With Injuries playing a major role during the regular season, how teams deal with losing players goes a long way in determining their postseason seeding and fortunes. Once in the playoffs, injuries can swing a series one way or another and cripple an otherwise healthy Stanley Cup pursuit. Particularly dire is losing your number one netminder. So, who can best survive such an unfortunate occurrence should it arise in 2012?
The St. Louis Blues come to mind as being the best suited this year because they have effectively split time between Brian Elliott (23-8-3, 1.48 goals-against average, .943 saves percentage) and Jaroslav Halak (25-12-7, 1.97 GAA, .925 saves pct.) all season with spectacular results. Each goaltender has proved to be equally sharp, so if one comes down with any type of malady, the Blues' look, feel and confidence won't change at all.
The Elliott-Halak tandem backstops the strongest defensive game in the league (1.86 goals-against per game). They are interchangeable as part of the Blues' overall team scheme. They focus on first shots and have the confidence down low to square up on the strong side, knowing that their teammates protect the weak side vigilantly. That's how you post more shutouts (15) than the Blues' 1968-69 tandem of legends Glenn Hall and Jacques Plante (13).
But what makes the Blues' "Ell-ak" combination so intriguing is that you just don't see a truly equal division of work very often anymore, where neither goaltender plays as many as 50 games, but neither has fewer than 30 starts. The Blues with Halak (45 starts) and Elliott (34) are the only playoff-bound team this year with such a make-up.
Contrast the Blues' situation with their Central Division rivals and it becomes apparent that, while only one goalie can play, it's nice to know that two are capable of delivering at the same high level. With Pekka Rinne and his league-leading 42 wins tending goal, the Nashville Predators can contend for the Cup. Not so much if forced to turn to Anders Lindback and his 3-8, 2.63 GAA regular season record in spot duty. Same for Detroit. Look at the struggles of the mighty Red Wings since All-Star Jimmy Howard vacated the crease just after the All-Star break. Sure, they've battled other injuries, too, but without Howard's consistent excellence, the Wings have had a tough time finding their collective game, no matter who is suiting up.
Most NHL teams have a definitive number one netminder. Without one, a coach will be more apt to switch goalies within a series while searching for that moment when a guy gets in a groove and generates momentum. That's what the Chicago Blackhawks did in 2010, splitting the regular season in Blues-like fashion between Antti Niemi and Cristobal Huet. Niemi took over down the stretch and played all but 20 minutes of the playoffs en route to the Cup.
Coach Joel Quenneville has again followed the same formula with the tandem of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery. Crawford had a nice showing a year ago in the Blackhawks' conference quarterfinal series against the Canucks, pushing them to seven games after trailing 3-0. Emery went to the Cup final in '07 with the Ottawa Senators and has resurrected his career. Neither goalie had any long run of success this season, but Crawford seized control in mid-February. That needed to happen for the Blackhawks to get themselves into the playoff mix and ready for the annual spring marathon.
Prior to Crawford's late season turnaround, though, goaltending remained a question mark for the Blackhawks. While the Blues' duo has been anything but questionable, at least one of their goalies will need to stay solid. Halak had a memorable playoff performance in 2010 when he backstopped the Montreal Canadiens to a surprising trip to the Eastern Conference Final. That resume note, along with playing slightly more than Elliott this season, probably gets him the nod to begin the playoffs as the Blues' No. 1.
I'll be shocked, though, if Elliott doesn't get in at some point. If he stays on the bench, it will mean the Blues are well on their way to a lengthy playoff run. And that's all any team is looking for, no matter who gets the start in goal.