Sunday, March 18, 2012

It Hiller Time ... and the Odds Aren't Against Him

By Larry Wigge

It's Hiller Time. Again.

Anaheim goaltender Jonas Hiller is rediscovering himself as one of the stingiest netminders in the NHL. In a league where the goalie is so important, the 30-year-old puckstopper is once again becoming the X-factor for the Ducks.

The 6-2, 194-pounder from Feiben Wellhausen, Switzerland, undrafted free agent, is the man in goal.

After stumbling through the first half of this season, Hiller has posted 18-8-5 red hot record with three shutouts since January 6 -- posting a 4-0 victory at Detroit March 14. He registered a 8-1-2 record in February. Only twice in that stretch had he given up as many as four goals.

Jonas played in a club record 30 consecutive games -- 30 straight games ... and counting.  Almost as if had never had the serious vertigo symptoms that affected him in the second half of last season and into the summer.

"All last summer, I didn't know what to expect," Hiller exclaimed. "Compared to the last time I skated at the end of last year before I left for back home, it's almost like night and day. After a couple of minutes then, I felt off. I couldn't see the puck properly. I felt it all over the place."

Sort of like the concussion problems going around the league today, but this was a goaltender who has to face shots coming at him at 100 mph. Picture this: The sight of a puck is sort of cloudy looking or fuzzy looking ...


"It wasn't until July that I started to feel symptom free," Hiller continued. "I'm feeling pretty sharp out there. I feel I can see the puck."

Still, Hiller soldiered on last season -- playing under less than ideal conditions.

No one knew what it was or how to treat it.

"You could see it in his eyes," Ducks winger Bobby Ryan said. "He was battling a little bit. I think I noticed it the most in the playoffs, having some suspension time and getting to skate with him a little more then and work with him one on one."

Instead of fighting through the symptoms, Hiller was told to stop skating and take time off. It wasn't until the middle of July when he returned to the ice at home in Switzerland at former Ducks goalie coach Francois Allaire's camp.

The workout sessions with Swiss club HC Bern proved promising. The improvement ever since led Hiller to declare in August that he was symptom-free, and he has been steadfast in stating that he's felt no recurrence in training camp.

"Compared to the last time I skated at the end of last year before I left for back home, it's almost like night and day," Hiller said. "After a couple of minutes then, I felt off. I couldn't see the puck properly. I felt it all over the place.

"If I have to turn my head too quickly, the vertigo comes back. Then it seems like panic mode in my head and I feel all over the place. It feels like I'm always like a second late. It takes me a second to realize what's going on, especially on plays from behind the net -- and that's not good in my profession."

Very bad indeed. He didn't expect the Ducks training camp to be anything different, with the inactivity and ...

"I feel I can see the puck," Hiller said confidently. "It's definitely a huge step forward. I took a big step forward and I'm not just walking in the same spot.

"Still, stopping the puck will take time."

That's why it took Hiller the first half of the season to round into the X-factor. Small steps, you see.

One can say Hiller is playing the same spectacular hockey that made him an All-Star last season right before his apparent case of vertigo struck, going 17-8-5 with a 1.90 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage during the streak. Those statistics would put Hiller among the NHL's top handful of goalies if he hadn't struggled along with his teammates during the first half of the season.

"He's a star in this league, for sure," Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf said. "He gives us a chance to win every night and he gives us a chance to win some nights we shouldn't. And that's what you need your starting goalie to do."

With an untested person in goal, the Ducks changed coaches along the way. New coach Bruce Boudreau has become quite the fan of Hiller.

"He's been all we had some nights out there," Boudreau said. "He's been a professional about the amount we're playing him -- and it's working out well for us. I don't have to worry about whether he's ready to go. He's always been ready, every time."

Jonas Hiller reverted to the same undrafted, untested rookie he was when he tried out for the Ducks and St. Louis at 24.

He caught their attention while playing with Joe Thornton and Rick Nash in Switzerland during the NHL lockout. This tall and talented Swiss puckstopper -- who some might say came from nowhere.

He made it to the NHL -- no matter what age.

"I won championships back home in Switzerland, but this is the most fun I've had in hockey," Hiller said. "I can't wait to get up in the morning."

"Everyone looks at him as a rookie, but he's not a raw rookie at all," said former Ducks coach Randy Carlyle. "He's 27 years old, he's won two Swiss Elite League championships (actually three in Davos in 2002, 2005 and 2007, and Spengler Cup titles against Canada in 2004 and 2007. "He's big. He doesn't give shooters much to look at. And he really works hard to be square to every shot. Most of all, he's back there battling for his team every night."

Hiller has a quiet demeanor off the ice, but he's every bit the fierce competitor in that 4 by 6 foot goal crease.

"He battles for every puck," said Chicago's Marian Hossa. "We need to get rebounds against him, plain and simple."

"There's a reason why he's put up such good numbers," said Detroit's Tomas Holmstrom. "He's good low ... and when he's on his knees he covers a lot of the top of the net as well.

"We need traffic in front of him. We think there will be rebounds."

Francois Allaire did a lot of arm twisting to get Anaheim's management to give Hiller a try.

"An NHL goalie is not something you find on every corner of the street," said Allaire, who has trained more than 40 NHL goaltenders over the years, most notably Patrick Roy, Roberto Luongo, Giguere and Marc-Andre Fleury. "It's rare, rare, rare kind of people. You have, what, thousands and thousands of doctors in this country? Only 60 goaltenders."

There was a smile on Allaire's face like a proud father when he speaks of Hiller, whom he first began to work with 10 years ago at one of Francois' goaltending camps in Verbier, Switzerland, where he's worked with NHL goalies Martin Gerber and David Aebischer in the past.

"I remember thinking, 'He's big and athletic, the kind of goalies I like to work with,' " Allaire explained. "Most of all, he wanted to stop pucks ... and like all Swiss players he was quiet, he'd listen and he has a great work habit.

"I started telling our people in Anaheim about him several years ago when I knew there was something exceptional about him."

Former Ducks general manager Brian Burke took some heat after he outbid a dozen other clubs for Hiller on May 25, 2007 during Anaheim's Stanley Cup run while he still had Giguere and promising Ilya Bryzgalov under contract at a time when the team was having salary cap problems. But Burke thought so highly of Hiller that he waived Bryzgalov, losing him to the Phoenix Coyotes.

"Frankie (Allaire) wanted to sign him three years before anyone else really took notice of him," Burke explained.

But Hiller, who said it came down to three teams -- Anaheim, St. Louis and Edmonton  -- wasn't sure he was ready to make such a big jump from Davos of the Swiss Elite League to the NHL.

"I was patient. I didn't want to rush it," Hiller explained. "I wanted to be sure back home what I'm capable of. I made the step at the right point."

He paused to think about where he was and where he is now and then continued, "I never really dreamed it could happen because it was just too far away. I was never in the junior national team. I was never drafted. When I was younger, people told me I'd always be a backup. Even my parents wondered if I shouldn't do something else. But I told them, 'It might not look like it, but I feel like I'm getting closer and closer.' "

"He kind of came out of nowhere over there, to be honest with you," Thornton said in the first round of the playoffs when Hiller beat Thornton's San Jose Sharks. "He just blossomed into a great goalie, actually, my first year there."

From undrafted puckstopper to a developing prospect to a sought-after free agent to starting goaltender in the NHL playoffs in just a few years.

"I'll never forget my first game in the NHL ... in London ... I wasn’t expecting to play that soon. It was kind of funny," Hiller said, with a halting excitement in his voice. "At that moment I didn't realize it. To play in this league, which I was probably dreaming about before childhood and wasn't even close to being here three years before that. This whole process, it's been a dream come true."

Dream? Gerhard and Esther Hiller brought basketball to Jonas' attention early -- Gerhard was a basketball coach when he wasn't working at a printing company in Felben Wellhausen and Esther was a member of the Swiss national basketball team and is a sport teacher.

"People were always telling me that I should play basketball, but hockey was my sport -- even if my parents didn't always understand," Hiller said, saying that he started out as a forward, then played both forward and in goal until I was 12 and began playing goalie full-time.

Now, Hiller chooses to relax in the summer by playing tennis and water sports. But what he loves most is lifting the hood of a car and tinkering at home with some of his buddies he grew up with.

Except last summer ... when everything was fuzzy and cloudy for him.

But Jonas Hiller knew he could make it back to the NHL. After all, he had done it before ... with the odds against him more.

No comments:

Post a Comment