In These N.H.L. Playoffs, Backup Goalies Have Taken Center Stage

Sports


TORONTO — A number of N.H.L. groups had a sudden conundrum on this postseason: They might not depend on their No. 1 goaltenders to get them by the two-month grind. They needed to hope that their No. 2s might carry out like a No. 1 and will are available in chilly if wanted.

A number of of the 24 groups that participated within the restart had goalie controversies or shake-ups, and the performances of the backup turned their story within the postseason.

By the second spherical, six regular-season backups had been functioning as No. 1s, together with Anton Khudobin, who has performed extensively rather than an injured Ben Bishop and helped the Stars attain their first Stanley Cup finals in 20 years.

Khudobin, a 34-year-old from Kazakhstan, turned the postseason into his private showcase. Earlier than this postseason, Khudobin had appeared in solely two playoff video games. On Monday, he improved to 12-6 in 19 appearances this postseason (2.62 goals-against common, .920 save proportion, one shutout), together with wins in every of the Stars’ three most up-to-date video games as they closed out their Western Convention finals collection with Vegas.

At solely 5 ft 11 inches in a league of behemoth goalies, Khudobin backstopped Dallas to all three of its series-clinching wins. If he manages to take care of this degree of play within the Stanley Cup finals, he ought to discover himself as a candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy as essentially the most invaluable participant within the playoffs.

As a digital camera rolled contained in the Stars locker room after the victory, Khudobin shouted, “We’re not going home!” to a thunderous roar from his teammates. Ahead Tyler Seguin paid tribute to his goaltender by saying that Khudobin was a aggressive goalie who labored exhausting in apply. “He’s always been that goalie in practice that you don’t love shooting on because you don’t score much,” Seguin mentioned.

The Stars are Khudobin’s fifth N.H.L. staff in 11 seasons. Dallas signed him as a free agent two summers in the past after he had bounced round among the many Minnesota Wild, the Boston Bruins, the Carolina Hurricanes and the Anaheim Geese. Stars Common Supervisor Jim Nill was on the lookout for a high quality backup to Bishop due to all of the journey that groups within the West do.

“Boston and ourselves play a similar style of game, and I thought he would be a good fit with us,” Nill mentioned. “We did our homework as far as his personality. He’s infectious. He’s one of the best guys you’ll ever meet. He fits in any room. He leads the room. He’s a battler, he never gives up, and that’s why he’s having success now.”

Khudobin was spectacular in Sport 1 for Dallas, shutting out Vegas and turning into solely the 10th goaltender in league history to document his first postseason shutout at age 34 or later, attaining that feat simply in the future after Thomas Greiss (one other backup) had carried out so with the Islanders.

However the goaltending state of affairs nonetheless turned unsettled for Dallas within the Western Convention finals. The Stars went with Jake Oettinger firstly of the third interval in Sport 2 towards Vegas after Khudobin had allowed three objectives on 27 photographs by the opening 40 minutes.

Oettinger turned the one goaltender because the league expanded in 1967-68 to make his N.H.L. debut within the spherical previous the Stanley Cup finals. Khudobin returned for the opposite video games within the collection.

One other third-string goaltender discovered the candy spot on his staff.

Louis Domingue, 28, used the cooking abilities he discovered from his mom whereas rising up in St.-Hyacinthe, Quebec, to bake pies, cinnamon rolls and banana bread to maintain his Canucks teammates nicely fed within the league’s Edmonton, Alberta, bubble.

“They put their bodies on the line, so I decided to reward them,” Domingue told CTV News in Edmonton.

By the second spherical, solely the Philadelphia Flyers (Carter Hart), the Tampa Bay Lightning (Andrei Vasilevskiy) and the Islanders (Semyon Varlamov) had been virtually completely operating with their No. 1 goalies.

With groups enduring a monthslong layoff due to the coronavirus pandemic after which enjoying a compressed postseason schedule, stress was intense on the goaltender place proper from the beginning.

“It’s so different this year with so many teams playing back-to-backs in the playoffs,” mentioned Corey Hirsch, a former N.H.L. goaltender who’s a Vancouver radio analyst. “You’re getting a few more injuries, and you’re getting more backups who are getting opportunities to play.”

Bishop, the Avalanche’s Philipp Grubauer and Vancouver’s Jacob Markstrom all sustained accidents, and different No. 1 goalies had been changed, if solely quickly, after spotty play. One different, Boston’s Tuukka Rask, selected to go away the Toronto bubble and go residence. Cam Neely, the Bruins’ president, mentioned that Rask had informed the staff he had a household emergency. (A Boston sports activities radio host, Greg Hill, reported that he had spoken with Rask and had been informed that the emergency was a medical one involving Rask’s younger daughter.)

“At this time, there are things more important than hockey in my life, and that is being with my family,” Rask mentioned in an announcement that despatched ripples all through the league.

However the Boston state of affairs wasn’t as dire as first thought, as a result of the Bruins had a high quality backup in Jaroslav Halak — though he hadn’t received a playoff collection as a starter in 10 years, when he was with Montreal.

“You would expect there would be a massive drop-off,” mentioned Jamie McLennan, a former goaltender who’s an analyst for the Canadian channel TSN. “But that’s not the case with Halak. He’s been a starter. He’s played at critical times. He’s won playoff rounds.”

Halak obtained the Bruins by the opening spherical, however Boston misplaced in 5 video games to the Lightning in what could possibly be considered as a gentle upset as a result of the Bruins had been far and away the very best staff through the common season, successful the Presidents’ Trophy.

After the season was paused in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, goaltenders had issue holding sharp. It’s exhausting to make saves when there aren’t any gamers to shoot the puck.

“I was working off the ice,” Khudobin mentioned. “But I wasn’t able to find ice in my city at that time, because everything was on quarantine and closed.”

Partly due to that, a number of No. 2 goalies, a lot of them veterans, had been thrust into the highlight whereas off-ice conditions, of various varieties, performed out for Boston and Vegas.

A tweet introduced the Golden Knights’ goaltender battle into sharp focus when Marc-Andre Fleury’s agent, Allan Walsh, posted a picture on social media of Fleury being stabbed within the again with a sword. Fleury has been the face of the franchise in its three seasons, and he had been the No. 1 goaltender by the common season. However Robin Lehner, who had been acquired on the commerce deadline, took over as No. 1 within the playoffs.

The tweet might have pitted the goaltenders towards one another, however Fleury and Lehner shook it off.

“Me and Marc, we were just laughing,” Lehner mentioned. “Because it’s always the media who makes a big deal out of this. Me and Marc, we get along great. He’s a really good guy.”

Fleury requested that the tweet be taken down, and he addressed the information media afterward.

“Bottom line is we all want to win,” Fleury mentioned. “That’s why we’re here. I don’t like being a distraction for my team. I really like Robin. We have a good friendship, and I think he’s a really good goalie also. There are no hard feelings.”

After that drama, Fleury began Sport 1 of the convention finals in a 1-0 loss to Dallas, however Lehner returned to the beginning place for the following 4 video games.

In Vancouver, Thatcher Demko turned Mr. September for the Canucks when Markstrom was injured early of their second-round collection towards Vegas.

After not beginning for six months and watching Markstrom play all 14 video games by August, Demko obtained the beginning with Vegas up, 3-1. Within the subsequent two video games, Demko was sensible. He stopped 90 of 91 photographs, permitting Vancouver to win, 2-1 and 4-0, earlier than Vegas clinched the collection in Sport 7.

“There were times it felt like we could have played six hours and not scored,” Vegas Coach Peter DeBoer mentioned.

Demko, like many backups, took a self-effacing method. Maybe owing to his philosophy and psychology research at Boston School, Demko was in a position to cut back the state of affairs to its easiest phrases.

“My job is the same regardless of the score,” Demko mentioned earlier than Sport 7 with Vegas. “I’m just trying to keep the puck out of the net. When we were down, 3-1, our goal was to win one game at a time and eventually get to a Game 7, which is what we did.”

Fatigue, or lack of focus, can typically play a component in a beginning goaltender’s means to carry out for lengthy stretches, and a weak second can open the door for the backup.

The Islanders found that when Varlamov immediately developed cracks in his recreation towards the Philadelphia Flyers within the second spherical.

Moments after he had set a franchise shutout streak document, the Flyers jumped throughout him in Sport 2 of the second spherical, prompting the Islanders to alleviate him with Greiss, who additionally turned the shock Sport 7 starter and entered in aid in Sport 1 of the Jap Convention finals towards Tampa Bay.

For the Avalanche, when Grubauer was injured in Sport 1 of their second-round collection towards Dallas and dominated out indefinitely, Colorado turned to Pavel Francouz, who was in his first full N.H.L. season after enjoying professionally in Europe. However Francouz was yanked after permitting 5 objectives on 26 photographs in Sport 4, and the Avalanche began their No. 3 choice, Michael Hutchinson, for the ultimate three video games. Hutchinson received two straight earlier than shedding Sport 7.

Worldwide hockey is just not so reliant on the two-goaltender system as a result of tournaments are shorter, and though they often carry three goaltenders, groups in these competitions usually go together with the recent hand throughout.

As an illustration, Hirsch performed each recreation for Canada within the 1994 Olympics, successful a silver medal.

Within the N.H.L., over the course of an 82-game common season, coaches can’t use their No. 1 goalies in each recreation as a result of they might put on down. However that’s not the case within the postseason.

“In a playoff series, if one guy gets hot, just keep rolling with him,” Hirsch mentioned. “It’s also important for your team. It’s important to know who’s back there and know what they’re like and know that you have the confidence in that guy. A goaltender can be your stability piece for the rest of your team.”



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