The world of sports offers few jobs that compare in relentless pressure to that of a goaltender in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Every other night, beginning in early April and continuing until he yields a costly goal or drinks from the Stanley Cup, a goalie lives with the knowledge that any time he makes a mistake, it could spell disaster for his team.
For the Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames, contending for the oldest trophy in North American professional sports, the men under the gun are rookies.
Patrick Roy, 20, has played every minute of Montreal's 16 playoff games. Mike Vernon, 23, has been in goal for 17 of Calgary's 18.
How important are they to the outcome of the Stanley Cup final?
"The key will be the play of Patrick Roy and Mike Vernon, two rookie goaltenders," said Calgary General Manager Cliff Fletcher. "Whichever goaltender has the best series, his team will probably win."
Roy, with an incredible 1.90 goals-against average in the playoffs, and Vernon -- whose 2.79 is excellent, considering that he faced Edmonton six times -- are being trumpeted as the leading candidates for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs' most valuable player.
Right now, Vernon is top dog, because Calgary won Friday's opener, 5-2, and he came up with two big saves when Montreal threatened to increase an early 1-0 lead.
For Roy, Sunday's second game in the best-of-seven series is crucial. He lost his composure Friday when he allowed a goal by Jim Peplinski and received a misconduct penalty, served by a teammate, after he protested it.
The four goals against Roy -- No. 5 was into an empty net -- marked the first time he had yielded more than three in a playoff game. In his four previous defeats, the Canadiens were shut out twice and held to one goal twice.
A year ago, Roy was playing for the Sherbrooke Canadiens in the American Hockey League, who summoned him for playoff duty after his Granby junior team finished a 22-44-2 season. Roy led Sherbrooke to the Calder Cup and caught the eye of Jean Perron, a Montreal assistant who was about to replace Jacques Lemaire as head coach of the Canadiens.
"After we were knocked out of the playoffs, Jean followed the Sherbrooke-Baltimore series," said Montreal General Manager Serge Savard. "He came back and told me Roy was outstanding. He was so impressed, he wanted him to start the first game of the season.
"So we were high on Roy right from the start this year. But if you had told me he would have an average under two goals in the Stanley Cup playoffs, I'd have laughed at you."
Roy did start the first game of the regular season and won at Pittsburgh, 5-3. He went on to compile a solid 23-19-3 record with a 3.39 goals-against average. But he struggled when he tried to play back-to-back games.
"I was not strong early in the season," said Roy, who is 6 feet and 165 pounds. "But I work hard, and I was really confident when I start the playoffs. I make a few key saves in the first 10 minutes against Boston, and since then, everything goes well.
"The playoffs is another season, and the playoffs is more pressure. I like the pressure.
"You have to be cocky to be a goaltender, but cocky on a good side. You have to tell yourself you can do a good job. If somebody else makes a mistake, another player can cover for him. If I make a mistake, it usually means a goal.
"But if I give up a goal, I can't let it bother me. If I worry about every goal I give up, I go crazy. Instead, I tell myself that my forwards will get it back for me, and I forget it."
It took longer than usual for Roy to forget Peplinski's goal. Roy felt Peplinski had deflected it with his stick above his shoulder, and he put his hands on both linesmen before he calmed down.
"Maybe I make a bad thing, but I had reason to be upset," Roy said. "The goal was not good, and I was mad. We came into the room and talked about it. A championship team has to regroup.
"I have to forget that game. I haven't lost confidence. We have another game. Now we have to win four before they win three."
"Usually, Patrick does not have any nerves," Perron said. "He's cool. He's poised. He's like a quarterback reacting to whatever the situation is. That goal upset him, but it was no goal."
Vernon is three years older than Roy, but he has even less NHL experience and, in fact, is eligible to win the Calder Trophy as top rookie next season.
Vernon, a Calgary native who played junior hockey here with the Wranglers, was stuck in the Flames' farm system behind two veterans with long-term contracts, Reggie Lemelin and Don Edwards.
"Trying to break in as a rookie was like beating your head against a brick wall," Vernon said.
When Edwards was dealt to Toronto in the offseason, a spot opened up, but Vernon was beaten out in September by another rookie, Marc D'Amour, and found himself playing for Salt Lake City.
Vernon progressed as far as the Flames' Moncton farm team in December, when he was summoned to face the Soviets in an exhibition. He won, 4-3, the only plus for the Flames during a stretch in which they lost 11 straight NHL games.
"I didn't consider it like they were feeding me to the dogs," Vernon said. "I was just thinking of making a name for myself against the Russians, and it was an opportunity for Mike Vernon to show that he can play in the NHL."
Although Vernon returned to the minors, he was not there for long. Lemelin went sour after carrying the load for three months, and D'Amour was repeatedly knocked out by dehydration, a factor that forced him from a game in Washington. Recalled in mid-January, Vernon went on to a fine 9-3-3 record. His 3.39 goals-against average was the same as Roy's.
"It was an unfortunate thing for Marc," Vernon said. "It gave me the opportunity to play, and when you're sitting on the sidelines, you want to get in. But you really don't hope somebody gets injured so you get your chance. You never wish that on anybody.
"It turned out to be a break for me, and I took advantage of it. I doubt that I'd have been here any other way. I'd probably still have been in the minors."
By playoff time, Coach Bob Johnson was convinced that Vernon was his man, in part because Lemelin had been unsuccessful in the past against Edmonton, the chief roadblock for Calgary.
"Mike played a lot of tough games down the stretch, including our only victory over Edmonton, and he deserved the opportunity to play in the playoffs," Johnson said.
"The things I like about him are his ability to stay in the game, his poise, the way he stands up, his ability to make the big save at the right time. He's surprised me. He's played very well."
"A good goaltender bounces back from bad games, and I hope I fit into that category," Vernon said. "You have to concentrate and bear down, forget what happened before. Right now we're three games away from the Stanley Cup. If this is a dream, please don't wake me up."
Bengt Gustafsson is due back from Sweden in the next few days for repair work on his broken leg, and the Washington Capitals are hoping to persuade him to play at least one more season in the NHL.
"I think the fact that Gus had such a great year is a plus," said Coach Bryan Murray. "The incentive is there for him to see if he can have an even better one." . . .
No Capitals are among the finalists for the seven NHL awards to be presented at the annual dinner in Toronto June 10.