One Timers

Backup goalies more valuable than ever in NHL playoffs

(Photograph by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire)

When Andrei Vasilevskiy replaced Ben Bishop on Wednesday night, it easily could have been construed as a bold, surprising move. Instead, it was more of the same in this year’s NHL playoffs. Outside of rare clear-cut No. 1 goaltenders like Braden Holtby and Roberto Luongo, the NHL has become a multiple-goalie league. In the regular season, netminders get playing time based on streakiness, and this postseason has proven that the playoffs are not in a different animal in that regard.

Of the 16 playoff teams, seven have used more than one goaltender so far, while only nine used have used one. The teams that used only one goaltender include:

  • Chicago Blackhawks
  • Florida Panthers
  • Los Angeles Kings
  • Minnesota Wild
  • Nashville Predators
  • New York Islanders
  • San Jose Sharks
  • St. Louis Blues
  • Washington Capitals

Out of those nine teams only five remain, leaving a quarter of the playoff teams remaining that have used only one goaltender.

Taking a closer look at the four squads leaves only two with a clear-cut No. 1 goaltender that will not be usurped in the postseason. While the Islanders, Sharks and Blues have Jaroslav Halak returning from injury soon and James Reimer/Jake Allen waiting in the wings should Martin Jones/Brian Elliott have any kind of a setback, the Predators and Capitals will go to battle with Pekka Rinne and Braden Holtby—and only those two. Other teams that used one goaltender saw mixed results, including and perhaps especially the Wild.

They learned the hard way that backups have become more important than ever in the NHL. During the entire 2014-15 postseason, 26 goalies were used, with only 21 playing in more than one game. This postseason 23 goalies have already seen action, with 22 of those playing in more than one contest. Minnesota did not acquire or find a reliable backup to Devan Dubnyk during the regular season, so he was forced to play with a broken index finger after Game 1, hindering his ability to backup the already challenged Wild defense against the potent Dallas Stars offense.

For the most part, having more than one goaltender at the ready has not proven to be the key to winning, but it has proven to be a useful tool. The Anaheim Ducks and Philadelphia Flyers both fell in the first round despite getting .947 and .981 save percentages from one of their two goalies due to those goalies not playing the entirety of their respective series. On the other end, the Stars defeated the Wild despite their goaltenders each posting below average numbers. Still, Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi each won games in the series, proving to be adequate enough when swapped in and out of the net.

Perhaps the best example of the importance of a strong backup goaltender came on Wednesday night in Tampa Bay. With Ben Bishop having one of the worst playoff performances in his career, Jon Cooper tabbed Vasilevskiy to take over in net. Vasilevskiy, one of the top goaltending prospects in the NHL, shutdown the Islanders offense for the remainder of the game, giving the Lightning a chance to come back. Tampa Bay went on to lose the game, but the match likely would have resulted in a blowout had Tampa Bay not had a backup ready.

There will be close fought battles across the NHL for the remainder of the postseason, and only two of the remaining eight teams have clear No.1 goaltenders manning the net. Pittsburgh has seen rookie Matt Murray and playoff rookie Jeff Zatkoff each win games. San Jose has playoff-rookie Martin Jones coupled with James Reimer. St. Louis has the future in Jake Allen combined with the present in Brian Elliott. Dallas has the two stooges trying to keep their team in the game, and even the Islanders have suddenly-stellar Thomas Greiss combined with Halak.

Across the league there are options, and this year it seems more likely than ever that those options make differences in the playoffs.

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