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Who's Your Goalie?

April 14, 2008
April 14, 2008

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April 14, 2008

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Who's Your Goalie?

An All-Star? A journeyman? A postseason neophyte? Playoff teams commit to one goaltender even when some, including top-seeded Detroit, might be wise to keep giving work to their backup

THERE ARE twolong-standing truths of playoff hockey, seemingly as plain as the oft-brokennose on Alexander Ovechkin's face. No. 1: A team needs to settle on a startinggoaltender and stick with him. No. 2: A team needs an elite goaltender to getto the finals. ¶ As the 2008 playoffs get under way, the time may have come totake 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 areentrusting their fate to goalies with middling credentials. Other clubs,adhering to that first postseason truth, have each designated someone as theclear No. 1 goalie, although his backup appears worthy of at least sharing therole.

This is an article from the April 14, 2008 issue

In a perhapsdubious effort to impose order on its playoff goaltending, the team with thebest record during the regular season, the Detroit Red Wings, gave the startingjob to 43-year-old Dominik Hasek—who most nights has his A game and some nightshas his AARP game—instead of 35-year-old Chris Osgood. The decision was reacheddespite the two having split the job evenly during the regular season; despiteOsgood's having won more Stanley Cups (two) than Hasek (one); and despiteOsgood's having a better save percentage (.914) and goals-against average(2.09) this season than Hasek (.902, 2.14). "Dom's the guy," generalmanager Ken Holland says of the two-time league MVP. "Dom has earned thatright through his career and by what he did for us last year [when Detroitreached 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 impressiveplayoff 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 wentto the finals. That was before Emery's dodgy behavior on and off the ice thisseason (late for practice, an alleged road-rage incident) made for psychodramathat has been wearying for the Senators.

Especially amongthe Stanley Cup long shots there is cold comfort in a position that is supposedto be the playoff rock. Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien, for example, stayedwith journeyman Tim Thomas (at 33, he was scheduled to make his postseasondebut this week) over reliable backup Alex Auld even while knowing thatThomas's improvisational style can lead to that playoff killer, the soft goal.In Philadelphia, Flyers coach John Stevens picked Martin Biron and his limitedlateral movement over Antero Nittymaki and a glove as useless as MichaelJackson's despite the fact that Biron's poor performance in the second ofback-to-back games this season suggests he is not a traditional, playoff-styleworkhorse. And although Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz appeareduncomfortable with both of his options—he yanked his goaltenders a league-high14 times this season—Dan Ellis, the nominal backup who had played one NHL gamebefore last October, was Trotz's choice over the more seasoned Chris Mason.

THE ISSUE ofWho's No. 1? may be less intriguing than Why even name a No. 1? If a team has astalwart such as the New Jersey Devils' Martin Brodeur or the Calgary Flames'Miikka Kiprusoff, the matter is, of course, moot (box, next page). But if ateam's goaltending has been muddy all season—the Senators swerved from analternating win-and-you're-in plan under former coach John Paddock to makingEmery 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 thathelped it qualify for the playoffs in the first place? "Things worked welldoing them a certain way," says Osgood of splitting time with Hasek thisseason. "Then the playoffs start and you feel the need to do it anotherway. I guess [naming a No. 1] is more traditional."

Holland, a formergoalie, has a different view. "I think [the team] needs to know you've gotone guy," he says. "A team needs to get into a rhythm, and you can't dothat 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 bybeing in there night after night."

That kind ofthinking 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 dealthat 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 haveput their postseason in the hands (and pads) of a goalie who has appeared inonly 41 regular-season games. Who knows how the precocious Price will performunder best-of-seven NHL pressure?

Perhaps the mostpowerful factor leading teams to rely on a clear-cut No. 1 surfaces becausespring 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 sleepbetter at night knowing that he lost in the ninth inning with his closer ratherthan some secondary reliever, hockey coaches feel more secure when they are notvacillating between goalies. "I've been in playoffs where the other team'sgoalie has been shelled, their [backup] comes in and wins the series, and youwonder 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 youpull the trigger? You're condemned if you do it wrong, so we're all reluctantto make that change—within a series in particular." Ottawa center JasonSpezza also notes that a team switching goaltenders in a series may give off anair of desperation that will embolden its opponent.

Even thoughMurray has abided the No. 1--until-done rule in recent playoffs, he sometimesutilized two postseason goalies while coaching the Capitals in the 1980s."If a team is feeling real good about itself, it probably doesn't matterwho 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 [sinceWashington], but I don't think I would have a problem playing the otherguy."

IN THE SWEEP ofNHL history, playing "the other guy" has not always been a playoffsolecism. The Toronto Maple Leafs won their last Cup in 1967 with Johnny Bowerspelling Terry Sawchuk in four of the 12 playoff games. Montreal used GumpWorsley (11 decisions) and Rogie Vachon (two) to win the Cup the followingyear. And although the 1984 Edmonton Oilers, with Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog innet, are the last winners to rotate goalies—only four Stanley Cup championssubsequently have had even a single playoff win from someone other than theirprimary goalie—there has been a smattering of teams that reached the finals bywringing the most out of a tandem.

While the Flyers'two-man carousel of Ron Hextall and Garth Snow crashed against Detroit in the1997 finals—"It helped our team knowing they didn't know which one to gowith," Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom says—that duo did get themthere in convincing fashion. (Philadelphia went 12--3 in the postseason beforefacing Detroit.) In 2002 the upstart Carolina Hurricanes reached the finalsbecause coach Paul Maurice extracted plus performances from the unlikely pairof Arturs Irbe and Kevin Weekes. Peter Laviolette, Maurice's successor, won theCup in '06 after starting the playoffs with Gerber in net, switching to rookiebackup 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, thenreturning to Ward, who went the rest of the way.

"I knowyou're supposed to have a Number 1 and a backup, but from my experience I'mfine with a rotation," says Senators defenseman Mike Commodore, a member ofthe 2006 Hurricanes. "It's a lot to ask of one goaltender: maybe 25, 26games, two months of hard hockey, lots of intense games in a short period oftime with lots of travel. As long as you keep your goalies informed so they'renot guessing when they're playing—you don't want goalies flustered—a rotationcan work."

THE DIRTY littlesecret, one that gives the lie to that second playoff truism, is that thepedigree of your postseason goaltender matters less than most people think.While the game genuflects to the well-crafted legend of the playoff goalie, andConn Smythe voters adore netminders, the statistical gap among the 16 goaliesexpected to start this spring is modest: Their 2007--08 save percentages rangefrom Ellis's .924 to that .902 of Hasek's. Indeed Brodeur, the postseasonstandard-bearer among active goaltenders, thinks a playoff goalie doesn't haveto take it upon himself to win a series or even a Cup; he just can't loseit.

Former Canadiensgeneral manager Serge Savard pushes the counterintuitive argument even further.He says goaltending might be the least important position on the ice, astartling assertion given that Savard won five Stanley Cups as a Canadiensteammate of Ken Dryden in the 1970s and was Montreal's G.M. in 1993 whenPatrick Roy won 10 straight overtime games as the Canadiens captured their 24thCup.

A NEW HOCKEYtruth might be taking shape: It's not that a team needs a great goaltender butrather one who merely gets hot during the playoffs. Since Brodeur won his thirdCup in 2003, the goalies who played the deciding game in each of the last threefinals have been Nikolai Khabibulin, Kiprusoff, Ward, Jussi Markkanen,Jean-Sébastien Gigu√®re and Emery. There is no discernible pattern; the listruns from money goalies (Gigu√®re, Kiprusoff) to seize-the-moment sorts(Khabibulin, Ward, Emery) to a journeyman (Markkanen). As long as thegoaltending is, as Murray puts it, "above average," the deserving teamshould win any given series. Now, occasionally a goalie might surface whoactually steals a Cup the way Montreal's Roy did as a rookie in 1986 and againin '93, but better team almost always trumps better goalie.

Despite thephilosophical bent toward cementing a No. 1, pragmatism suggests there could bebigger upsets this spring than if Osgood wins a Game 7 or if Emery makes itback into the net. In the opinion of Pittsburgh Penguins coach Michel Therrien,who never hesitated benching Marc-André Fleury in mid-series when he coachedhim in the minors, Stanley Cup goaltending should be about numbers and notnames. "Performance will dictate play," says Therrien of his postseasongoalie strategy. In other words, even though Fleury earned the Penguins'starting job by going 10--3 after March 1, backup Ty Conklin should keephimself sharp.

While who's No. 1has been a dicey issue for some of this season's playoff teams, many would bewell served by looking out for No. 2.

"If you're going to go on a long playoff run, thegoalie's going to have to be in a groove," says Holland. "He can onlyget into one by BEING IN THERE NIGHT AFTER NIGHT."

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PHOTOPhotograph by Tom Turrill/NHLI/Getty ImagesOLD HAND Hasek is the Red Wings' starter, despite Osgood's (inset) having better statistics.PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO[See caption above]PHOTOTONY TRIOLO (VAULT COVER)PHOTOGRAIG ABEL/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (GERBER)THE CHOSEN Gerber (below, left) got the nod over Emery (inset, left) in Ottawa; Fleury's run in Pittsburgh benched Conklin (inset, right).PHOTOJIM ROGASH/GETTY IMAGES (FLEURY)[See caption above]PHOTOJASON BRIDGE/US PRESSWIRE (CONKLIN)[See caption above]PHOTODAVE SANDFORD/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (EMERY)[See caption above]