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Young achieves, protects goal

Wendell Young got shortchanged Wednesday night.

They gave him his mask. They gave him his glove. They gave him his 38 pounds of pads.

But the Tampa Bay Lightning, in a bit of opening-night shortsightedness, failed to give him either a cigarette or a blindfold.

Young, nevertheless, did not flinch against the firing squad Wednesday night. The Chicago Blackhawks swarmed in front of him like Hell's Angels on skates, and they threw heat of Nolan Ryan temperatures in his direction. And, for the most part, Young protected the net as if his two children were sleeping inside.

Young, the goaltender of the Tampa Bay Lightning, had a successful opening night Wednesday, insomuch that he managed to keep his vital organs between the puck and the net for most of the game. He wasn't invulnerable, but he was pretty darned good, and the Lightning won 7-3.

For Young, he can only hope it will stay this way. He was the first member of the Lightning, and as their No. 1 goaltender, he may be the most important.

At its most basic, hockey is a test of two teams' goaltenders. For an expansion team, the position is even more vital. If an expansion team is to stay close, most nights it will be the goalie who keeps them there. Remember, this is a team that has limited talent in front of him, and unlimited potential for sending men to the penalty box. Young will face shots without parole.

"There will be nights this year when he stops 52 shots, and we lose 7-1," said Lightning coach Terry Crisp. "And people will blame him, even though there will be nothing more he could have done."

Against Chicago, Young stopped 23 of 26. His teammates kept the pressure off him with their seven-goal outburst, and the Blackhawks spent most the night short-handed. Young gave up a goal per period, but that's an average he can live with.

"I wasn't spectacular," Young said. "But I didn't need to be."

There will be nights he needs to be, nights when the power plays are coming toward him rather than going away. This night belonged to Chris Kontos, and Young was relegated to the shadows. But most games, the easiest man on the ice to see will be Wendell Young.

It is a paradox of the game that the goaltender has the most anonymous face in the game, yet the most visible presence. There are fans who cannot tell a left wing from a right wing, or a defenseman from a center. But they can find the goaltender. He is the cornerback, the pitcher of his sport, the man with the eyes of the hunted.

A wing makes a mistake, and no one notices. A defenseman makes a mistake, and someone else might pick him up. But if a goaltender makes a mistake, the light on the net comes on and they change the scoreboard.

Everybody notices, and everybody blames. It doesn't matter if the puck went through 10 pairs of skates, caroms off someone's foot and changes direction four times. To the fan, a puck in the net always is the goaltender's fault.

Which, of course, is the reason that Jason turned to crime.

For the Lightning, the face behind the mask is a gentle, passive one. Young's face is unlined, and in his fight to keep his hair, he is playing short-handed, if you know what I mean.

Young is every backup player who has yearned for a chance to be No. 1. For the last four years, he has been the No. 2 goalie for the Pittsburgh Penguins, enjoying the winning even at a reserve's distance. Now, in a smaller pond, he has a chance to be a bigger fish. "It's a proving time," he said. "It's time for me to show something. Even to myself a little bit."

It is a crazy way to make a living, standing in front of the bull's-eye while grown men try to hit a puck clean through you. It is odd. In most sports, the object is to dodge the serious blows; Young's job is to absorb them. And take it from Young, these aren't Frisbees that are flying at him. If not for the padding, his body would look something like Manuel Noriega's face.

For Young, this all started two dozen years ago, when he was 5. Young was a defenseman that first year of hockey in his native Halifax, but one day the regular goalie didn't show. Young didn't want to play it, but the other kids had better excuses, and Young was drafted. He pitched a 10-0 shutout, and he was hooked.

It is easy to believe that such an on-the-edge profession would demand an on-the-edge personalty. Not Young, who describes himself as "a pretty boring guy."

No skydiving here. No scuba diving. No bungee jumping. "I'd rather go home and read," he said. Young prefers comedies to scary movies, and he prefers firm ground to roller-coasters. "I get nervous riding on kids' rides with my daughter," he said.

Yet, Young says he feels no fear as he stands in goal and tries to stop bullets with his chest. "My only fear," he says, "is that I'll let down my teammates."

That didn't happen Wednesday night. Well, okay, once. In the first period, Chicago scored one of the weakest goals in the history of the NHL when Cam Russell flipped a soft shot from center ice (think: slow grounder to short), and the puck bunny-hopped over Young's right leg (think: error).

"I hear Wade Boggs was here tonight," Young said. "Tell him I know how Bill Buckner felt on that ground ball now. I had it played right, but it took off 3-4 feet."

But for the most part, Young was a success Wednesday night, largely because his teammates kept most of the action at the other end. He fell on pucks, he slid to shield the net with his body, he reached out and caught it.

And he survived. This night, there would be no scary movies.

Not even the game films.