Former ECHL Goaltenders Provide
AHL Hartford With Formidable Duo Note: Jason LaBarbera played in the ECHL with Charlotte (2000-02). Steve Valiquette played in the ECHL with Dayton (1996-97), Hampton Roads (1998-99) and Trenton (1999-2000).

By Neil Stevens
Canadian Press

Jason LaBarbera and Steve Valiquette give the Hartford Wolf Pack the best 1-2 goaltending punch in the AHL.

LaBarbera, last season’s league MVP and headed for the all-star game next Monday in Manchester, N.H., has played 34 games, and Valiquette has been in 23 for the Wolf Pack, who are fifth in the overall standings. Because both want to start every game, it helps that they are friends.

“It’s been a good situation,” says LaBarbera. “We’re both in the same kind of situation, too – last year of our contracts and playing a similar style.”

One or both might be with the parent New York Rangers if not for the NHL lockout but they are not wasting their time fretting about that. Promotions will eventually come.

“I’m a pretty patient guy so I understand how the whole goalie thing works,” says LaBarbera, 25. “You’re trying to get better, wherever you are.”

The six-foot-two native of Prince George, B.C., played junior hockey for the Portland Winter Hawks and has been in the Rangers’ organization since they drafted him seven years ago. He’s been in only five big-league games.

“You just need a chance,” says LaBarbera. “That’s what everybody needs – somebody to believe in you.”

A lot of people will believe in both LaBarbera and Valiquette by the time this AHL season is over.

“If I was to assess the situation from a negative viewpoint, I could say, ‘Hey, I’m not in the NHL and I’m getting older,”‘ says Valiquette, 27. “But where would that get me? Nowhere.”

LaBarbera has a .925 save percentage while Valiquette is at .934.

“He could be a No. 1 goalie on most other teams in this league,” LaBarbera says of his teammate.

Valiquette, a six-foot-six native of Toronto, played most of his junior hockey for the Sudbury Wolves and he was with minor-pro teams in Ohio, Virginia, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Connecticut, Edmonton and Toronto before landing in Hartford. Oh, he squeezed in nine NHL games with the New York Islanders, Edmonton Oilers and New York Rangers over the years. The Rangers got him in the deal that sent Petr Nedved to Edmonton last March.

“Have pads will travel,” he says with a chuckle. “I was with the Islanders for five years and we never had a really good farm system.

“They shuffled us all over the place. Until they got their act together and put a team in Bridgeport (Conn.) I moved a lot. I was with four teams in one year.”

That happened again last season, too, and then came the uncertainty created by the lockout.

“The season has been difficult for a lot of people in hockey,” says Valiquette. “Jason and I have to share the netminding here because of the lockout but both of us are pleased with how it has panned out.”

The satisfaction quotient has been upped by the ongoing presence of Rangers assistant coach Benoit Allaire, a longtime goaltending tutor.

“He’s an easy guy to talk to and to ask questions of,” says LaBarbera. “It’s more of a partnership than anything.”

Having Allaire at their disposal has taken both goalies to the next level, says Valiquette.

“We’ve received so much attention, attention we wouldn’t have got without the lockout,” he says. “Benoit gets on the ice for a half hour with us before practice and everything he shows us has helped simplify our game.

“I don’t think I would have progressed like that without his help. It’s been a real positive experience for me. It’s been a blessing.”

Allaire breaks down video of each game and shows it to the goalies twice in varying speeds.

“It’s fun to work on something all week then bring it into the game on the weekend,” says Valiquette.

The Rochester Americans are No. 1 in the overall standings and, relying almost solely on Ryan Miller, have a 2.12 goals-against average.

The Manchester Monarchs are No. 2 and, with Mathieu Garon in net most nights, they also are allowing only 2.12 goals a game.

The next-best GAA in the AHL, 2.14, belongs to the Wolf Pack, who alternate LaBarbera and Valiquette.

Hartford has slipped slightly in the last month.

“We’ve been kind of up and down and things haven’t gone quite the way I expected,” says LaBarbera. “But that’s the way it goes.

“I’ve been pretty happy with the season. Hopefully we can get out of the little slump we’re in. It’s such a competitive league this year with so many players who could be in the NHL. Every game is tight.”

LaBarbera or Valiquette keep the Wolf Pack in contention most nights.

“Of course,” replies Valiquette when asked if he’s still aiming for a full-time job in the big league. “It feels like every day is a learning experience.

“I’m a student of the game. I have every game I’ve played in on file. I have a computer program I cut up video with. I just want to put it all on the ice. It’s been exciting that way.”

© The Canadian Press 2005