Unheralded goalies are hauling playoff wagons
Canadiens, Rangers have stoppers locked in — but not so elsewhere
TORONTO — The morning after the Anaheim Ducks had pushed the Winnipeg Jets to the brink of elimination in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, thanks in considerable part to Frederik Andersen’s lunging save to rob Bryan Little of a would-be tying goal in the last minute of Game 3, Bruce Boudreau was asked about his goaltender.
The Ducks coach made a comparison to Gerry Cheevers, which was funny, if only because Andersen, a 25-year-old from Denmark, would seem to share little with the Boston Bruins Hall of Famer other than their chosen profession.
Boudreau’s point, though, was that each had the knack for making a key late save. Cheevers could give up six goals, he said, but he would not allow the seventh when it really mattered. Andersen had surrendered four goals to the Jets in Game 3, but his late stops allowed Anaheim to survive for overtime, where they won the game.
Boudreau also said Andersen had seized control of the Anaheim net with his strong play in the last week of the season, where he gave up a goal apiece in wins over Edmonton and Arizona.
“He just showed that he wanted it, and he wasn’t going to let it go,” Boudreau said.
He meant it as a compliment, but it was a startling admission all the same: the Ducks, champions of the Western Conference, hadn’t even decided if Andersen would be their playoff starter until he performed well in games 79 and 82 — against two of the worst teams in the league.
Wasn’t having an obvious No. 1 goalie — the horse who keeps you in tight playoff games, and steals one or two along the way — one of the most important ingredients in post-season success? And yet here was Boudreau, who started three different goaltenders in last year’s playoffs, treating his goalies like, to use an accounting term, fungible assets. Interchangeable, that is, without affecting the bottom line.
But so far, with a couple of obvious exceptions, these playoffs have been the year of the fungible goalie.
Ten of 16 teams have used a playoff rookie in net at least once. Detroit is using untested Petr Mrazek over eightyear veteran Jimmy Howard. Andrew Hammond, the out-of-nowhere goalie who sparked Ottawa’s mad run to the playoffs, eventually gave way to Craig Anderson, the former Senators starter. Vancouver started Eddie Lack, then replaced him with Ryan Miller. St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock made the widely praised move of starting post-season rookie Jake Allen in the Blues’ net, though he ended up yanking him late in the series in favour of veteran Brian Elliott. The Blues lost to the Minnesota Wild and Devan Dubnyk, previously an Edmonton Oilers (!) castoff and spare part with Montreal last year. Calgary’s Jonas Hiller, one of the rotating cast of Ducks goalies last season, was pulled in Game 6 and replaced by Karri Ramo, who got the win in relief.
Then there is Chicago, where Corey Crawford, who was in net for the Blackhawks’ 2013 Stanley Cup run, was pulled in their opener against Nashville. He was replaced by Scott Darling, whose recent career has included stints in the AHL, ECHL, and something called the Southern Professional Hockey League, where he played more games than in either of the two higher minor leagues. Darling would start four games against the Predators in the NHL playoffs — rather a bigger stage than in the SPHL, where he was making about $300 a week — although he was pulled in Game 6 after allowing three goals in 12 minutes and replaced by Crawford in Chicago’s comeback win.
“Great response in a very important game for us,” said Chicago coach Joel Quenneville, who says Crawford, and his .850 save percentage in these playoffs, will be the starter again in Round 2. Going back to Crawford looks like a gamble, except for the fact that Chicago won a championship with him two years ago, and he was unheralded even then — the 23 games he started in those playoffs were only five fewer than he started in that entire regular season. The Blackhawks, having jettisoned Antti Niemi after their 2010 Stanley Cup, have best employed the Insert Random Goalie Here strategy, although they appear to have forsaken it with the six-year, $36-million-US contract they gave Crawford that runs through 2019.
It is the salary cap considerations that make goalie fungibility a potentially attractive option. It’s one of the most notoriously fickle positions in sports — witness the Hammond supernova of this year, or the countless Andrew Raycroft-type stories where a goalie with excellent credentials suddenly loses it — so there’s logic in not tying up major salary and term in the crease and just rolling with whoever has the hot blocker hand every spring.
The counter to that strategy is the peace of mind that having a true ace goalie brings. You will convince few fans of the Canadiens or the Rangers — or their teammates — that the big money paid to Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist could be better spent elsewhere.
Those teams could meet in the Eastern Conference finals, as they did last year, bolstering the case for bigtime goalies at this time of the post-season. But in the West, the conference finalists will be backstopped by decidedly non-marquee names: some combination of Hiller, Dubnyk, Andersen and Crawford.
And that assumes that none of them are yet replaced. Postmedia News