Who's Your Goalie?
There are two long-standing truths of playoff hockey, seemingly as plain as the oft-broken nose on Alexander Ovechkin's face. No. 1: A team needs to settle on a starting goaltender and stick with him. No. 2: A team needs an elite goaltender to get to the finals.
As the 2008 playoffs get under way, the time may have come to take an ax to those cherished axioms. As many as seven of the 16 qualifiers, including several Stanley Cup contenders, have goaltending situations that are, if not quite unsettled, certainly uncertain. By necessity, some teams are entrusting their fate to goalies with middling credentials. Other clubs, adhering to that first postseason truth, have each designated someone as the clear No. 1 goalie, although his backup appears worthy of at least sharing the role.
In a perhaps dubious effort to impose order on its playoff goaltending, the team with the best record during the regular season, the Detroit Red Wings, gave the starting job to 43-year-old Dominik Hasek -- who most nights has his A game and some nights has his AARP game -- instead of 35-year-old Chris Osgood. The decision was reached despite the two having split the job evenly during the regular season; despite Osgood's having won more Stanley Cups (two) than Hasek (one); and despite Osgood's having a better save percentage (.914) and goals-against average (2.09) this season than Hasek (.902, 2.14). "Dom's the guy," general manager Ken Holland says of the two-time league MVP. "Dom has earned that right through his career and by what he did for us last year [when Detroit reached the Western Conference finals]."
In Ottawa, general manager-coach Bryan Murray anointed Martin Gerber as the Senators' starter even though Gerber has less conspicuous talent and a less impressive playoff portfolio (a 3.49 goals-against average in eight career appearances) than Ray Emery -- the man who never came out of the net last spring as Ottawa went to the finals. That was before Emery's dodgy behavior on and off the ice this season (late for practice, an alleged road-rage incident) made for psychodrama that has been wearying for the Senators.
Especially among the Stanley Cup long shots there is cold comfort in a position that is supposed to be the playoff rock. Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien, for example, stayed with journeyman Tim Thomas (at 33, he was scheduled to make his postseason debut this week) over reliable backup Alex Auld even while knowing that Thomas's improvisational style can lead to that playoff killer, the soft goal. In Philadelphia, Flyers coach John Stevens picked Martin Biron and his limited lateral movement over Antero Nittymaki and a glove as useless as Michael Jackson's despite the fact that Biron's poor performance in the second of back-to-back games this season suggests he is not a traditional, playoff-style workhorse. And although Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz appeared uncomfortable with both of his options -- he yanked his goaltenders a league-high 14 times this season -- Dan Ellis, the nominal backup who had played one NHL game before last October, was Trotz's choice over the more seasoned Chris Mason.
The issue of Who's No. 1? may be less intriguing than Why even name a No. 1? If a team has a stalwart such as the New Jersey Devils' Martin Brodeur or the Calgary Flames' Miikka Kiprusoff, the matter is, of course, moot. But if a team's goaltending has been muddy all season -- the Senators swerved from an alternating win-and-you're-in plan under former coach John Paddock to making Emery as invisible as D.B. Cooper after Murray went behind the bench on Feb. 27 -- why must a team designate a No. 1 rather than continue the job-sharing that helped it qualify for the playoffs in the first place? "Things worked well doing them a certain way," says Osgood of splitting time with Hasek this season. "Then the playoffs start and you feel the need to do it another way. I guess [naming a No. 1] is more traditional."
Holland, a former goalie, has a different view. "I think [the team] needs to know you've got one guy," he says. "A team needs to get into a rhythm, and you can't do that with a rotating situation. If you're going to go on a long playoff run, the goalie's going to have to be in a groove, and he can only get into one by being in there night after night."
That kind of thinking played a big part in the Montreal Canadiens' decision to trade co-No. 1 Cristobal Huet to the Washington Capitals at the February deadline, a deal that ended any controversy over the team's goaltending. The 20-year-old rookie, Carey Price, has played superbly in winning 12 of 15 games since, but still, after winning their division for the first time in 16 years, the Canadiens have put their postseason in the hands (and pads) of a goalie who has appeared in only 41 regular-season games. Who knows how the precocious Price will perform under best-of-seven NHL pressure?
Perhaps the most powerful factor leading teams to rely on a clear-cut No. 1 surfaces because spring is a time on the hockey calendar when every move is deconstructed. Coaches are searching for peace of mind. Just as a baseball manager might sleep better at night knowing that he lost in the ninth inning with his closer rather than some secondary reliever, hockey coaches feel more secure when they are not vacillating between goalies. "I've been in playoffs where the other team's goalie has been shelled, their [backup] comes in and wins the series, and you wonder why the hell they didn't start the other guy in the first place," says Murray, hockey's foremost truth-teller. "But as a coach, when do you pull the trigger? You're condemned if you do it wrong, so we're all reluctant to make that change -- within a series in particular." Ottawa center Jason Spezza also notes that a team switching goaltenders in a series may give off an air of desperation that will embolden its opponent.
Even though Murray has abided the No. 1-until-done rule in recent playoffs, he sometimes utilized two postseason goalies while coaching the Capitals in the 1980s. "If a team is feeling real good about itself, it probably doesn't matter who plays goal so long he is adequate or above average," Murray allows, perhaps anticipating that he might need to make a switch this postseason. (Gerber has been highly vulnerable of late.) "I haven't done it [since Washington], but I don't think I would have a problem playing the other guy."
In the sweep of NHL history, playing "the other guy" has not always been a playoff solecism. The Toronto Maple Leafs won their last Cup in 1967 with Johnny Bower spelling Terry Sawchuk in four of the 12 playoff games. Montreal used Gump Worsley (11 decisions) and Rogie Vachon (two) to win the Cup the following year. And although the 1984 Edmonton Oilers, with Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog in net, are the last winners to rotate goalies -- only four Stanley Cup champions subsequently have had even a single playoff win from someone other than their primary goalie -- there has been a smattering of teams that reached the finals by wringing the most out of a tandem.
While the Flyers' two-man carousel of Ron Hextall and Garth Snow crashed against Detroit in the 1997 finals -- "It helped our team knowing they didn't know which one to go with," Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom says -- that duo did get them there in convincing fashion. (Philadelphia went 12-3 in the postseason before facing Detroit.) In 2002 the upstart Carolina Hurricanes reached the finals because coach Paul Maurice extracted plus performances from the unlikely pair of Arturs Irbe and Kevin Weekes. Peter Laviolette, Maurice's successor, won the Cup in '06 after starting the playoffs with Gerber in net, switching to rookie backup Cam Ward after Carolina fell behind Montreal in the first-round series, going back to Gerber for two games in the third round against Buffalo, then returning to Ward, who went the rest of the way.
"I know you're supposed to have a Number 1 and a backup, but from my experience I'm fine with a rotation," says Senators defenseman Mike Commodore, a member of the 2006 Hurricanes. "It's a lot to ask of one goaltender: maybe 25, 26 games, two months of hard hockey, lots of intense games in a short period of time with lots of travel. As long as you keep your goalies informed so they're not guessing when they're playing -- you don't want goalies flustered -- a rotation can work."
The dirty little secret, one that gives the lie to that second playoff truism, is that the pedigree of your postseason goaltender matters less than most people think. While the game genuflects to the well-crafted legend of the playoff goalie, and Conn Smythe voters adore netminders, the statistical gap among the 16 goalies expected to start this spring is modest: Their 2007-08 save percentages range from Ellis's .924 to that .902 of Hasek's. Indeed Brodeur, the postseason standard-bearer among active goaltenders, thinks a playoff goalie doesn't have to take it upon himself to win a series or even a Cup; he just can't lose it.
Former Canadiens general manager Serge Savard pushes the counterintuitive argument even further. He says goaltending might be the least important position on the ice, a startling assertion given that Savard won five Stanley Cups as a Canadiens teammate of Ken Dryden in the 1970s and was Montreal's G.M. in 1993 when Patrick Roy won 10 straight overtime games as the Canadiens captured their 24th Cup.
A new hockey truth might be taking shape: It's not that a team needs a great goaltender but rather one who merely gets hot during the playoffs. Since Brodeur won his third Cup in 2003, the goalies who played the deciding game in each of the last three finals have been Nikolai Khabibulin, Kiprusoff, Ward, Jussi Markkanen, Jean-Sébastien Giguère and Emery. There is no discernible pattern; the list runs from money goalies (Giguère, Kiprusoff) to seize-the-moment sorts (Khabibulin, Ward, Emery) to a journeyman (Markkanen). As long as the goaltending is, as Murray puts it, "above average," the deserving team should win any given series. Now, occasionally a goalie might surface who actually steals a Cup the way Montreal's Roy did as a rookie in 1986 and again in '93, but better team almost always trumps better goalie.
Despite the philosophical bent toward cementing a No. 1, pragmatism suggests there could be bigger upsets this spring than if Osgood wins a Game 7 or if Emery makes it back into the net. In the opinion of Pittsburgh Penguins coach Michel Therrien, who never hesitated benching Marc-André Fleury in mid-series when he coached him in the minors, Stanley Cup goaltending should be about numbers and not names. "Performance will dictate play," says Therrien of his postseason goalie strategy. In other words, even though Fleury earned the Penguins' starting job by going 10-3 after March 1, backup Ty Conklin should keep himself sharp.
While who's No. 1 has been a dicey issue for some of this season's playoff teams, many would be well served by looking out for No. 2.