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Even the son of Gretzky wanted to meet Brian Boucher. So, on Valentine's Day, after the Phoenix Coyotes had beaten the Dallas Stars, Wayne, part-owner of the Coyotes and the best hockey player ever, brought his three-year-old, Tristan, with him to the locker room of the brand-new arena. But Boucher...
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Even the son of Gretzky wanted to meet Brian Boucher.

So, on Valentine's Day, after the Phoenix Coyotes had beaten the Dallas Stars, Wayne, part-owner of the Coyotes and the best hockey player ever, brought his three-year-old, Tristan, with him to the locker room of the brand-new arena. But Boucher (pronounced "BOO-shay") wasn't around.

"Is Boucher okay?" Wayne asked of the 27-year old goalie.

Gretzky was told Boucher was fine -- simply washing up.

Tristan didn't like that.

So word was sent out that Tristan Gretzky wanted to meet Brian Boucher. Within moments, Boucher reappeared, still needing a shower, still in the blue sweat pants and long-sleeve tee shirt he wore beneath his pads.

"All right," Wayne said, looking at Tristan, "What do you say to Boosh? Say good game."

But Tristan said nothing. He just stared. Wayne grew frustrated and told Boucher that Tristan wanted to see him in his mask.

Boucher put the mask on. And then it happened, something as improbable as a shutout streak from a Coyote goalie. You could see it in Tristan's eyes: He, the son of Wayne Gretzky, was in complete awe of Brian Boucher.

It was the fearsome mask, painted like a brick wall, for the three-year-old. Or maybe, as for Tristan's dad -- the Great One -- it was the streak.

Just a month earlier, Boucher had gone five games without allowing a goal, making him -- at least for the moment -- the Tiger Woods of hockey. Boucher's record could last as long as Joe DiMaggio's 1941 56-game hitting streak. After all, the record stood for 55 years before Boucher broke it in mid-January.

After the streak, people wanted to know the man behind the mask. What was Boucher like, this sudden superstar? What was he thinking?

Well, to know Boucher is to know this: He doesn't enjoy telling people what he's like. He doesn't want the attention. He'll tell you that up front, the first time you meet him. And he'll also say, in the days following the streak, that he's relieved the pressure is over, that people are finally talking about something else.

Boucher is a private person. He denied New Times' repeated requests to interview his wife, his father, to see his house, to meet his son. Over the course of a month, after every home game and practice, Boucher capped his interviews at 20 minutes. After that, he'd seek treatment for his joints, or head out for lunch, or head home to his family -- alone.

"It's tough for anyone to get inside Brian's head," says Bryan Berard, Boucher's best friend, who's now a defenseman for the Chicago Blackhawks.

This is not to say that Boucher's rude. He's courteous and thoughtful and funny -- he can be very funny -- and not at all like so many athletes today. Which is to say he's humble.

This season's humbled him for sure.

It couldn't have started off worse. The Coyotes put him up for grabs at the start of the year; all another team had to do was match his $2 million salary. (That's not the highest in the National Hockey League, but it's not bad, either.) When no other team wanted him, Phoenix kept Boucher, but demoted him to the bottom of the heap, as third-string goalie. He went weeks without practicing with the team. Then back-up goalie Zac Bierk pulled his groin. With time, Boucher saw more minutes, made more starts.

And then he broke NHL Hall of Famer Bill Durnan's 55-year-old record.

And then he went 13 games without a win, as of presstime.

As quickly as he rose to prominence, Boucher has fallen. With the season one game from complete at press time, it's easy to judge Boucher's streak as a fluke.

But that's not right. Brian Boucher is a good goalie, at times the best goalie in the NHL. He's a first-round draft pick who, in 2000, became the first rookie in 50 years to allow fewer than two goals a game. In fact his 1.91 GAA -- or goals-against average, which means how many goals a contest Boucher allowed -- was the best in the league that rookie year. Boucher led the Philadelphia Flyers to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2000 while John Vanbiesbrouck, a former Goalie of the Year winner, sat on the bench.

That Flyers team in 2000 had talent. This Coyotes team in 2004 does not. And that's one reason Boucher has struggled since the streak: Hockey is, after all, a team sport.

But it's not the only reason.

Throughout his career on the ice, even as a teenager, Brian Boucher has had lapses in confidence.

"His biggest battle is with himself," says Coyotes head coach Rick Bowness, who took over the team on February 24 after Bobby Francis was fired during the midst of the Coyotes' -- and Boucher's -- woes.

One day in early March, Boucher stops to talk after practice. His team has gone seven games without a win. "I'd like to think [my confidence] is still there," he says. "But it's a battle. You start questioning yourself after goals. Could you have done something differently? You're thinking rather than just reacting and playing."

When he has confidence, there may be no one better. When he doesn't, there are few worse.

It's tough to be a goalie, says Bob Clarke, the Flyers general manager who drafted and, eventually, traded Boucher. But with confidence in himself and a good defense in front of him, Boucher could be the best in the league.

"I just hope he's not as hard on himself as he once was," Clarke says.

Boucher says he isn't, says he's learned to let losses go and not think about his past struggles. But a few days after he said this, when Bob Clarke's name is mentioned after practice -- a little over a month after the streak has ended, as Boucher's game has gone from perfect to exceptional to mediocre -- Boucher shakes his head, and cuts the conversation short. There's an uncharacteristic scowl on his face.

"Why did you talk to him?" he asks sharply. " I don't know if I want to hear what Bob Clarke has to say."

One hour south of Boston, in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, inside the Box Seats tavern on River Street, there is a photo hanging on the wall above table two. It's instructive, this photo. It shows Brian Boucher, the local boy from the middle-class family in this working-class French-Canadian town, on the day he was drafted in 1995. It shows Bryan Berard, Boucher's best friend since kindergarten, standing next to him. Berard lived five minutes from Boucher and as the two grew up, Berard over-shadowed each of Boucher's athletic accomplishments. Including this one, the day this photo was snapped and Boucher was drafted. Because, you see, Berard was drafted, too -- as the first-overall pick. Boucher went later that round.

No, there's no headline above the photo reading, "BERARD PICKED FIRST; BOUCHER ALSO SELECTED." But there might as well be. More than the history of their friendship, this photo shows the confidence of each hockey player.

Look at Berard. Shoulders back, chin up, eyes narrowed, lips pursed. He knew he'd be the first pick. And he knew it long before anyone else did.

Now, look at Boucher. Mouth slightly agape, shoulders hunched and leaning toward Berard's, eyes wide and searching. He looks slightly awkward in his Flyers jersey, unsure of something -- perhaps what the picture could expose.

There are many pictures of them together as kids. They were inseparable. "Brian was our other son," says Pam Berard, mother of Bryan and six other sons and daughters.

What drew one Brian to the other was the competitive drive they shared. They were both clearly born with it, though Boucher admits his was helped along by two older brothers who also wanted only to win. In every backyard game the two Brians played, in every class they took, they wanted nothing more than to beat one another.

Except in hockey. Boucher and Berard were teammates there, Boucher playing goalie because no one else would, Berard playing defense because no one else was better.

"We won a lot of championships," Berard says now, reached by phone. He, like his old friend, is reticent. Even Berard's mom laughingly points that out.

Both enrolled at the private high school in town, Mount Saint Charles Academy, otherwise known as the "Hockey Factory." The school, to date, has won 26 consecutive state titles. Six Mount Saint Charles alum currently play in the NHL.

None of those alum received more praise while at Mount than Bryan Berard. As a freshman, he started varsity. As a sophomore, he made All-State. Later that year, he was named the most valuable player in the Esso Cup in Quebec with the U.S. Select 16 team.

Boucher? Boucher played jayvee as a freshman, missed the cut with the U.S. Select team and split time between jayvee and varsity as a sophomore. There were times that year, as Boucher played jayvee, that he wondered if he had a future in the game. He was his toughest critic, says David Belisle, son of Bill and an assistant coach at Mount Saint Charles. (Bill wasn't available on the day New Times called, so David, who's worked with his dad for years and knows the history well, recounted it.)

Bill, though, believed in Boucher even then. "He knew he had a good talent in Brian Boucher," says David. Why, then, was Boucher demoted to jayvee? "My father will send goalies down to make them work hard or focus . . . or get them upset or mad enough to prove to coach that he shouldn't have sent them down there."

With Boucher, it worked. His junior year he won the starting job. The games were easy; Mount Saint Charles was so dominant, Boucher saw maybe 10 shots a contest. But the practices? Bill Belisle never let up there, Boucher says. Behind closed doors, Belisle yelled at Boucher until he'd perfected the form he uses today: a stand-up approach to goaltending that calls for athleticism and a keen sense of shooting angles. Boucher was expected, in those practices, to let no puck pass, even in two- or three-on-none drills.

"You'd learn to battle," Boucher says now. "[Bill] definitely pushed me."

Says David Belisle, "My father is usually toughest on the superstars."

And after his junior year, that's what Brian Boucher was. That summer, he joined Berard on the U.S. Select 17 team competing in La Copa, Mexico. The team took home the silver medal.

In the fall, Boucher left Mount for a Canadian academy, the Wexford Raiders of the Metropolitan Toronto Hockey League. Playing for Wexford, Boucher reasoned, increased his chances of landing a college scholarship.

Wexford was a mistake. Boucher wasn't getting minutes. So one weekend he and his father visited Spokane, Washington and the Major Junior Hockey team there, the Tri-City Americans. "The thing was I loved it so much I never came back to Wexford," Boucher says. He lost his college eligibility in the process, but since the NHL was still the goal, Boucher was willing to try another path.

He won 17 games that year in Spokane. The NHL was certainly impressed. In 1995, its scouting bureau ranked Boucher one of the three best amateur goalies in North America.

The next step: the NHL draft in Edmonton, that summer.

Berard had had a stellar year in the Ontario Hockey League. He was a lock for the number-one pick. The speculation was that Boucher would be drafted in the second round. The Rhode Island media, looking for perspective, asked Boucher the day before the draft what he thought of his best friend. Boucher rattled on about how much he'd learned from Berard -- how he's a nice guy, keeps a level head.

And then Boucher said something telling. "He's extremely gifted. It's what makes him special," Boucher told the Providence Journal Bulletin. "I don't know if I have that in me."

The next day, Berard was picked first, going to the Ottawa Senators. No surprise there. Boucher celebrated his friend's achievement in the stands alongside the Berard family. When order was restored, the Bouchers and Berards settled in, waiting for the second round.

But then Bob Clarke, the general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers, stepped to the podium. He had a first round pick to make, and he was looking for a goalie. He'd spent many days discussing with his scouts who'd be the best selection. They all said Brian Boucher.

After his name was announced, many photos were taken of Boucher. In one of them, the one that now hangs in Box Seats, the tavern on River Street in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, Boucher stands next to his best friend, Bryan Berard, with stooped shoulders, a Flyers cap on his head and a slightly stunned look on his face.

He wasn't stunned for long.

"I felt like I belonged," he says now, of his next two seasons in Spokane. Indeed, there was levity to the way Boucher goal-tended. "He was just so calm and poised," says Scott Bonner, a former scout with the Tri-City Americans. "He was never shocked. He just went with the groove."

Throughout Boucher's career, people have commented on the moments of Zen he has. Not surprisingly, they coincide with periods of great play.

In 1996, Boucher won 33 games for the Americans. In 1997, he was named Goalie of the Year. "There was definitely nothing I felt I couldn't handle," he says. That summer, he led the U.S Junior team to the silver medal at the World Championships.

The Flyers had seen enough. By the fall of 1997, Boucher was playing for the Philadelphia Phantoms of the American Hockey League, one small step from the NHL.

Boucher had trouble making that step.

He pushed too hard. Put too much pressure on himself. He wanted to make it to the NHL now, yesterday. When that didn't happen, Boucher says, he lost confidence.

He spent the year as the back-up goalie, watching from the bench as starter Neal Little and the Phantoms won the Calder Cup, the league championship.

The following year, telling himself to think as he had in Tri-City, Boucher won the Phantoms starting job. Then he tore cartilage in his right knee. And then his left. As Boucher rehabbed, back-up goalie Jean-Marc Pelletier proved himself as a starter.

By the spring of '99, after he'd returned from the surgeries, Boucher heard the rumors of a possible trade. The day of the deadline, he couldn't get the local radio station in his condo, so he sat in his pickup and listened for hours. But the news of a trade never came.

It was Boucher's second chance. And just as he had after his sophomore year of high school, Boucher bounced back, finishing the season with 20 wins and a 0.911 save percentage. He won nine playoff games that year. After the season, Boucher got a call from the Flyers goalie coach, Rejean Lemelin.

"Be ready for camp," Lemelin said.

Boucher was 22.

Philadelphia is a tough place to be an NHL player. First, there is Bob Clarke, the Flyers general manager. He once called former Flyer Eric Lindros a "baby" for nursing his injuries at a time when Lindros was the greatest -- and toughest -- player in the league.

Then, there's the Philadelphia press corps. When Boucher is asked why he doesn't read the Arizona papers, he says, with a smirk, "Philly."

And finally, there are the Flyers fans. "They want champions," Boucher says -- and nothing else.

And who's to blame when the team falls short of the Stanley Cup?

The goalie.

Boucher knew what Philadelphia could be like, how quickly it could turn on a player, so he decided to move slowly, learning all he could from John Vanbiesbrouck, the Flyers starter and former Vezina winner (the NHL's Goalie of the Year).

Initially, Boucher impressed the Flyers. He played well in practice. As the season progressed, head coach Craig Ramsay gave Boucher more game experience. "He looks confident," Ramsay says he remembers thinking at the time. "If he keeps this up, I'm going to start him."

By the All-Star break in February, with Vanbiesbrouck playing poorly, Ramsay and the front office had a discussion.

Boucher was named the starting goalie. His first game would come a few days later against Toronto -- and its star defenseman, Bryan Berard.

In Woonsocket the night of the game, the Bouchers watched the game at the Berards' home, along with whoever else the house could hold. Pam Berard remembers Boucher telling her, a day before the game, that he wanted to, first and foremost, stop Berard from scoring.

He did. Boucher flipped aside each of Bryan's attempts. The Flyers won.

Boucher finished the season with 20 wins. The 1.91 goals a game he allowed was best in the league and the lowest for a rookie in 50 years. When Boucher was named the playoff starter, he did nothing more than nod his head. "That's what I liked about him," Ramsay says now. "He wasn't overwhelmed by anything."

Which is not to say Boucher wasn't tested -- especially during the 2000 playoffs.

In the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, the Pittsburgh Penguins won the first two games in Philadelphia. Livid fans called the all-sports radio stations, cursing Ramsay for keeping in that bum of a goalie. But Ramsay never swayed, starting Boucher in Game 3, which the Flyers won in overtime.

In Game 4, the Penguins' Alexei Kovalev's slap shot gave Pittsburgh the early lead. It was the Penguins first shot of the night. It would not be the last.

The game was tied at one at the end of regulation.

By the fourth overtime, with the game still tied at one, sweat from Boucher's socks had drenched the inside of his skates. He could hear a squishy sound as he moved back and forth on the ice. He had stood in goal for over six hours. It was nearly 2 a.m.

In the fifth overtime, with cramps nearly shaking his body, Boucher played his best. The Penguins were desperate and the Flyers defense exhausted. Boucher stopped eight shots in that period alone. Then, after 152 minutes and 1 second of play, the Flyers Keith Primeau banked one off the crossbar and past Penguins goalie Ron Tugnutt for a 2-1 victory. In a must-win game, on the road, after letting the first shot of the night slip by, Boucher had stopped the next 57, 19 of them from Kovalev and Jaromir Jagr, two of the NHL's best scorers. Game 4 started on a Thursday at 7:38 p.m. and ended on Friday morning at 2:35 EST.

It was the third-longest NHL game in history, and the longest in 64 years. And the only Philadelphia Flyer to not come off the ice was a rookie from Woonsocket, R.I.

After the game, his teammate, Mark Recchi, told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "He's no rookie anymore."

The Flyers beat the Penguins in six games. They then took the New Jersey Devils to the seventh-game of the Eastern Conference Finals, before losing at home.

Philly fans, as always, were outraged. But the future looked bright.

Boucher spent the summer of 2000 at home in Woonsocket, 287 miles from the droves of fans that now adored him. He recalls that he worked out in the mornings, golfed in the afternoons (he's a two-handicap) and spent nights with his wife, Melissa. They were wed the previous summer. Melissa Lauzon is a Woonsocket girl Boucher had had a crush on since elementary school. Their days together that summer of 2000 were peaceful. Boucher's future seemed set.

The Flyers had traded Vanbiesbrouck to the New York Islanders. Boucher was now the unquestioned starter. His agent, Tom Laidlaw, thought he should be paid like one.

Back and forth Clarke and Laidlaw went. Finally, on August 31, days before camp opened, the Flyers caved, giving the 23-year old Boucher a two-year contract worth $3.1 million. With bonuses included, the deal paid out nearly $4 million. For a goalie, it was one of the best contracts in the league.

The reason Clarke was hesitant to award it extended beyond Boucher's relative inexperience. A big contract puts too much pressure on a young player, Clarke says. The young player tries to justify his new money, which often leads to forced play, which leads to poor play.

Boucher had stayed in Woonsocket during negotiations. After the deal was done, he came to camp nervous, he now admits, thinking he needed to justify the money he was about to make.

After an opening day victory over Vancouver, the Flyers lost three of their next four games.

"It can't be one person's fault for losing," says Clarke. "Yet Brian would take responsibility for the whole team."

Boucher was giving up a horrendous 4.52 goals a game. The Flyers record continued to dip. In Boucher's mind, his rookie season was now an aberration. After a loss in mid-October, Ramsay sat him for two games. He thought a small vacation would give Boucher perspective.

It didn't. His first game back, at the end of October, Philadelphia beat the New York Rangers, snapping a seven-game losing streak. It was cause for celebration. But in the post-game interview, Boucher talked instead about the last goal he gave up.

The following day, in practice, the Flyers swarmed the crease, in three-on-one and three-on-none drills. After about half a dozen pucks slipped by him, Boucher took his stick and smashed it on the cross bar, over and over again, huge chunks of wood flying everywhere. His teammates stared at Boucher, mouths open.

"Did you watch me in practice? I stunk. I was awful," Boucher told the Philadelphia Daily News afterward. "Ever get angry? Ever want to break something? I broke something."

Boucher admits that he's a perfectionist, who wanted, in that tense second season, to stop "everything."

When it didn't happen, Clarke says the goals and losses "ate away" at Boucher. Off the ice, Melissa did her best to calm her husband, Boucher says, but on it, there wasn't another goalie Boucher could relate to. Vanbiesbrouck was gone and Boucher's back-up, Roman Cechmanek, a native of Czechoslavakia, didn't speak English and hungered for minutes.

And as Boucher's losses piled up, Cechmanek got minutes. In mid-November, after replacing Boucher in a loss at Pittsburgh -- of all places -- Cechmanek was named the starter. By the end of the season, Cechmanek had won 35 times and played in the All-Star game.

Boucher? He finished the year with only eight wins.

He finished the following year, the 2001-02 season, much better, with 18 wins, but his confidence was still an issue with the Flyers brass. "We always felt he would eventually overcome it," Clarke says. "But the confidence he got after a good game couldn't replace the confidence he lost after a bad one."

In June, Clarke traded Boucher to the Phoenix Coyotes.

For Boucher, it was a clean start on a young team in a city that -- to be kind -- didn't know hockey as well as Philadelphians. Phoenix was Boucher's chance to regain his confidence. And he could learn from Benoit Allaire, one of the best goalie coaches around.

Before the 2002-03 season began, Allaire persuaded Boucher to try the "hybrid," a different style of goaltending that basically called for Boucher to drop to his knees more often to make a save. This stood in stark contrast from Boucher's standup approach he'd used since childhood.

Still, Boucher was willing to try. After all, the previous year Allaire had turned Sean Burke, Phoenix's number one goalie, from an average net-minder into a Vezina trophy finalist, all while using the hybrid.

In late October, while Boucher was still perfecting his technique in practice, Burke went down with an injury. He started 28 of the next 30 games.

He struggled.

One night, Emile "Cat" Francis, the father of Coyotes head coach Bob Francis, told Boucher to return to what had brought him to the NHL. Boucher agreed and the next game and every game thereafter that season, he was a standup goalie.

But it wasn't his style that caused his poor play.

Boucher had a bad year, going 15-20-8, giving up 3.02 goals a game.

In the fall of 2003, Phoenix replaced Boucher at back-up with goalie Zac Bierk, an up-and-comer from the minors. Mike Barnett, the Coyotes general manager, says he thought Boucher's $2 million a year contract was too much. On October 3, he exposed Boucher in the waivers draft, one week before the season started.

Any team in the NHL could take Boucher if it picked up his salary.

No team wanted him.

Three years after he allowed the fewest goals of any goalie in the NHL, Brian Boucher wasn't even practicing with a team. Sure, the Coyotes had kept Boucher around, after Barnett tried to dump him. But they had no use for him. He was their third-string goalie. He worked with Benoit Allaire before practice and was gone by the time his teammates arrived. He watched games from the press box.

He was done. Boucher remembers it as the lowest point in his career.

"Some days were better than others," he says. "At first, you're a little down on yourself, you start to believe what people are saying about you or what they perceive of you. At some point you've got to quit feeling sorry for yourself and snap out of it. And have a -- have like a 'screw you' mentality, if you know what I mean.

"And, you know, that's what I took. I took it as me versus everybody. I just told myself to go out there and compete. You know I was just hoping for another opportunity and that's all I can ask for."

On November 9 at Anaheim, Zac Bierk pulled his groin in the first period and did not return to the game. The Coyotes announced Boucher as Sean Burke's back-up. Four days later, Phoenix head coach Bobby Francis said Boucher would start the following night in Dallas.

The next day, Todd Walsh, the pregame and post-game host of the "Coyotes Report " on Fox Sport Net Arizona, asked Boucher for an interview. Walsh travels with the team and knows the players well. He knows Boucher is a huge fan of the Boston Red Sox and he, as a fan of the New York Yankees, takes every opportunity to tell Boucher how much the Red Sox suck. At the start of this season, with Boucher rarely practicing, this was normally the extent of their conversation, Walsh recalled in a recent interview.

But in the lobby of a Dallas hotel, Walsh and Boucher talked for 40 minutes. Boucher talked about his current struggles, his past ones, but what Walsh remembers is Boucher looking him in the eye and saying, in all earnestness, "This is the most important game of my career."

Says Walsh, "And I remember that night thinking, 'I've heard a lot of guys say that and then they tank it.'"

Boucher didn't. Just as he had after his sophomore year in high school, just as he had in Philadelphia, after battling injuries and trade rumors, Boucher rose to the occasion. Against one of the best teams in the league and a goalie, Marty Turco, who might win this year's Vezina trophy, Boucher stopped 35 shots -- nine more than Turco -- as the teams battled to an overtime tie.

Coyotes GM Mike Barnett was impressed. "He basically won the game. Dallas was a legitimate challenge. It was in their building. And we had to win . . ..We decided we didn't want to keep him cold and on the shelf."

Boucher started five of the 20 games that followed. Bierk, meanwhile, continued to rehab his groin.

On December 31, Boucher started again against Los Angeles. He blanked them, 4-0. Boucher had gone 85 games without a shutout. "And it'll probably be another 85 games before I get another one," he told Walsh afterwards.

But then he did it again, against Dallas. He stopped all 35 of the Stars' shots. Bobby Francis decided to ride out this hot streak.

After Boucher beat Carolina 3-0 in his third-consecutive start, he was no longer some back-up who'd gotten lucky. He was now one game from tying Bill Durnan's 55-year old record of four straight shutouts. Not even Boucher's hero, Patrick Roy, had done that.

And do you know what he said to Todd Walsh as he walked into the locker room in Carolina?

"Yankees still suck."

"It was levity," Walsh says of the Carolina game and the streak as a whole. "He had it and he rolled with it."

Boucher decided after the Los Angeles game to "have fun" with whatever followed, he now recalls. He'd had enough bad times. As the streak wore on, he wasn't nervous, he didn't eat the same meals or drink the same soda. He had confidence in himself again. He decided to just enjoy the games and the attention, because the last time he played like this, as a rookie, he worried way too much. And then, when it was over, and he didn't play well, he worried even more.

Now, he joked around a lot. The standard question before the fourth game in Washington was, 'What do you think about your season, going from the waiver draft to three-straight shutouts?'

Boucher would say something like, 'Well, don't pay your back-up goalie $2 million.'

The Washington Capitals had Robert Lang, the NHL's leading scorer, and Jaromir Jagr, the former Pittsburgh Penguin over whom Boucher had lost sleep as a rookie. But neither fazed him on Wednesday, January 8. And he wasn't fazed when the Capitals pulled their goalie in the finals minutes to gain an extra attacker.

The Coyotes won 3-0; Boucher stopped 27 shots. One of them -- Joel Kwiatkowski's rebound attempt in the first period -- Boucher swept away with his left skate after it went off his back heel.

"It's quite an honor," Boucher said in the frenzied press conference afterward. "I can't even think of the words to describe it."

The rest of the NHL couldn't, either. Bill Durnan was the first goalie to win the Vezina trophy four years in a row. And he won it a fifth time in 1950, the year after he had four shutouts. Bill Durnan played for the Montreal Canadiens. The Montreal Canadiens won two Stanley Cups with Durnan in goal.

Brian Boucher wasn't even practicing with the Phoenix Coyotes at the start of the year. And forget the Stanley Cup. The Coyotes consider it a good year if they make the playoffs.

"It's mind-boggling," Coyotes head coach Bobby Francis said at the time.

Boucher was looking at the clock the last five minutes of the game. In the four previous contests, Boucher had remained stoic between the pipes, never celebrating, always ready for the next shot. But against the Minnesota Wild, he wanted the game to be over. He wanted the record.

"Look at the names on the list that were in front of me," Boucher said after the 2-0 win, before an expanding press corps. "Some of the greatest names to ever play this game were on that list. I am honored to be mentioned in the same breath with those guys. I've had my ups and downs and hockey is a strange game. Sometimes things happen that you really can't explain."

But Todd Walsh has an explanation. "In the streak, it was everybody. It was the most collective team effort I've ever seen."

Boucher's teammates were more nervous than he was. Shane Doan, the Coyotes captain, says there was a "ton" of pressure to play solid defense during the streak. Indeed, after the Washington game, rookie forward Freddie Sjostrom said he was ready to block a shot with his face if he had to.

"This is a team accomplishment," Boucher said in Minnesota. "The guys have played unbelievable in front of me and there is no way I can accomplish this without their help."

And to think Boucher's shutout streak was nearly six games.

Two days later, Boucher made 21 saves but allowed a goal in the first period and the Coyotes tied the Atlanta Thrashers 1-1. It was a lucky shot. It came from the Thrashers Randy Robataille and hit Coyotes defenseman David Tanabe in the chest, who was defending the net. The puck ricocheted past Boucher.

He had gone 332 minutes and one second without allowing a goal -- another record. The sell out crowd at Glendale Arena came to their feet. "Boooosh!!" they shouted.

"You can see how difficult the streak was," Boucher said later, "because we're talking about one goal and goals can be scored in so many ways. It may hit a guy's skate or the guy may make a perfect shot."

Now that it was over, he says he was relieved -- he wouldn't have to talk about it anymore. Still, in the games that followed, Boucher continued his inspired play -- though he was once again splitting time with Burke. On January 24, Boucher stopped 44 shots in a win against Detroit. The Phoenix Coyotes were suddenly contending for a playoff spot. And there were trade rumors surrounding Sean Burke.

There is no happy ending here. Burke was traded in early February to Philadelphia. Then, with Boucher in goal, the Coyotes lost 12 of their next 13 games. Phoenix's 3-2 win in Minnesota on March 22 snapped a 15-game losing streak. Boucher's record stands at 9-18-10, as of Monday, March 29.

Of course, Boucher isn't to blame for all this. To prepare for a possible NHL-wide strike at the end of the season, the Coyotes traded away their expensive talent once they were out of playoff contention. This has led to inexperienced players playing more minutes. It reminds Phoenix goalie coach Benoit Allaire of an expression: "The goalie is as good as his team."

The Coyotes give up more shots than they take, which leads to more losses than wins. But when they take more shots than they give, they still lose more often. They rank 22nd in the league in goals scored, and 26th in the league in goals allowed. That's out of 30 NHL teams.

Boucher missed many of those goals. But everyone from captain Shane Doan to general manager Mike Barnett says the Coyotes have played poor defense since the streak, giving up too many close shots and not swatting away the rebounds.

In early March, Barnett said Boucher is still the Coyotes number one goalie, despite the team's losses. It's difficult, Barnett says, to assess a goalie's performance on a team this "young."

Boucher's comforted by this but says, at times, he battles his doubts. And it's led to poor play. Which brings to mind another expression of Allaire's: "The team is as good as the goalie." After he saved 44 shots against Detroit in late January, statistically, Boucher was one of the best goalies in the NHL. Now, Boucher's goals against average is 2.70 and his save percentage is 0.907, which ranks him, in each respective category, toward the bottom third of the league.

Just as quickly as he'd risen, Brian Boucher has fallen. Again.

During the streak, he did nothing technically different than he did after, but Boucher says goaltending is like golf. When you're playing well, you just hit it. When you're not, you think about why you're not playing well. And then you're no longer reacting, you're thinking about reacting.

It's a confidence thing.

The losses take their toll on him. On February 13, the New York Islanders beat the Coyotes 5-2. It was the fourth-straight game in which Boucher had given up five goals. It was his fourth loss in a row.

In the locker room after the game, Boucher took questions -- his voice never rising above a mumble, his eyes never meeting anyone else's. Once the press had left, there Boucher sat: with his skates and leg pads still on, with his elbows on his knees, needing a shower and staring straight ahead, thinking. Moments passed and still he didn't move. Then a reporter asked if Boucher wanted to answer some more questions.

"Not really," he said.

But he answered them anyway. He did because he says he's getting better at letting losses go. He's learned that there will be good times and bad. "I'm a firm believer that everything goes in cycles," he says. He's learned that he can play well even if it isn't reflected in the box score. Indeed, when the Montreal Canadiens scored four goals on him March 5, Boucher shocked some members of the press when he said although the Coyotes lost, he thought he played a good game.

Three years ago, that never would have happened, Bob Clarke says, when told of the comment.

This summer, Boucher might be picked as the U.S.'s goalie for the 2004 World Cup. Art Berglund, senior director of international administration for USA Hockey, says because of the streak, Boucher had played himself into contention.

Of course, Berglund says, he may have played himself out of it, too.

Perhaps fatherhood has offered the best coaching of all. Boucher says he's learned a lot from Tyler, his one-year-old son.

"Having a child definitely gives you a sense of purpose in your life," Boucher says, in a rare, revealing moment. "When you're young, you're so worried about your position. You want to stay in the league. On the team. Every day is a battle. A grind . . .

"I think me having Tyler has helped put those things in perspective. Helped me realize there are more important things than stopping the puck, or, if you didn't stop the puck, what are people going to think of you. Are you going to still be on the team? Are you going to still have a job? You work hard, you leave it on the rink, and whatever happens, happens."

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