One-time Winter Hawk goalie sets a league shutout record

Jason LaBarbera scratches his head over it. Well, he removes his big goalie helmet first.

'Honestly, I have no idea why,' says LaBarbera, a goalie for the Hartford Wolf Pack, trying to explain how he shattered the American Hockey League record for shutouts in a year.

'I've had to work for a lot of them,' he adds. 'But everything seems like it's in slow motion. I feel so comfortable out there. And when the coaches and players believe in you, it makes you believe in yourself.'

The 24-year-old LaBarbera, who played for the Portland Winter Hawks from 1997 to 2000, recorded his 10th shutout of the season on Feb. 13, beating Philadelphia 4-0. That shutout gave him the single-season AHL record, one more than Buffalo's Gordie Bell (1942-43) and Syracuse's Jean-Francois Labbe (2001-02).

LaBarbera now has 12 shutouts, eight in the last 17 games, and is 23-7-7 with a 1.44 goals-against average and a .939 save percentage.

He also made his first career NHL start for the New York Rangers, Hartford's parent team. He stood tall but lost 4-3 at Colorado. At least he made 'SportsCenter' highlights.

'Yeah,' he says, 'giving up a goal.' He has played bits of other games for New York, which occasionally calls him up as a reserve.

On Feb. 9, he got the call to back up Rangers' goalie Jussi Markannen while Mike Dunham sat out sick at Ottawa. By Feb. 11, he had returned to the Wolf Pack.

Earlier in the year, he was getting ready for bed at midnight one night when the Rangers called, telling him to get on a flight at 4 a.m.

Getting tired of the yo-yo effect, Jason?

'It's the life we live. You never know day to day where you're going to be,' he says. Someday, maybe he'll be in the NHL every day.

'It doesn't frustrate me to be in the minors,' says LaBarbera, a fourth-year pro who has played in the East Coast Hockey League in addition to the AHL. 'I still think I'm young, and I have a lot to prove. I'm a patient guy. I know how the system works. I'm 24, and maybe three or four years from now I'd be wondering 'Why?' But not now.'

LaBarbera has one year left on his New York contract. You have to wonder what else he must do to impress NHL teams, with the shutout record and all. The Wolf Pack also sits in first place in the AHL Atlantic Division.

'It's fun to come to the rink every day, because it's a good group of guys. They care and want to do well,' he says. 'You don't ever go into anything thinking you're going to break a record, but every year I've wanted to improve and get better. This year I've taken a pretty big step in my career.'

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