The question is whether more will intentionally do so.
Last season, the Colorado Avalanche got 10 wins from Darcy Kuemper and six of Pavel Francouz en route to the Stanley Cup, proving that you no longer have to pilot a #1 goaltender all post-season to win.
Although it’s true Andrei Vasilevsky won the previous two seasons and was back in the Cup Finals last season playing every minute for the Tampa Bay Lightning, the need for goaltending depth in the playoffs became common.
Since 2015, five of the eight Cup champions have used more than one goalkeeper.
Philippe Grubauer started the first two games before Braden Holtby led the Washington Capitals to a title in 2018. Marc-Andre Fleury And Matt Murray shared the net for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2017, and Murray, Fleury and Jeff Zatkoff have each started the previous playoffs at some point. Corey Crawford started and finished as the Chicago Blackhawks’ starter for their Stanley Cup run in 2015, but they may not have made it out of the first round against the Nashville Predators without three wins from Scott Darling.
More teams are distributing starts more evenly in the regular season, but most have been reluctant to continue this practice in the playoffs, at least not on purpose.
The Capitals turned to Holtby after Grubauer lost the first two games. The Penguins went back and forth due to injury, Crawford struggled against Nashville, and Colorado temporarily lost Kuemper to an eye injury.
Could this season see some teams using two goalies by design?
“We think it can (work),” Minnesota Wild coach Dean Evason said. “We talked about different teams that won the Cup. There are many teams that have done it. We talked the other day about Washington, and they went back and forth and won the Cup. Both goalkeepers played important games. It’s done. We’ll see what happens when we get there.
The Wild have a choice of two top goaltenders in Fleury and Philippe Gustavssonwhose .932 save percentage this season is second in the NHL at Linus Ullmark (.937) Boston Bruins among goaltenders for playing at least 35 games. Fleury, who won the Stanley Cup three times in Pittsburgh, has a .922 save percentage since March 1, making it an interesting move for a team that faced a similar pick last season.
Arrived in Minnesota in an exchange from Chicago, Fleury mainly alternated departures with Cam Talbot, and everyone played well. But when the playoffs began, Fleury played the first five games before the Wild returned to Talbot facing elimination against the St. Louis Blues in Game 6. They lost 5-1 with Talbot allowing four goals on 26 shots.
The idea of a tandem in the playoffs has been discussed, Evason said.
“Who’s your guy? Does your guy have to play?” he said. “We talked about these scenarios. We didn’t rotate, but our two goalkeepers played all season. Would we be comfortable playing against both goalies? keep on going?
“It’s not going to be something that we’ll say we’re going to do 100 per cent when we get there. We’re going to do exactly what we’ve been doing all season and that’s assess game by game and make our pick. Hopefully that we will do the right thing.”
What factors might go into choosing a starter when goalies have similar stats?
Results against a specific opponent could play a role, or even how well a goalkeeper has fared statistically against specific types of scoring chances usually generated by the opponent. A goaltender who can handle the puck might be a better option against a team looking to create a forechecking offense. Fatigue could also become a factor.
Toronto Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe spoke in late March about considering the results of his goaltenders at home versus away. Ilya Samsonov is 18-3-3 with a .926 save percentage in 24 home games this season, but 7-7-2 with a .902 save percentage in 16 road starts despite just one goal allowed in his last two games, including a 31-save shutout at the Ottawa Senators on April 1. Meanwhile, Murray, who is currently out with a head injury and may not be an option for Game 1, is 5-2-1 with an .876 save percentage at home, and 9-6-1 with a .915 save percentage on the road.
“Something we’re definitely considering,” Keefe said March 31. “I don’t know how applicable that might be beyond the regular season…but it’s definitely something that’s got my attention.”
One solution that seems unlikely in the playoffs is to split starts evenly, although that has worked well for several teams over the past three seasons.
Fleury starts alternately with Robin Lehner for the final 24 games with the Vegas Golden Knights before the 2021 playoffs. Each played extremely well, but Fleury took control of the slot with a dominant performance in the first four games of the first round, ironically against the Wild.
“You don’t have to wait too long to get in the net,” Fleury said at the end of the season. “I’m playing, resting a bit, training hard, cheering for the next ‘Lenny’ game and then I can get back to it.”
The advantage is that none of the goalies get rusty compared to a late change in a series after one has been sitting out for a week or more. Knowing that you’re coming back regardless of the outcome also takes away any extra mental pressure that comes with a win and stay philosophy.
Los Angeles Kings goaltender Joonas Korpisalo was in rotation with Phoenix Copley since their acquisition from the Columbus Blue Jackets on March 1, and each has played well.
Coach Todd McLellan won’t reveal how he plans to handle playoff departures, or if there’s a chance the rotation will continue, but after winning the Cup as an assistant coach for the Detroit Red Wings in 2008, he knows the importance of having options. From 2006 to 2008, the Carolina Hurricanes, Anaheim Ducks and Detroit each used two goaltenders to win a Cup.
“We started with Dominik Hasek, a very good goaltender with a lot of experience and we had to go to Chris Osgood and by the time we finished they split the playoff games,” McLellan said. “You need it for momentum, you need it for injuries, you need it for certain opponents. I don’t know what we’re going to do yet, but I know we have options.”