As the playoffs loom, the Ducks, Stars and Blues must choose a clear No. 1 goalie.
If Frederik Andersen was looking to make a statement ahead of the playoffs, this probably wasn't the one he had in mind.
Brought in off the bench to replace injured starter John Gibson with Anaheim holding a 5–0 lead over Calgaryon Wednesday night, Andersen allowed three goals on just five shots to turn a rout into a nailbiter. Gibson eventually returned and shut out the Flames the rest of the way, leading the Ducks to an 8–3 win, but Andersen's shaky performance didn't go unnoticed.
"We realized Freddie wasn't sharp tonight, so we had to put [Gibson] back in," coach Bruce Boudreau said.
Sharpness hasn't been much of an issue for either of Anaheim's keepers of late. The Ducks are 5-1-1 in their past seven games and a league-best 31-8-4 since the Christmas break, establishing them as serious contenders to succeed the Blackhawks as Stanley Cup champs. Both Andersen (21-9-7, 2.36, .917) and Gibson (19-11-3, 2.04, .920) have carried the mail at times and both seem comfortable playing their part in a 1/1A sitaution.
But with the playoffs fast approaching, one of them is likely to become a clear No. 2. And Andersen, who has allowed 12 goals on the past 68 shots he's faced, is running out of time to prove it shouldn't be him.
Trusting the hot hand is a viable option in the regular season, but not so much in the playoffs where six of the past seven Stanley Cup champs have ridden one goalie to all 16 wins. That one exception: the 2015 Blackhawks, who turned to Scott Darling for three wins in their opening round series against Nashville before Corey Crawford regained his focus and carried Chicago through the final three rounds.
Boudreau might try to buck that trend by giving time to both his keepers early on. So could Lindy Ruff, who has Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi at his disposal in Dallas, or Ken Hitchcock, who has to choose between Brian Elliott and Jake Allen in St. Louis. But however the coaches of these Western Conference contenders play their cards, it's likely to be the most important call they make all season.
Ruff appears to be closest to making a decision, at least based on his heavy reliance on Lehtonen of late. The veteran has started 10 of Dallas' past 12 games, going 7-2-1. It's been his best stretch of hockey all year, but more telling than the record is the way he compiled it.
As evidenced by his second-rate 2.81 GAA, Lehtonen is still getting beat more often than most netminders. But according to War On Ice, he's all but eliminated the weak goals that plagued him earlier in the season. Those softies had a way of deflating the Stars, a team that's still learning how to be mentally tough. And while he still has to prove that he can make the saves he's supposed to make in the playoffs (and erase the memories of that disastrous 2014 series against the Ducks), Lehtonen looks up to the challenge.
Hitchcock is dealing with an embarrassment of riches in St. Louis. Elliott (three) and Allen (one) just combined to string together a four-game shutout streak and each has shown the ability to take the reins when the other has been injured. Elliott though is in the one who is totally in the zone and looks to have the advantage. He leads the league in both goals-against (1.92) and save percentage (.935) and is second in the league with six shutouts. He's won six straight on the road and he's been consistently thrifty, holding his opponents to a single goal or less in 12 of his past 17 appearances.
There are concerns about Elliott's lack of postseason success—he has just six wins and a miserable .897 save percentage in 19 career playoff appearances—and because Allen has been equally steady, Elliott might be on a fairly short leash. But barring a late collapse, he should be between the pipes when the Blues start the playoffs.
Boudreau though might have the toughest call of any of them. Both Andersen (Team Europe) and Gibson (Team North America) are good enough to be named to a World Cup of Hockey roster and both are NHL All-Stars. “Either one that’s in, they’ve won us games,” Boudreau told the OC Register at the conclusion of Anaheim's recent five-game road swing. “The game in Ottawa, Freddie stops a penalty shot and then he stops a breakaway in overtime. Gibby made some 10-bell saves, especially when we needed them to be made.”
Despite Andersen's recent struggles, it's clear that Boudreau has trust in both. And reading between the lines of many comments he's made during the past week, there's a sense that he may turn his nose up at history and at least enter the playoffs with a rotation. Or at least wait until he's sure of Anaheim's first-round opponent to see which goalie might give him an edge, and then re-evaluate his best option as the team progresses.
It's unorthodox, and it could backfire on him, but Boudreau's ability to push the right buttons has been reaffirmed over the past few months. If anyone has the guts and the opportunity to break with tradition, it'll be him.
The numbers game
• The Rangers and Predators can punch their tickets to the playoffs with wins tonight over the Hurricanes and Penguins, respectively.
• The Ducks have tied the NHL mark for longest regular-season home winning streak (23) against one opponent (the Flames, dating back to April 4, 2004). The Flyers beat the Penguins 23 straight in Philadelphia from Feb. 17, 1980 to Jan. 29, 1987.
• Alex Ovechkin has passed Dale Hawerchuk into 35th on the NHL's all time goals list (519).
• Eric Staal offers a heartfelt farewell to the city of Raleigh and 'Canes fans everywhere.
• Tyler Seguin thinks he and Justin Bieber would make great Facebook friends. Please let this happen.
• The woman who accused Blackhawks prospect Garret Ross of disseminating personal photos of her was “devastated” to learn of his reinstatement by the team. As we all should be.
• The Society for International Hockey Research offers this list of records that will never be broken.
• She's one of the best hockey players in the world, and she makes her living as a cop.
• It looks like another 50-goal season is not in the cards for Alex Ovechkin.
• Nobody draws penalties quite like Nazem Kadri. Some of 'em are even legit.
• Finally, here's a great piece on the connection between Stars center Vernon Fiddler and a special young fan.