History not on side of goalie tandems in Stanley Cup hunt
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It has been 44 years since a team won the Stanley Cup with two goalies sharing the postseason workload more or less equally, but this spring we may see at least one attempt to buck an entrenched trend.
The Anaheim Ducks and Dallas Stars successfully employed netminding tandems during the regular season, with the Stars winning the Central Division and top seed in the Western Conference. The Ducks took the Pacific title. Anaheim boasts two keepers, Frederik Andersen and John Gibson, who were awarded the Jennings Trophy after allowing the fewest combined goals (192). A concussion suffered in late March by Andersen (36 starts; 22-9-7, 2.30, .919), who was the Ducks’ starter during their playoff run last year, opened the door a bit for Gibson (38; 21-13-4, 2.07, .920) to be the No. 1, but coach Bruce Boudreau hasn't ruled out using them both in this year's tournament.
“We’re very happy with our two goalies,” he says. “At some point, I think both of them are going to play in the playoffs. We don’t know who’s starting, but we’ll go over it and we’ll figure it out. Sometimes you look at little things. Because there’s decisions that are so close how you weigh them, one way or the other. It’s nitpicking but that’s what you have to come up with when the decisions are tough.
“I don’t know how we’ll handle the conversation, but we’ll handle it right.”
A tandem often works very well in the regular season, especially for keeping each goalie from wearing down, but historically speaking, it hasn’t in the playoffs. The 1971-72 Bruins, coached by Tom Johnson, were the last team to win the Cup with a duo—Gerry Cheevers (8) and Eddie Johnston (7)—splitting starts en route to the title. Postseason tandems were common in the 1970s and '80s. Billy Smith and Chico Resch backstopped the Islanders to four Cup semi-final rounds in five years from 1975 to '79, but New York's 1980-83 dynasty wasn't launched until Smith became the undisputed starter. Since 1990, duos have carried only seven teams as far as the conference finals. The most recent was the Philadelphia Flyers, who reached the 2010 Cup final with Michael Leighton (14 starts) and Brian Boucher (12) between the pipes before falling to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games.
Most often the clear number one carries the entire load, or nearly all of it, with a backup called upon in instances like last year's when Scott Darling stepped in for a shaky Corey Crawford and started two games during Chicago’s first round series against Nashville. Crawford returned to the starter's role for rounds two through four and Darling did not see action again. In the Cup final, Tampa Bay Lightning backup Andrei Vasilevskiy earned a win in relief of injured starter Ben Bishop in Game 2 and started Game 4 vs. Chicago.
Prior to the '71-72 Bruins, only six teams since the NHL's first season (1917-18) had won the Cup while using two (or more) keepers: the 1927-28 New York Rangers (Joe Miller, Lorne Chabot, Lester Patrick); 1936-37 Detroit Red Wings (Normie Smith, Earl Robertson, Jimmy Franks); 1950-51 Toronto Maple Leafs (Turk Broda, Al Rollins); and Montreal Canadiens in 1952-53 (Gerry McNeil, Jacques Plante), '64-65 (Gump Worsley, Charlie Hodge) and '68-69 (Rogie Vachon, Worsley).
Despite the sketchy history of goalie duo success in the playoffs, Boudreau, who is known for making gutsy calls, is wrestling with the questions of who, when and how often.
So how will it affect their chances of going all the way? SI.com checked in with Cheevers and Johnston, the last tandem to do it, to find out their thoughts.
On how they were able to make it work:
Gerry Cheevers: Eddie and I alternated the whole year, so if I was good and he was bad or vice versa, it didn’t matter, we knew who was playing the next game. We were always on the same wavelength. We alternated through the year and it was quite successful.
Eddie Johnston: I think it was because of the rapport Gerry and I had with the coach and each other, we went through most of the year the same way, so it wasn’t a big change for us.
On if using a tandem added any extra pressure or complications for team chemistry:
Cheevers: It’s not like we got out there and had pom poms cheering for each other, but we were both interested in one thing and that was the Stanley Cup. That’s all that really counted. If I never played a game, and Eddie played three in a row, as long as we won the Cup, that’s all that counted. I don’t know what the attitude is today, but if you’re on a team that’s any good and has a chance to win the Cup, both goalies have to be on the same page.
Johnston: It adds a little pressure because you want to stay in there, especially in the playoffs, but we had such a good rapport and knew the circumstances going in, so it was never a problem with the two of us. You’d never root against him because the more you win, the closer you are to getting the Cup.
On the advice for teams looking to do the same this year:
Cheevers: I think once the coach names your goalie, outside of not being able to stop a beach ball, you’ve got to go with him in a short series. If you change goalies because you lost, you’re letting the other 18 players off the hook. They’re not going to say it publicly or even amongst each other, but subconsciously, they’re going to say "we lost because of the goalie" and that’s not necessarily true. If I was coaching again, and thank god I’m not, I would say "Joe" is playing the first game and that’s it, we’ll go from there. Unless there’s a great disparity between the two goaltenders, I don’t know why you’d ever change.
Johnston: I coached in the league [Chicago 1979-80; Pittsburgh 1980 to '83, 1993-97] and going into the playoffs, you know who’s really on his game, so you start with him. God forbid, anything happens, you’re not afraid to change. That’s where your confidence comes in as a coach. You’re not saying, ‘Aww s---, he hasn’t played for a while, I can’t take the other guy out.’ You’ve got to think of the other team too. If they score five or six on one guy, they’re pumped, so you’ve got to come back with the other guy. Now if the other guy comes in, they have to change the way they play and all sorts of things. You can’t look too far ahead, though you can’t say the one guy’s going to play the first three games or anything like that. No, no, when you get into the playoffs, you know who’s playing well, so you stick with him. It’s not only confidence for the goalkeeper, it’s also confidence for the players and the team.
On if they think another team will win the Cup while using two goalies:
Cheevers: Anaheim and Dallas are both certainly capable of winning the Cup. I think it will happen. I don’t know if it’s going to be intentional. But I look at it this way: You can probably win using two goalies. How you use them? I don’t know. I just know that it’s not an accident that an alternating system hasn’t won the Cup in so long. In a short series, you can’t let the team off the hook by constantly changing goalies.
Johnston: Those teams have so much confidence in both of those guys, it’s not like either one is having a few bad games where the coach has to say he’s going to put so and so in tomorrow, and if he plays well, the other guy’s done. Going into certain rinks, certain goaltenders just feel really comfortable, so you’ve got to do your homework and check out how the one guy’s played in this rink, how the other guy’s played, all that comes into effect. If you take the Anaheim situation, both of those guys are playing terrific, and you have to look at certain teams when you start the playoffs. Certain teams have a certain team's number. Some teams play better against certain goaltenders and vice versa. You have to weigh all of those things. But [the Ducks or Stars] are certainly capable of winning it all.