ANAHEIM, Calif. — His coach was concerned that after a 28-save shutout of the Los Angeles Kings in his NHL playoff debut on Saturday night --- and the post-game media crush --- John Gibson would be worn out.
He needn’t have worried.
The 20-year-old goaltender who Bruce Boudreau pulled out of his hat like a magician’s rabbit just prior to Game 4 of the Anaheim/L.A. Freeway Series is not the type to get carried away.
In fact, the crowd of reporters who engulfed him after the Ducks’ practice Sunday morning were the ones who left exhausted. They milked the rookie like the family cow, working hard for that one quote that would make everyone’s day. It never came. It probably never will.
He was Grant Fuhr, 30 years later. All yup and nope, and Hockey Night in Canada’s frazzled interviewer needing to ask 15 questions to fill a minute of airtime. He was Kings’ Jonathan Quick, minus the snarl.
“He doesn’t have a lot to say,” acknowledged the team’s goaltending coach, Dwayne Roloson, the almost-hero of the 2006 Edmonton Oilers’ Stanley Cup chase, who could be a pretty hostile witness himself, especially in playoff lockdown mode.
But unlike Roloson, who was well into his 30s before he was taken seriously as an NHL starting goalie, hockey people have seen Gibson coming from a long way away --- and the Ducks, who took the big Pittsburgh native in the second round of the 2011 draft, had to reject the evidence of their own eyes to keep him in the minors for most of this season.
Now, after becoming the youngest goaltender ever to post a shutout in his playoff debut, the Friday callup from Norfolk in the AHL is here to stay.
Even his coach wasn’t denying Gibson will play Game 5 here Monday night, the series tied 2-2.
“I'm not going to try to play that game. He came in. He played great. He's going to go again,” said Boudreau, who must figure three different goalies in four playoff games against the Kings is about enough.
Frederik Andersen, the Danish rookie who started Game 3, is hurt. Jonas Hiller, the Swiss veteran who started Games 1 and 2, and mopped up for Andersen in Game 3, is also hurting, but mostly from having been replaced by two rookies in the same series.
Gibson, who shut out the Canucks in his first NHL regular-season start a month ago in Vancouver --- Boston Bruins Hall of Famer Tiny Thompson (1928-29) is the only other goalie ever to blank the opposition in his first regular-season game and first playoff game --- is the fourth-youngest goalie in NHL history at the time of his first playoff shutout. Only Harry Lumley (age 18 in 1945), and 20-year-olds Patrick Roy in 1986 and Carey Price in 2008 were younger.
So yes, Gibson is in pretty heady company.
He’s not the first kid to shine as a rookie goalie, mind you.
“Other guys have done it. Patrick’s done it. Stephane Fiset did it for Quebec. Tommy Barrasso. So it’s not something that’s never been done before,” said Roloson.
“To me, he’s a lot like Carey Price: just cool, collected and relaxed. He doesn’t have a lot to say, but he has a big respect factor for his teammates. The way he’s handled himself as a pro, I don’t think you can teach.”
In four career NHL games (three regular season, one playoff), Gibson is now 4-0-0 with a 1.00 goals-against average and a .965 save percentage. He has stopped 111 of 115 shots.
Boudreau’s gamble Saturday seemed like a big reach, the kind that could either come up aces or blow up in his face, but the Ducks coach really didn’t see it that way.
He not only had prior experience at playing rookie goalies in big playoff games --- he used Semyon Varlamov over veteran Jose Theodore in Washington one year –-- but had personal experience at being beaten by young netminders.
As an AHL player in Baltimore, Boudreau’s team lost to Sherbrooke’s 19-year-old Patrick Roy in the 1984-85 Calder Cup final, and as a coach, his Hershey Bears were beaten by another 19-year-old, Hamilton Bulldogs’ Carey Price, in 2006-07.
“You know young kids can do it. They just come up and they're ready. And those two that I just mentioned obviously were very special goalies,” Boudreau said.
“I think, and I don't want to hype (Gibson) too much, this is what they've been saying about him for the last three years.”
They’ve said it while he’s played for Team USA in the world junior championships and then the world championships in the same year, at 19. And they’ve continued to say it all season in the AHL.
Gibson easily could have started the season in Anaheim, but Boudreau said “our goal was for him to play as much as he can play in this first year. We had Freddie Andersen. We had Viktor (Fasth) until the trade deadline. We had Hilly. There was never any rush.”
Then Andersen caught a rut in Game 3 in Los Angeles. The next morning, Gibson was on the plane, and Boudreau already had it in his head that he might start him in Game 4.
“I just thought he gave us the best chance to win that game,” he said. “And you knew L.A. hadn't seen him before. They'd not have a good scouting report on him.”
All the same, Boudreau was sticking his neck way out there. If it hadn’t worked out, he’d have been an easy target for second guessers.
“I don’t think I’d put somebody in that I thought was in over his head if I didn’t believe in him,” said Boudreau, when asked about the personal risk. “I got to do what I think is right to win. If I start doing stuff that I’m thinking other people are going to want me to do, the safe thing, then you’re not doing what got you to this level.
“I’m just going to go by the way I feel. If it works, great. If it doesn’t , back to the drawing board. But for the most part, it’s worked more than it hasn’t.”
It worked partly because Gibson was terrific, but also because the Ducks seem to play with more discipline and confidence in front of him.
“I think you get a little heightened sense of blocking shots, maybe sacrificing yourself a little more just to help him out,” said forward Andrew Cogliano.
“I think we did that in Vancouver when he came in for his first game. Last night, he made two or three really solid saves point-blank, and then he just really shut the door. But I thought the guys really paid the price last night.”
They’ll have to do so again Monday, at home, in a series in which the road team has won every game.
“Game 6 is in (the Kings’) building. They’ve got championship blood in their veins, most of them,” said Boudreau. “They will come out and play the best game of the series tomorrow night.”
And Jonathan Quick, who was pulled by Kings coach Darryl Sutter in Game 4, will be in a foul mood.
John Gibson’s mood? It’s anybody’s guess.
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