- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2001

The rookie isn't rattled.

Johan Hedberg entered these playoffs with a blue goalie mask left over from his Manitoba Moose days, a resume that consisted of nine NHL starts and the Pittsburgh Penguins' postseason to say nothing of Mario Lemieux's comeback riding on his untested shoulders.

The 27-year-old career minor leaguer from Sweden has been up to the challenge, displaying a hot hand between the pipes and a cool demeanor under pressure in the Penguins' first-round playoff series against the Washington Capitals. The series, tied 1-1, resumes tonight at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh.

Hedberg was acquired March 13 in a trade with the San Jose Sharks. The Penguins' goaltending group of Jean-Sebastian Aubin, Garth Snow and Rich Parent had allowed more goals than any playoff-bound team in the league. Rumors suggested Pittsburgh would acquire a big-name, veteran goalie like the Columbus Blue Jackets' Ron Tugnutt, the Florida Panthers' Trevor Kidd or the Nashville Predators' Mike Dunham.

Instead, it was Hedberg, who in recent years has played in the East Coast Hockey League, the International Hockey League and American Hockey League.

"Everybody here was waiting for a big trade for a goalie, and then all they get is some minor leaguer," Hedberg said during his first week in Pittsburgh. "You go out there with the blue mask on, and everybody says, 'Hey, who is that guy?' "

No one wonders anymore.

Hedberg played when Snow went down with a groin injury, and he's kept playing because he kept winning. Hedberg went 7-1-1 down the regular-season stretch with a 2.64 goals-against average, beating defending Stanley Cup champion New Jersey as well as playoff teams Buffalo, St. Louis and Carolina.

Hedberg, still wearing that blue mask, continued his excellence against the Capitals in the first two games of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

Hedberg stopped all but two of the Caps' 45 shots in Games 1 and 2, letting by only a pair of power-play blasts by Peter Bondra. Hedberg also got a couple of breaks when Washington's Sylvain Cote and Sergei Gonchar hit the post in rapid succession in Pittsburgh's 2-1 Game 2 triumph.

"It was my dream come true to play in the NHL. But I've had a lot of pressure on me to take advantage of that chance, so every game felt like a playoff game," said Hedberg, a 5-foot-11, 185-pound native of tiny Alvik, Sweden. "I'm happy with how I've played these last two games, but I haven't been tested that much.

"You've just got to stay ready and be sharp when called upon to make a stop. It's a great experience. Everything's just rolling along. Hopefully one day this summer, I'm going to sit down and feel pretty good about it. Right now, I'm just trying to prove to myself and my teammates that I should be here."

Hedberg certainly is doing that.

"Heddy has a great disposition. The way he carries himself, the way he handles himself, you wouldn't know that was his first playoff game," Penguins defenseman Ian Moran said. "He could have gotten angry about Bondra's goal bouncing off [defenseman Darius Kasparaitis'] leg, but he never changed. He just stayed calm, cool and relaxed and played fantastic."

The Philadelphia Flyers selected Hedberg in the eighth round of the 1994 draft, but he never got a sniff from the team even though he was good enough to be the backup on Sweden's World Cup team in 1996.

Hedberg arranged to play for Baton Rouge of the ECHL in 1997-98. He soon moved up to the IHL and continued to play well but still drew no interest from the Flyers. So Hedberg headed home that spring.

The San Jose Sharks acquired the rights to Hedberg and asked him to play for its top farm team in Kentucky in 1999-2000.

Hedberg again excelled in Kentucky, but so did Miikka Kiprusoff, who is three years younger. The Sharks were set with last year's starter, Steve Shields, and likely rookie of the year Evgeni Nabokov, and Kiprusoff got the No. 1 job in Kentucky this past September.

That left Hedberg to be loaned to Manitoba, where he made the Pittsburgh connection. The Moose's other goalie was former Penguin Ken Wregget, who confirmed the positive impression of Hedberg that Pittsburgh assistant general manager Eddie Johnston already had.

"We had been looking at Johan for quite a while. We were fortunate we were able to make a move for him," Pittsburgh assistant coach Randy Hillier said. "Johan's very levelheaded. I don't think he's a flash in the pan. He was just caught in an organization that was pretty deep at his position.

"Johan's very sound technically. He has great lateral movement. He has looked really good. He's finally getting an opportunity, and he's taking advantage of it."


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