Playoff Preview: What if a No.1 goalie blows a tire?
There’s always a lot of speculation from the media – and maybe even some science from the actual NHL teams – that goes into ensuring, to whatever degree possible, a playoff goalie is healthy and peaking at the right time.
As for the statistics, those seem to favor the rested, with only one goalie making it past the second round since 2003 after playing more than 70 games. That was San Jose’s Evgeni Nabokov last year, and the Sharks were promptly swept in the Western Conference finals by Chicago.
In those seven seasons since the previous example, the 70-game mark was surpassed 28 times, and by some of the bigger names in the game, like Nabokov, Miikka Kiprusoff in Calgary and most infamously, New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur, who is the only other goalie since 1998 to win two rounds after playing 70-plus in the regular season.
Those statistics are one of the main reasons the Canucks finally followed up on an annual pledge to rest Roberto Luongo (58 games) more this season, and why the Rangers so aggressively pursued Martin Biron to backup workhorse Henrik Lundqvist. And yet there are still several teams whipping their best horse just to arrive at the playoff race in the first place – teams like the the Rangers (66 for Lundqvist after Biron got hurt), Buffalo (64 for Ryan Miller despite being out this week), Carolina (71 for Cam Ward), Calgary (70 for Kiprusoff) and Montreal (70 for Carey Price) whose starting goalies are all among the league leaders in games played while their teams chase postseason berths.
In San Jose, Antti Niemi has only 58 games, but Monday night was his 34th consecutive start, all of which makes for interesting contrasts and debate. But forgetting those arguments for a second, what happens if, dare say it, a No.1 goaltender goes down with an injury, or simply doesn’t deliver as expected?
We saw an example of the former in Detroit, where a short term injury to Jimmy Howard resulted, at least in part, in a slide by the Red Wings, who dropped two in Jimmy Howard’s absence, including a 10-3 shellacking by St. Louis that saw both goalies get the hook. For the latter, consider the situation in Washington, where coach Bruce Boudreau is ready to run with whichever of Michael Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov or even Braden Holtby gets hot at the right time.
With those possibilities in mind, here is a look at the secondary goaltending situation of the likely playoff teams:
Philadelphia: Brian Boucher has been one of the most active “backups” in the NHL, having appeared in 32 contests. And his 2.39 goals-against average and 0.917 save percentage are almost identical to Russian rookie Sergei Bobrovsky, who grabbed the net and ran with it earlier this season. Boucher was solid at the start of last year’s playoffs until felled by an injury, so if Bobrovsky gets the first year jitters, the veteran should be able to confidently step in. And if not, the Flyers still have Michael Leighton, who led them to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals last season after Boucher got hurt, waiting in the American Hockey League (Update: Philadelphia placed Leighton on recall waivers Tuesday, the first step in calling him back up to the NHL).
Washington: As mentioned above and in a previous update, it is hard to know who exactly is the backup in this three-horse race. All three goalies could potentially carry this team. Give the nod to Neuvirth for his 24 games played and back to back trips to the AHL Calder Cup championships the last two seasons, with Varlamov next with 19 NHL playoffs games under his belt, and Holtby champing at the bit as a wildcard with huge upside.
Boston: Tuuka Rask is an example of a goalie who could be the starter in many towns, but he is stuck behind renaissance man of steel Tim Thomas in Boston. Rask gives the Bruins a good option should Thomas get hurt, even if his stats are not that outstanding (10-13-2 record, 2.69 goals against, 0.918 save percentage).
Pittsburgh: Brent Johnson proved he was worth his miserly (for the NHL) $600,000 salary with an 11-5-3 record, .920 save percentage and 2.19 goals against whole stepping in admirably for Marc-Andre Fleury when The Flower seemed to be wilting early in the season. Could he carry the Pens if Fleury goes down? Maybe. Maybe not. But in the event of a dust-up he has a mean left hook and might be able to take the other starter down too.
Tampa Bay: The Lightning went out and got themselves some playoff experience by trading for Dwayne Roloson at the deadline, a move which has borne fruit. Good thing, because since Dan Ellis’ departure, Mike Smith has not had a chance to really re-establish himself (he had played three games in a month, won only one and had a shaky 0.888 save percentage before a much-needed 31-save shutout of Chicago over the weekend). The Bolts need Roloson to stay healthy, especially with the season for 3rd stringer Cedrick Desjardins, a favorite of head coach Guy Boucher who won his only two NHL starts in impressive fashion this season, likely done after re-injuring his shoulder in practice last week.
Montreal: So far Alex Auld has been a great mentor, supporter and flag-waver for Carey Price’s banner season, but coach Jacques Martin’s squeezing the lemon hasn’t given much opportunity for backup Auld to shine (only 11 starts, but a solid 6-2-1 record). Suffice to say the Habs live or die with Price’s fortunes.
Buffalo: Take Price’s story and xerox it in here: Ryan Miller’s latest ironman season was not giving much ice time to the substitute before a current injury from a high shot gave smallish (5-foot-10) Swede Jhonas Enroth the net. With veteran Patrick Lalime unceremoniously booted out of the backup spot (he was winless in five games this season and hasn’t posted a victory in more than a year) the Sabres have gained plenty of confidence in Enroth, who was undefeated in four starts since February and showed no signs of shrinking under the pressure of must-win games.
New York Rangers: Quick, can anyone name the Rangers’ backup since Biron went down? Chad Johnson is not a household name, and with Lundqvist pitching 11 shutouts this season, Johnson is not likely to break any records for minutes played (grand total: 20 so far). Maybe coach Tortorella should seriously consider telling his players to keep the puck down on Lundqvist during practice.
Vancouver: It doesn’t take a genius to see Vancouver has the cadillac of backups in rookie Cory Schneider, a guy kept out of Calder Trophy consideration only because of his lack of games played. Of all the goalies you could safely label a true backup, Schneider has played the most games (22), sporting an impeccable 2.22 goals-against average and .928 save percentage. If Luongo gets hurt (or falters), Schneider is ready to step in.
San Jose: Niemi has solidified his status at the top of the Sharks depth chart, and has a new $15.2 million contract to prove it. Nevertheless, they have a reasonable – though very rusty – option in Antero Nittymaki if Niemi stumbles. The second member of the Finnish tag-team has started 21 contests this year (though none of the last 34 after dealing with nagging groin problems that seem to suggest another hip issue) with an admirable 12-6-3 record. Niittymaki also has 33 games of playoff experience and a championship in the AHL, two with the 2005-06 Flyers, and that silver medal for Finland at the 2006 Olympics, back when Niemi was driving zambonis back home.
Detroit: There was already debate whether 27-year-old Jimmy Howard could be the answer to the Red Wings playoff plans. Think of how many people questioned Chris Osgood over the years, and how Manny Legace’s meagre opportunity evaporated after one bad playoff in 2006. But even If Howard struggles and Osgood’s health remains a concern, don’t expect Joey MacDonald (nine starts and 5-5-3 record) to safely carry even a team as well-rounded as the Wings.
Phoenix: InGoal recently posted an article about how hard it was for Jason LaBarbera to get back into the swing of things with Ilya Brygalov making so many appearances. Imagine the pressure if he has to do just that come playoff time. LaBarbera has middling numbers (3.26 goals against, .909 save percentage), and he’s only played in four complete games since New Years (with a losing record), but proved in his last start he can get hot.
Los Angeles: The Kings are in a similar boat to the Canucks as a team with two goalies who have done more sharing of duties and who both could have playoff success. Jonathan Bernier might have seen more ice had Jonathan Quick not had such a career year. But Bernier, a Montreal native, is 6-0-3 with three shutouts and a .942 save percentage since coming further out of his crease in January, leaving some to wonder is the Kings will experience a Price-Jaroslav Halak conundrum soon. With their top-two scorers hurt, they need one of them to step up.
Nashville: The Predators have followed this curious pattern for the last several years, where a back-up one year turns into a starter the next, only to lose his spot to the guy behind him (think Tomas Vokoun-Chis Mason-Dan Ellis-Pekka Rinne). Maybe Anders Lindback will do the same one day, but as far as the 6-foot-6 Swede has already come, Rinne is the unquestioned No.1 this season, a legitimate Vezina Trophy candidate who will carry the playoff load for as long as he can stand its weight behind a team that doesn’t score much. If he does get hurt, though Lindback’s contributions have already been overlooked, especially since one year ago he was with Timra in Sweden and the third stringer (behind Jacob Markstrom and Jonas Gustavsson) at the World Championships.
Anaheim: The Ducks would probably like to pencil in Jonas Hiller’s name in the playoff starter’s box, but his return after extended vertigo symptoms is still in doubt. Dan Ellis has been up and down, with a 6-3-1 record and so-so .902 save percentage. Meanwhile, Ray Emery has exceeded expectations with a 0.924 save percentage after an inspirational return from career-threatening injury, but has lost his last two starts, putting playoffs in jeopardy.
Chicago: In Marty Turco, the Blackhawks have the back-up who seen the most action of anyone except Boucher (Turco: 27 starts; Boucher, 28). In fact, the situation in the two paddocks is quite similar: a veteran starter whose playing time was cut short by the unexpected rise of a rookie. Turco seems to have borne this change gracefully, but a .500 record and 0.898 save percentage this suggest that the playoffs might be an iffy proposition with him in the net if Corey Crawford falters or gets hurt. Then again, few compete as hard as Turco.