Plus: Leclaire has surgery after finally figuring out what was wrong with his groin (hint: it wasn’t his groin); Did Thomas locked up the Vezina with another shutout; and more in the March 30 update

Al Montoya, seen here doing backside recovery drills in the AHL, is making the most of his NHL opportunity with the Islanders. (InGoal Photo)

When InGoal Magazine last crossed paths with Al Montoya early this season, he wasn’t even the starting goalie with the Phoenix Coyotes’ American Hockey League affiliate in San Antonio.

The former first-round draft pick was, however, confident he still had what it takes to be an NHL regular. After battling through a shoulder injury, Montoya insisted then that the only thing keeping him out of the big leagues was an opportunity.

“You know what it is, it’s a long haul. That’s what it is, and I’m here to battle,” Montoya said after walking InGoal through a backside recovery drill he’d been working on during practice. If his words showed inner confidence, the work he put in that day – on his own, with no goalie coach making him stay long after teammates had left – proved he was willing to do the work.

“I know what I have to to do,” Montoya said. “I know what I can do. I’ve played in the NHL. I’ve played against those players.”

Montoya finally got the chance to play against them again after the New York Islanders, plagued by an unprecedented run of injuries in the crease, acquired him from Phoenix for a sixth round pick in early February. And true to his word and firm belief way back in November, when he was struggling with an AHL save percentage below .900, he has shown he belongs in the big leagues.

Montoya went 8-4-4 with a 2.35 goals-against average and .923 save percentage – the best numbers of the seven goalie to play for New York this season – before being rewarded by the Islanders Tuesday with the first one-way contract of his career.

Chosen sixth overall by the rival New York Rangers way back in 2004, the 26-year-old finally has a home on Long Island. And the Islanders didn’t risk losing Montoya as a Group 6 unrestricted free agent on July 1, providing some stability alongside the oft-injured Rick Dipietro while youngsters like Kevin Poulin and Mikko Koskinen get more time to mature in the AHL.

“We’d been talking about (a new deal) for the last little while,” Montoya told NHL.com. “I’m just excited we got it done and that I’m going to be staying with this organization. I guess that’s how it works sometimes. I was coming back from an injury and had to take advantage of the playing time I was given. Every day, you’re fighting for a job. I’m very grateful for this opportunity.”

The next challenge for Montoya, who relies on rhythm a bit more than some other goalies, will be staying sharp if he doesn’t get as much playing time behind a healthier Dipietro. But as he has already proven, challenges are something Montoya embraces.

Leclaire has surgery after finally figuring out groin pain a hip problem

Pascal Leclaire has taken a lot of heat in Ottawa for his inability to stay healthy this season, but after finding out he needs surgery to repair a torn hip labrum maybe some of the ire should be directed at the Senators’ medical staff.

After all, chronic groin pulls have long been identified as typical of a torn hip labrum in goaltenders, largely because the other muscles around the lower abdominal region are trying to compensate to hold the hip joint in place.

Not that Leclaire and the Senators are the first to struggle with the diagnosis. Vesa Toskala was ripped for being lazy before the Maple Leafs finally figured out he was playing on one leg after originally misdiagnosing the injury, and both Dan Cloutier and Jordan Parise were lucky to be walking after misdiagnosis by the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils, respectively, left them trying to play through what turned out to be badly torn labrums. The diagnosis problem was outlined in a Sports Illustrated article two years ago, but clearly that hasn’t been enough to prevent recurrences, even in the NHL:

“We have to educate not only the trainers but the owners. We have to educate everybody,” renowned hip surgeon Marc Philippon, who operated on Leclaire, said in the article. “If they keep playing, they can end up with arthritis and then they can’t play at all. They’re done. Unfortunately, I’m sure that was the case with a lot of players in the past.”

Leclaire was trying to play through the pain as late as Feb. 28 – in the AHL – despite having problems most of the season.

“I played on one leg basically, I played with a bunch of painkillers and I had to test it out and then it didn’t work out at all,” Leclaire told the Ottawa Citizen earlier this week. “It’s the same problem that has been going on all year and it just took time to figure it out, but you kind of have to go through those motions. It shows up as groin pain, you have an MRI, and it shows inflammation of the groin, so you treat it like that, but after that you see it doesn’t heal and you search for other things and that’s how we found out.”

As for the future, it will be easy to write off the oft-injured goaltender, even after this latest revelation. Long before the hip injury, Leclaire’s overactive style of play left him hurt more than most. But he’s also proven when he is healthy, he can play at the level required of an NHL No.1. He’ll likely have to take a step back to get that chance again – maybe even all the way back to the AHL – but Leclaire sounded confident he would be back in the NHL now that he’s finally figured out what was wrong.

“Right now, fix my leg, that’s the most important thing,” he told The Citizen. “And after that, we’ll figure something out. That’s why we have agents. I have a lot of confidence in Don Meehan. I haven’t become a bad goalie because I got hurt. … I still see myself as an NHL goalie. I don’t care if a couple of you guys don’t think so. I know I will be back.”

Doubting Thomas for Vezina Trophy getting harder

Boston Bruins Goalie Tim Thomas

Boston Bruins Goalie Tim Thomas goes all out to stop pucks. (Scott Slingsby photo)


Maybe they just want to add intrigue to a runaway race. Maybe they really believe in the alternatives. Whatever the case, the observers trying to make a case for any name other than Tom Thomas being engraved on the Vezina Trophy this season is going to have an even tougher time now. Thomas improved his eye-popping, NHL-leading statistics with a 32-save shutout of Chicago Tuesday.

It was his ninth blanking of the season, and while it’s true that trails New York Rangers’ saviour Henrik Lundqvist by two, Thomas is just too far ahead in the other key statistical categories not to win his second Vezina Trophy in three seasons. After stopping 112 of 155 shots while winning his last four starts, Thomas leads the NHL in goals-against average (1.96) and save percentage (.940).

The latter number, by the way, would represent a modern NHL record, surpassing the .9366 save percentage of Buffalo’s Dominik Hasek during 1998-99 (ironically not one of his two Hart Trophy seasons as league MVP). Thomas also owns a share of the third-highest mark, a .9327 he posted while winning his first Vezina in 2008-09, tied with Miikka Kiprusoff and Dwayne Roloson, both posted in 2003-04, before the game was opened up significantly by post-lockout rule changes designed to create more offense.

So while some might point to his games played as a negative – his 53 are 15 fewer than Carey Price in Montreal – it’s getting harder and harder to see anyone other than Thomas winning the Vezina Trophy this season. And while others can argue goalies like Price and Lundqvist are more valuable to their teams because of their workload and the fact those teams simply aren’t as good, overall, Thomas is also starting to gain traction as a Hart Trophy candidate himself, which is warranted if you ask teammate Mark Recchi:

“Timmy has been out of this world since our exhibition game in Czech,” Recchi told NHL.com after Tuesday’s big win over Chicago. “Since then he’s been unconscious. What has he had maybe one poor start, maybe. He’s our best player.”

One-timers from around the Goaltending World (Wide Web):

~ Not being able to find the puck after making a save is a sensation every goaltender at every level has experienced, and it’s usually accompanied by a little guilt about the size of their equipment – after all, shouldn’t you know where it is, or be able to feel it, at least a little? Edmonton’s Nikolai Khabibulin was unfortunate enough to have his lost puck make the highlight reels Tuesday (of course the way this season has gone for the Oilers and their goalies he was probably just relieved it didn’t turn up in the net:

~ On a (slightly) more positive note, Buffalo’s Ryan Miller turned in this save-of-the-night highlight Tuesday night (below). Of course Miller would probably trade it for a win, especially after giving up an earlier softie as the Maple Leafs and rookie James Reimer (28 saves) kept their slim playoff hopes alive with a 4-3 win over the Sabres to move within five points of Miller’s eighth-place squad:

~ As mentioned in the last update, Detroit got welcome medical news when an MRI showed no significant damage to Jimmy Howard’s shoulder after getting run over by Joffrey Lupul on Saturday night. Red Wings General Manager confirmed to NHL.com that Howard, who practiced Tuesday, could be back as early as Wednesday, and won’t be out longer than the next game, on Saturday: “I would think there is a possibility he dresses for the St. Louis game, but if he’s not ready I would fully expect him to play Saturday,” Holland said.

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