Surprises, pleasant and otherwise, abound between the pipes
Heading into a season, every team has an outline for its goaltending. For some, their plans are already changing as the calendar flips to November.
For instance, the New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres hoped to find a few more games for their backups in order to keep Martin Brodeur and Ryan Miller fresher for the course of the long season. With both teams off to struggling starts at 3-8-1 and 3-7-2 respectively, rest is no longer a priority. They will have to rely on their top guys to backstop a turnaround in the standings. Brodeur and Miller -- last season's Vezina winner -- each have save percentages just above .900, which isn't up to their standards, but their teams have little choice now but to count on their marquee netminders raising their efficiency numbers lest they fall into a deeper, more pressurized hole.
Then we have the New York Rangers, who signed veteran Martin Biron with the intent of reducing Henrik Lundqvist's workload from his career-high of 72 starts last season. Problem is, with the team gaining momentum after a sluggish 1-2-1 start, Biron got the nod at home last Wednesday after a strong first outing (a win at Toronto on Oct. 21) and promptly gave up five goals on 25 shots in a 6-4 loss to Atlanta that snapped New York's three-game win streak. Lundqvist started the next game -- a 4-3 home loss to Carolina -- and the Rangers called on him again the following night in Toronto where he provided his tired team with a 36-save, 2-0 shutout. With a save percentage of .921 versus Biron's early .880 mark, letting the King rest on the bench with some regularity could prove to be better in theory than practice... and practice is where Biron will likely see more of his action than anticipated.
In Pittsburgh, starter Marc-Andre Fleury has struggled mightily, a continuation of the spotty play he exhibited last spring in the playoffs. That's not how the Penguins' brass envisioned their season commencing. In fact, after winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, Fleury has foundered at times and is now off to the worst start of his career. Fortunately, enter Brent Johnson.
Johnson is the perfect backup in that he can call on experience earlier in his career when he was the No. 1 in St. Louis and play a stretch of games with starter-quality results. He's been doing that and more when his team needs him most. His gaudy numbers -- 5-0-1 with a 1.16 GAA and .960 save percentage -- are made all the more pertinent when you consider Fleury's (1-5-0, 3.35 GAA, .863 save pct.). Johnson's run got the Penguins pointed in the right direction and tied atop the Atlantic Division with the Flyers as the new month begins, but it is now incumbent on Fleury to find his game while spending increased time on the bench.
Speaking of finding one's game, look no further than Boston's Tim Thomas. After winning the Vezina Trophy in 2009, he lost his starting job last season to rookie Tuukka Rask and required hip surgery in May. Healthy again and determined to regain his former status, Thomas almost defies belief at 6-0 with three shutouts -- his 0.50 GAA is the lowest through a season's first six games of any goaltender since the NHL's 1967 expansion. Last week's NHL First Star has a save percentage of .984 and has yielded just three goals. Rask, who lost both his starts, is back to biding his time while the Bruins ride their hot hand. Certainly, they welcome Thomas's top form, but coming into the season, they couldn't count on it, let alone his otherworldly October. A nice development to have in their favor.
While Thomas and Johnson are noteworthy stories in the east, Jonathan Quick's start out west for the Los Angeles Kings is impressive in its own right. With Jonathan Bernier in the goaltending mix after dominating in the AHL, many wondered how Quick would respond to the challenge. He's been magnificent in leading the Kings to an 8-3 start -- the best in the Western Conference. He worked hard in the offseason, shedding 12 pounds and focusing on improving his physical conditioning. Mentally, though, Quick's early play shows tremendous maturity. After a breakthrough 2009-10 season (39-24-7, 2.54 GAA, .907 save pct.), he didn't rest on his numbers. He came into this current scenario and put up a 7-1 record with a 1.84 GAA and a .936 save percentage -- bested only by Thomas and Johnson.
That's the type of response the Kings had hoped for. As a result of Quick's resolve, they can manage their netminders as planned, easing his workload overall by working Bernier into more action over the course of the entire season. At least that's the view in November. Matters in net are always subject to sudden, unexpected change.