A back-up goaltender doesn't quite get the credit and praise he deserves because a lot of their work goes unnoticed. Whether they're in the game or not, their presence can still be felt on the bench in the form of positive words of encouragement and throwing pieces of advice towards one of their teammates.
Patrick Lalime is that kind of person; he always congratulates Ryan Miller for a job well done after a win and doesn't feel resentment towards him. He realizes his position on the club and treats it professionally. The team has repeatedly mentioned that he is their hardest-working guy on the roster.
On Saturday, March 27th of 2010, it was the team's turn to congratulate the veteran who posted his 200th career NHL win between the pipes. The 35-year-old became the 66th masked man to reach such a prestigious milestone and in the process, clinched a playoff berth for the Buffalo Sabres.
We don't get to talk about Lalime too often because our starting goaltender is the world's best with his current form, but this was a special night for him.
"It's pretty nice to get there," Lalime said. "It was a hard one to get. It just means I'm old, probably." he said in a post-game interview.
His accomplishment took him 14 years altogether and 11 NHL seasons to grasp it. There were exciting moments and crushing ones along the way, but it was all worth it.
Pressure? What Pressure?
Lalime got his foot through the door and into the NHL during the 1996-1997 season. He was 22-years-old and about to represent the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team with constantly high expectations. In that first game, the sweat pours down your neck, you're nerves aren't quite settled and you don't want to attempt in doing too much because that's when things can turn ugly.
Fortunately, Lalime relieved goaltender Ken Wregget in the middle of a blow-out loss to the New York Rangers for his first taste of NHL hockey. While he allowed three goals on 14 shots, he wasn't credited with the loss obviously and that small segment of experience may have settled him down for what was about to come. The game's result was almost irrelevant because it was already over by the time Lalime came in and comebacks weren't easy in those times.
With the game decisively concluded, all he had to do was play his game and not worry about the win. Mistakes present lessons learned and Lalime went on to post a 14-0-2 accomplishment, setting an NHL record for the longest unbeaten streak to begin a career. Once the streak came to a close, he was considerably inconsistent from there on out.
Next year, Pittsburgh couldn't settle on a contract with Lalime and his rights were eventually traded to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Unable to crack the team's roster, he spent a lot of time in the IHL and broke a record for the Kansas City Blades in wins, led the league in numerous categories and earned first team all-star honors.
Pittsburgh Numbers: 21-12-2, 2.95 goals against average, .913 save percentage, three shutouts.
Off To Canada
On June 18, 1999, Lalime was sent packing to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for Ted Donato and Antti-Jussi Niemi (great name). Sharing duties with Ron Tugnutt, his debut campaign with the Senators was admirable but he was still the back-up and didn't see any playoff minutes when the Maple Leafs eliminated their rivals in the first round after six games. Tom Barasso, who was traded from Pittsburgh with Tugnutt going the opposite way, played the entirety of the series.
Lalime did some incredible things over the next couple of years. Officially named the starter in 2001, he won 36 games with a 2.35 goals against average and 9.14 save percentage. Ottawa drew Toronto in the playoffs again and this time, Lalime was the backstopper and he did his job, but the Senators did very little to support him which led to a four-game sweep.
With 27 more wins the following season, he had the second-most shutouts (seven) and established a streak of 184:06 without conceding a goal; a Senators club record. Lalime produced an encore to his previous terrific postseason and allowed two goals to the Philadelphia Flyers in five games of action in round one. He would tie an NHL record with four postseason shutouts, however, Toronto would come out on top in a seven-game affair during the Conference Semi-Finals.
In 2003, Lalime amassed 39 wins, eight shutouts, a place in the All-Star Game and led Ottawa to a Presidents' Trophy. The Senators would finally avoid the Maple Leafs and earn a spot in the Conference Finals before bowing out to the New Jersey Devils.
Lalime's final season in Ottawa was highlighted by another loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the playoffs. Having been stellar in the previous three playoff events, the netminder was rusty, particularly in the seventh game where he allowed a couple of soft goals to start the period. Pulled after a 3-0 deficit in the opening 20 minutes, the Leafs would hold on for a 4-1 win to outdo their Ontario nemesis for the fourth time in five years.
"It's not the way you want it to end,'' Lalime said. "They were both bad goals.''
Despite protecting the Senators goal so efficiently for a number of seasons, this is how the city of Ottawa typically summarizes Lalime's stay in the nation's capital as it was his last game.
Ottawa Numbers: 146-100-30, 2.23 goals against average, .907 save percentage, 30 shutouts.
Postseason Numbers: 21-20, 1.77 goals against average, .926 save percentage, five shutouts.
From Bad To Worse
Looking to put the past playoff showing behind him, Lalime joined St. Louis in 2005 and became their No.1 goaltender when hockey returned from the lock-out. Starting in 29 games for them, he only managed four wins and was sent to the AHL for portions of the year. A torn ACL was the nail in the coffin on a forgettable time in the Blues' jersey.
Signed by the Chicago Blackhawks in the summer of 2006, he won just four of 11 games yet was re-signed in the off-season to a one-year contract. His last year in Chicago was actually his first positive record since his days in Ottawa as he went 16-12-2.
St. Louis Numbers: 4-18-8, 3.64 goals against average, .881 save percentage.
Chicago Numbers: 20-18-3, 2.94 goals against average, .896 save percentage, one shutout.
So Close Yet So Far
Handed a chance to guide Buffalo to the postseason in 2009 because of Ryan Miller's high ankle sprain, he couldn't do it going 3-6-2 in that time frame. Lalime lost his first four starts this year but responded by winning three of the next four and accumulating some dazzling statistics in the process.
One win away from the 200th of his career, a disappointing loss to the Colorado Avalanche in an 11-round shootout shielded Lalime from the milestone. He wouldn't get nearly as close in the ensuing four matches (all losses) and a relief effort in Atlanta.
Finally, the day came on March 27. Miller had played the previous night, could have used the rest and the Tampa Bay Lightning were in town. As we all know, Buffalo enjoys their matches with the Southeast Division club and it felt right to announce Lalime as the starter.
Surely, the Sabres would make it an easy night on their goaltender for the most part securing the win early. The celebrations began because of a playoff berth being ensured and a veteran being rewarded for his years of hard work.
Buffalo Numbers: 9-19-5, 2.98 goals against average, .902 save percentage.
All good things take time and Patrick Lalime can relax knowing that the long quest has ended.