The Next Guy

The Stanley Cup Playoffs are a different brand of hockey. Almost a different sport. The intensity that goes into every single shift is the maximum amount that a player can give. The goaltender is zoned in for every single second the puck is in play. The coaches are constantly aware of every single player on the ice and how they plan to attack or defend every single shift because if you make one mistake, you make this difficult journey all the more arduous. One of the more difficult choices a coach has to make is which goaltender to start a game after losing momentum. Sometimes there is no choice, such as when there is an injury, but more often than not, there is the mind numbing conundrum of starting your backup goaltender in order to rejuvenate the team in front of him.

Injury is the reason why the Pittsburgh Penguins had to start third string goaltender Jeff Zatkoff in his playoff debut for games 1 and 2. Marc-Andre Fleury and backup Matt Murray were both out but the Penguins managed to give Zatkoff his first win. In game 3 coach Mike Sullivan had the opportunity to replace Zatkoff, after a loss in game 2, with Murray. Murray was amazing at the end of the regular season after Fleury was concussed, only to sustain an upper body injury on April 9. By re-instating Murray the Penguins played a solid, bounce-back game, only allowing 17 shots and 1 goal while scoring 3 goals on 31 shots.

The Washington Capitals were steamrolling the Philadelphia Flyers for the first three games, as many had expected, so this goaltender change was not such a hard decision for Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol. Steve Mason was benched for game 4 in favor of Michal Neuvirth and for good reason after a 6-1 loss and the 101 foot gaffe the previous game. Neuvirth came in and made 31 saves to get the Flyers a 2-1 win, their first of the series. Only time will tell if the Neuvirth can put the Flyers on his back and take down the best team in the league.

Again, changing goaltenders inspired the team in front of them to play a supercharged game to get back in the series. This time it was the Detroit Red Wings who found themselves in a 2-0 series hole and decided to put in Petr Mrazek after Jimmy Howard allowed 7 goals on 64 shots in the previous 2 games. The Red Wings only allowed 16 shots on Mrazek to give him the shut out and scored two goals on 30 shots. He played well in game 4, stopping 30 shots but the Red Wings fell 3-2 after a powerplay goal with 2:32 left in the third. Allowing 3 goals in two games will pretty much guarantee a third straight start for game 5.

If you need more examples of a team playing hard with a new goaltender in net, here they are:

After losing both home games 3-2, Bruce Boudreau and the Anaheim Ducks decided to play Frederik Andersen instead of John Gibson. The result: a 27 save shutout and a 3-0 win for the Ducks.
The high-scoring Dallas Stars probably didn’t need to replace Kari Lehtonen with Antti Niemi but perhaps they just decided to give Lehtonen the night off after a 5-3 loss in game 3. The move worked. The Stars won 3-2 with Niemi making 28 saves and giving the Stars a 3-1 series lead.

Whether due to injury, need of inspiration, or because of poor play, having a reliable backup goaltender apparently is a huge part of winning games in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The next problem for the coaches is when, or if, to go back to the goaltender that got you there.