Many hockey fans of the new generation associate Brian Boucher with his role as an NHL analyst for ESPN and his former role covering the game for NBC. One of the most gifted goaltending experts in the media today developed his knowledge throughout 13 NHL seasons between the pipes.
The most prominent element of his lasting legacy came unexpectedly after his career looked like it had taken a downturn during an otherwise forgettable season for the Phoenix Coyotes. In 2003-04, Boucher remarkably set modern-era NHL records with five consecutive shutouts and 332:01 of consecutive scoreless time.
Boucher’s Journey to the Coyotes’ Crease
The Philadelphia Flyers selected Boucher with the 22nd pick in the 1995 NHL Entry Draft. They promoted their promising young goaltender four years later and watched him steal the net from veteran John Vanbiesbrouck. He hit the scene with a standout performance in 18 playoff games during the 2000 Stanley Cup Playoffs and a spot on the All-Rookie Team after the 1999-00 season. However, he couldn’t ride the momentum from his rookie season in Philadelphia. The Flyers dealt him to Phoenix during the 2002 offseason to make way for Czechoslovakian phenom Roman Cechmanek.
After the Coyotes missed the playoffs in 2002-03 with Boucher in net for 45 games, Sean Burke made his way back into a role as the top goaltender. By the start of 2003-04, the Coyotes even looked to give 27-year-old journeyman Zac Bierk a shot as the backup after a strong performance down the stretch the previous season. A goalie who held some regret about the way things ended with the Flyers hesitated to approach head coach Bob Francis for a conversation about his standing in the organization. However, the timing of a groin injury that ultimately ended Bierk’s NHL career allowed Boucher to regain the second spot on the depth chart (from The Athletic, Sweet 16: A look back at Brian Boucher’s record-setting shutout streak in 2003-04, 12/31/19).
On Dec. 22, 2003, Scott Walker of the Nashville Predators scored against Boucher with 45 seconds remaining in the second period. Phoenix shut down the Predators during the third period and overtime to earn a point in a 3-3 tie. Boucher’s performance in the final 25 minutes didn’t exactly cause the media to stop the presses. Burke even started the next two games, a pair of losses, but little did anyone know that the incredible scoreless streak had already begun.
5 Consecutive Shutouts
Boucher helped Phoenix to a 4-0 victory by stopping all 21 shots he faced against the Los Angeles Kings at Glendale Arena on Dec. 31, 2003.
“It’s equivalent to scoring a hat trick for a forward, so it’s nice to get the win, but it feels good to pitch a shutout.”-Brian Boucher
Opportunity truly presented itself for the Rhode Island native when Francis opted to start him against the Dallas Stars on Jan. 2, 2004, to begin a fateful four-game road trip. Boucher stopped all 35 shots he faced in a 6-0 laugher on his 27th birthday. The streak suddenly had life, and the hot hand couldn’t be ignored. He stopped all 26 shots he faced against the Carolina Hurricanes two days later.
“The puck looks like a beach ball to Bouch (Boucher). He’s following it. He’s seeing it. He’s squaring up. He’s sound positionally, and his concentration level is outstanding right now,” Francis said about his red-hot goaltender.
Related: The NHL’s Most Unbreakable Records
A 27-save shutout against the Washington Capitals on Jan. 7 put Boucher on the cusp of history, and Francis continued to ride the wave by giving his goaltender his fifth start in nine days against the Minnesota Wild on Jan. 9. Early in the third period at Xcel Energy Center, Boucher surpassed Bill Durnan’s record shutout streak set with the Montreal Canadiens in 1949.
Only Alec Connell in 1928 and George Hainsworth in 1929 ever kept the puck out of the net longer, and they did it during an era when forwards weren’t allowed to pass the puck in the offensive zone. Boucher finished off the Wild with 21 saves on 21 shots to become the only goalie in modern NHL history to record five consecutive shutouts. Even the crowd in Minnesota owed an ovation to the visiting goaltender.
Boucher Goes Down in NHL History
The streak finally came to an end during a Jan. 11 home contest against the Atlanta Thrashers when Randy Robitaille lit the lamp just over six minutes into the opening period. The fans in Arizona didn’t get to enjoy the majority of a streak that took place during a long road trip, but the Coyotes got a share of the NHL spotlight for the right reasons for at least one short period of time.
Former Coyotes assistant coach Rick Bowness spoke about Robitaille’s goal, calling it “one of those situations where you do everything right and the puck still goes in the net.” While the fluky goal unfortunately ended an incredible, captivating story, it also provided a perfect example of why the shutout streak was such a difficult record to break.
“I realize how insane a record it is when you think about it. That’s a lot of minutes, and a lot can happen in those minutes,” Boucher later said.
Ziggy Pálffy, Luc Robitaille, Mike Modano, Bill Guerin, Rod Brind’Amour, Ron Francis, Jaromír Jágr, Peter Bondra, and Marián Gáborík all matched up against the Coyotes at some point during the streak. The nine skaters combined for 4,664 goals during their careers, but not one of them could manage even a fluky goal against the hottest goaltender in the NHL between Dec. 31, 2003 and Jan. 9, 2004.
The Record Books
The Coyotes limped to an ugly finish for the 2003-04 season after the streak ended, and the NHL canceled the following season before major rule changes opened up the offensive game in the salary cap era. Boucher himself only lasted 11 more games with Phoenix after the lockout. He wandered around the NHL and found a steady role as the backup to Evgeni Nabokov with the San Jose Sharks for two seasons. He made his way back to the goaltending carousel in Philadelphia two more times and retired from the NHL in 2013 after 328 regular-season games and 43 playoff games with seven different teams.
Timing unquestionably played into the streak. Pat Riggin of the Capitals logged the longest shutout streak of the 1980s, a decade notorious for prolific offense and porous defense, and his 203:52 lands him just 63rd on the list of the longest shutout streaks in NHL history. The list clearly shows some eras more sparse for offense than others. Boucher has since spoken with a sense of humor and perspective about holding onto the record.
“I think the odds are in my favor. Goalies are facing higher quality chances now. I’m not sitting here being cocky and saying nobody is going to break my record. I just think that is the way the game is now. Who knows, maybe in 20 years we’ll go throughout another dead-puck cycle and goalies will take over at that point,” he said.
The NHL just completed its highest scoring season since 1995-96. Don’t expect Boucher’s record to fall anytime soon.
Colin Newby is a freelance journalist from Delaware County, PA covering the Philadelphia Flyers for The Hockey Writers. He is an encyclopedia of useless sports knowledge with an uncanny ability to rattle off Flyers goaltending stats from 2004 and every Stanley Cup winner during his lifetime. The depths of his knowledge stem from spending his entire life following the Flyers and the NHL, from fan favorites like the “Legion of Doom” and Claude Giroux to forgotten journeymen like Andy Delmore and Branko Radivojevič. He joined the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association (PHWA) in 2022.
Colin also covers the Philadelphia Eagles and works for 97.5 The Fanatic in Philadelphia.