Olympian LeBlanc proves to be good as gold in NHL


CHICAGO -- The love affair between Chicago Blackhawks fans and goalie Ed Belfour is sacred. Despite Dominik Hasek's great play in net the last three months, they have never chanted "Dom, Dom."

It would have seemed like a violation of their personal attachment to chant anything but "Eddie, Eddie."

But their affection spilled over last night for Ray LeBlanc. They knew Belfour would understand.

Calls of "Ray, Ray, Ray" echoed through Chicago Stadium in the final minutes of the goalie's debut in the National Hockey League, followed by patriotic yells of "USA, USA."

The Team USA Olympian didn't need a gold-medal performance here to repel San Jose, 5-1, and extend the Blackhawks' home unbeaten streak to 13 games (9-0-4). After a scoreless first period in which he made 13 saves, LeBlanc's biggest challenge was staying awake.

"I was a little jittery this afternoon and didn't sleep much," Le-Blanc said about the only disruption in his routine.

Maybe the jawless Sharks thought they could put him to sleep with just nine shots in the final two periods. But, no, LeBlanc is on a mission after eight years in the minors.

"If I keep playing well, good things will happen," he said. "I'm not worried about it. My agent is talking to a lot of teams.

"The Hawks promised me a game, and I got it. It was important to do well. I understand the situation here. They have two very good goalies."

Some would say they have three, counting LeBlanc. But his chances to play full-time in the NHL appear greater in another city.

For now, LeBlanc remained with the Blackhawks, traveling to New York with them after the game to keep today's engagement with the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. But coach/general manager Mike Keenan admitted this was only protection, in case bad weather delayed Ed Belfour's arrival from Minnesota.

Belfour was absent yesterday because his wife, Rita, gave birth to the couple's second child in Minnesota.

Sporting his Olympic mask and flying the U.S. colors, LeBlanc was a novelty item in net. The media coverage was extensive for his attempt to prove he can play in the NHL after kicking around the minors since 1984-85.

"I've seen him play better, and I've seen him play worse," said associate coach Darryl Sutter, who coached LeBlanc for 2 1/2 years in the minors. "But based on one game, yes, he can play in the NHL."

His play was considered one of the primary reasons the United States bulled into the Olympic semifinals before losing to the Unified Team. Last night, the Sharks couldn't match the assault the Unified squad made on LeBlanc.

Mike Sullivan managed the only goal against LeBlanc at 1:36 of the third period when the Blackhawks already led 3-0. Brian Mullen's neutral-zone pass sent Sullivan on a breakaway into the Blackhawks' zone, and he scored high into the left corner.

"Ray made a couple big saves," the Blackhawks' Jeremy Roenick said, "but he wasn't tested too much. We knew that in order for him to get the chance he needs in this league, we had to play strong for him. This is his big break, and he's earned it the way he's played."

"Doesn't matter to me if the Sharks are first or last," LeBlanc said of the last-place club in the NHL. "I'm glad I played well. And it can't stop here."

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