only briefly survived its fall.
What did Legace do? He rolled with the punch, because that's what he does. It might even be what he does best. But that's also what he's often been required to do.
It is required of Legace now, as Red Wing fans grow anxious over the performance of goalie Curtis Joseph, their prized off-season acquisition. Joseph has been shaky, giving up 11 goals in his last three starts -- all Red Wing losses. Meanwhile, Legace, the backup, has started the last two games, surrendering a total of just three goals.
And consider Legace's first season in the NHL, 1998-99: In 17 games with the Los Angeles Kings, Legace ended up with a 2.60 goals-against average, but won only two of the games in which he played. Supposedly, as a goalie goes, so goes his team. But that wasn't the case. Legace played well while the Kings crumbled around him.
He also recovered nicely from the disappointment of finding himself back in the now-defunct International Hockey League after making his NHL debut. He didn't want to be a Manitoba Moose. He wanted to be a Red Wing, but he lived and learned, rolling with the punch again, and eventually ended up back in the big time.
Legace doesn't know if he'll ever be a No. 1 goalie in the NHL, defined as he who plays in the most games, but frankly it's not something that can actively occupy his mind during a season. It's in the same category as ice time, the lack of which he learned the hard way to cope with last year.
"It was mentally tough last year," he said. "It got really frustrating and it showed in my play."
When it showed in his play, his confidence suffered. Consequently, the feeling of being expendable returned. Even now, near the surface, Legace reveals an uncertainty about his future. It's a trait inherent with any backup in any sport.
"The only way I'll stay up here is to play well," he said. "I just have to keep doing what I'm doing."
Or what's going to happen? He'll dream he's a Moose again? Not a chance. Legace has established himself as an NHL goalie, but doesn't abandon the needed mindset that he's only as good as his next game.
Legace was treated differently by Scotty Bowman last year than he is by Dave Lewis this year. There's no blame or fault to be assigned for the fact that Bowman depended as wholly as he did on Dominik Hasek. It worked. The Wings won. How can there be blame in winning?
But this year, Lewis has been more psychologically correct with Legace, more supportive, playing him against better teams, and even starting him back-to-back following a loss as he did against Florida Thursday night after Legace had lost, 1-0, to New Jersey.
"I'm just trying to involve him more with the games," Lewis said. "It motivates guys differently."
When asked about his consecutive starts last week, though, Legace responded only by saying, "It's kind of neat," not making more of the opportunity than what it was. He rolls with the good, he rolls with the bad and -- in the case of that clumsy rat -- the ugly as well.
His is not an easy role, however. Legace is like a spot starter in baseball who might never become the ace, but is expected to give his team a chance to win whenever he plays. He doesn't begrudge those ahead of him. If anything, he honors them.
On the side of Legace's mask is a numerical tribute to Hasek. And of Joseph, his current colleague, Legace says: "I'm still behind a great goaltender. I'm not going to knock him out of a job. I play when I play."
He can knock Joseph out of some playing time, though, and has -- which could be healthy down the road for the Wings. If nothing else, it gives them a more confident second goalie.
"It's a different kind of mindset that someone in his role needs," Lewis said. "The No. 2 goalie has to have the mindset of being No. 2 because you don't play as many big games. It's all in the mental approach you take.
"I told him in training camp I'd use him more than Scotty did last year. That does two things: It gets his juices flowing and it gives us the chance to rest Curtis a little bit."
Or more than a little bit. Whatever's needed.