Goalie Thibault performs backup role to a T

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Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Penguins goalie Jocelyn Thibault is a good bet to start in the near future.
By Dave Molinari
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Jocelyn Thibault didn't ask for this role. Probably wasn't quite ready for it. Still isn't certain that it's ideal for him.

But he has accepted it. Embraced it, even.

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And, in the process, has come to embody the team-first mentality that has contributed significantly to the Penguins' success this season.

There isn't much glory in being a backup goaltender, and usually not a lot of statistical satisfaction, either. Certainly, Thibault hasn't been spotted wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with his personal numbers (2-5-2 record, 3.29 goals-against, .896 save percentage) around the locker room lately.

But he makes a total commitment to his craft every day, routinely staying on the ice for extra work after practice, and has given the Penguins fairly reliable work when called upon.

And, perhaps more important, Thibault has been a good partner for No. 1 goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, offering advice and encouragement that have contributed to Fleury's excellent play.

"His job is to be a good professional, make sure he's ready and have a good attitude," coach Michel Therrien said. "And that's what he's doing."

Therrien hasn't named his goalie for the game against Chicago at 7:38 p.m. tomorrow at Mellon Arena, and his decision likely will hinge on which of two factors he deems most important at the time.

He likely wants to get Thibault some action soon, and using him against his former team has an undeniable appeal. Conversely, if Fleury spends the evening on the bench, he will go without any game action between a 6-5 overtime victory in Toronto Saturday and the Penguins' visit to New Jersey Friday.

Even if Thibault doesn't play against the Blackhawks, he's a good bet to get a start in the very near future. And probably several next month, when the Penguins will play 17 times in 31 days.

"With so many games coming up, I know I'll get the call," Thibault said. "I'll play some games."

His most recent start came in a 7-2 victory in Phoenix Jan. 27, when he turned aside 22 of 24 shots. That is the only time he has made it onto the ice in the past 13 games.

Thibault, who turned 32 Jan. 12, said this is the first time in his career he has been a clear-cut No. 2, but insists he is not upset or bitter about the niche he has been assigned.

"I understand the situation," he said. "I try to work as hard as I can every day ... to get back to where I was."

Unless Fleury is injured, that isn't likely to happen with this team, because Fleury is establishing himself as part of the Penguins' long-range nucleus. Fleury, though, can appreciate what it's like for someone like Thibault to be relegated to the supporting cast.

"I'm sure it is [difficult]," he said. "When you're a goalie, you want to play. He's handled himself very well, especially with me."

Therrien also praised the way Thibault interacts with Fleury -- "He's good with Marc-Andre. I think he's helped Fleury a lot" -- and Thibault underscored the strength of their partnership with lavish praise for Fleury's play, progress and potential.

"He's a great kid and I have a great relationship with him," Thibault said. "He's so talented. It's scary how good he is. He's getting so much better, more consistent.

"The talent has always been there, but he's a lot more under control, a lot more sound. He makes a lot more saves with his body. He doesn't seem as spectacular as he was last year or two years ago, but he's so much more effective."

How long they will work together is impossible to predict. Thibault's contract is up after this season, and it's conceivable that an offer to take over as the No. 1 somewhere else could lure him away.

Especially since he's no longer feeling the effects of two major hip surgeries in recent years.

"I'm 32, and I feel good now, feel healthy," he said. "I've improved a lot since last year, as far as getting my game back in shape.

"Sometimes, you get caught wondering what will happen, but I don't know. I'm so caught up in this season right now. Obviously, we're in a playoff situation."

And, even as the No. 2 goalie, Thibault can expect to play a significant role in helping to keep them there.

NOTES -- Jordan Staal became the youngest player in NHL history to record a hat trick when he scored three goals in Toronto. ... Former Penguins coach Eddie Olczyk, now an analyst on Blackhawks' telecasts, is scheduled to work tomorrow's game. ... Maple Leafs winger Kris Newbury is expected to be out about a week after taking a fierce beating from Penguins right winger Ronald Petrovicky in a third-period fight. The two had a 10-minute phone conversation Sunday. "I told him it wasn't his fault," Newbury told reporters yesterday. "He felt bad about what happened."

Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com .


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