STRONGSVILLE, Ohio — There is a hockey cliché that the backup goalie has to prepare like he’s starting.
Even if he’s scheduled to wear a baseball cap and watch the game that night, the backup needs to be ready at a moment’s notice.
It’s a fair mantra, but if you ask Lake Erie Monsters goalie and Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Anton Forsberg, it’s an incomplete adage.
If you were to ask the 23-year-old Swede, that cliché would be re-worded this way.
“You have to be the harder worker — on the ice, off the ice,” Forsberg said. “A game is a long time — 60 minutes a game — that feels even longer (as a backup). So if you’re not playing you’ve got to work hard to make up for that.”
And when the time comes, that hard work pays off like it has for Lake Erie and Forsberg in the Calder Cup playoffs.
Joonas Korpisalo got the Game 1 start and won six straight games to open the playoffs against the Rockford IceHogs and Grand Rapids Griffins. Then the Finnish goalie ran into trouble and was pulled in back-to-back games of the second round.
The second time he got the hook, Forsberg came in and turned away all 23 shots in Game 6 against Grand Rapids, which set the stage for Zack Werenski’s series-clinching overtime goal.
That gave Forsberg the net for Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against the Ontario Reign (the defending Calder Cup Champions from last season as the Manchester Monarchs) and he took advantage of his opportunity.
In a surprising four-game sweep against Ontario, the netminder stopped 121 of 127 shots. That included a dazzling 41-save performance in Game 4 that required double overtime.
“It’s been a hell of a journey so far and the team has been playing real well, and I’ve been gaining confidence,” Forsberg said. “And now my game is real well … not right now I just need to maintain that confidence.”
That confidence is important for Forsberg heading into the Calder Cup Finals. It’s also important as he tries to prove himself as the goalie of the future for Columbus and wrestle that title away from Kopisalo.
This season Korpisalo was considered the top minor-league option for Columbus. When the Blue Jackets dealt with injuries, Korpisalo was called up and appeared in 31 NHL games this season, where he posted a 16-11-2 record and 0.920 save percentage.
Forsberg only appeared in four NHL games and posted a 0.907 save percentage this season. It was better than his five-game NHL stint during the 2014-15 season (0.866 save percentage, 4.66 goals against average), but not up to snuff in his mind.
It also didn’t make up for the fact he was outplayed in the AHL by veteran Brad Thiessen during the regular season.
Thiessen was signed this season to an AHL-ECHL two-way contract in Lake Erie, and was supposed to be their “insurance policy”. When pressed into action he had a team-best 0.929 save percentage and 1.95 goals against average in 22 games. In addition, Thiessen was named the AHL Goalie of the Month in February when he carried the Monsters through a stretch where both Korpisalo and Forsberg were in the NHL.
“It’s crazy how good all three of us have been playing. (Thiessen) has the best numbers out of all of us, he was (AHL) goalie of the month, and Korpi played the best up top (with Columbus),” Forsberg said. “So the goalie competition is real good and hard every day (in practice).”
And that competition will rage on into next season. While Thiessen has accepted his role as a minor league stop-gap, Forsberg and Korpisalo are doing their best to prove they should oust Curtis McElhinney as the second goalie in Columbus, behind Sergei Bobrovsky.
Hoisting a Calder Cup after starting the playoffs as a backup certainly won’t hurt Forsberg’s chances.