For the second consecutive spring, the Pittsburgh Penguins moved to Plan B before Plan A ever had a chance to materialize Wednesday night before their playoff opener against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Starting goaltender Matt Murray, Plan A, suffered a lower body injury in pregame warmups, forcing the Penguins to start Marc-Andre Fleury, Plan B, in what turned out to be a 3-1 victory.
That’s two years in a row the Penguins had no choice but to alter their goaltending plans due to injury right before the start of the playoffs.
Last year, Fleury had a concussion and rookie Jeff Zatkoff started the first two games of the opening round series against the New York Rangers, winning the first and dropping the second. Murray then took over, finishing off the Rangers with three straight wins before guiding the Penguins the rest of the way to the 2016 Stanley Cup championship.
Pittsburgh is in a unique and enviable situation this spring with two Cup-winning goalies to turn to, though it is clear Murray is the first choice, Fleury the second. Yet, what a luxury to have Fleury available to step in with Murray hurt.
So, what of the other playoff teams? Which teams have the best backup plans and which have the worst?
Let’s take a look at the ones which stand out the most.
The Best Backup Plans
Despite Fleury’s career-worst numbers (3.02 GAA and .909 save percentage) this past regular season, no other team has the luxury of switching gears to such an established goalie with two Stanley Cups on his resume as the Penguins do. In trying to win back-to-back championships, Pittsburgh held on to Fleury as expensive, yet valuable, insurance should Murray falter or get hurt. The Penguins already cashed in on that policy, and continue to do so until Murray regains his health.
Scott Darling not only had a terrific regular season with the Blackhawks (18-5-5, 2.38 GAA, .924 save percentage, 2 shutouts in 32 appearances), and filled in admirably when starter Corey Crawford was hurt in December, he proved his post-season mettle two springs ago as a rookie when the ‘Hawks won the 2015 Stanley Cup. Darling appeared in five games, won three of four decisions — two of the wins coming in overtime — and posted a 2.22 GAA and .936 save percentage. Crawford is the clear No. 1, and a two-time Cup winner, but Darling is an awfully good second choice.
Braden Holtby is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, and quite possibly will win the NHL’s top goaltender trophy again this year. He is the unquestioned No. 1 in D.C., and Barry Trotz plans to ride him through the Caps post-season run. However, should Holtby get hurt, Washington has an extremely talented backup in Philipp Grubauer. The 25 year-old Grubauer established career-highs across the board with 24 appearances, 19 starts, a 13-6-2 record, 3 shutouts, and a sterling 2.04 GAA this year. He has one game of post-season experience, a start and a win against the Islanders back in 2015.
New York Rangers
Given a two-year contract and a bigger role this season, Antti Raanta responded with the best year of his career, even earning four consecutive starts over a healthy Henrik Lundqvist back in December, picking up a pair of shutouts and allowing three goals in total. Coach Alain Vigneault has full confidence in Raanta (30 gp, 26 gs, 16-8-2, 2.26 GAA, .922 save percentage, 4 shutouts), who did get in to three of New York’s five playoff games against Pittsburgh last spring, though Lundqvist, even at age 35, remains the clear-cut No. 1 this spring.
John Gibson and Jonathan Bernier form a solid 1-2 tandem between the pipes for the Ducks; and Bernier even picked up 21 victories on the season (in 39 appearances). This is a case where if Gibson falters this spring, there is no hesitation turning to Bernier, even though he has only one game of post-season experience.
The Worst Backup Plans
There’s a reason Cam Talbot started a league-high 73 games this year, above and beyond the Oilers No. 1 put forth a tremendous campaign between the pipes. Edmonton’s goalie depth is just about nil behind Talbot, who tied for the league-lead with 42 victories. With veteran Jonas Gustavsson out of the picture, 24 year-old Laurent Brossoit, a sixth round pick who did post a 1.99 GAA in eight appearances this season, is the name the Oilers hope you do not hear mentioned at all this spring. Several years ago when Talbot was the backup with the Rangers, the phrase was In Cam We Trust. This spring in Edmonton? It’s Cam or Bust.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets have one of the best No. 1 goalies in the game in Sergei Bobrovsky, a former Vezina Trophy winner who is among the favorites to capture this year’s award again. He started 63 of Columbus’ 82-games this year and earned 41 of their 50 victories, while fashioning a 2.06 GAA and .931 save percentage. However, the issue is the Blue Jackets are in a major fix if Bob gets hurt, even when considering his spotty track record in the playoffs (14 gp, 10 gs, 2-7-0, 3.46 GAA, .890 save percentage). Joonas Korpisalo is the backup plan, certainly not one John Tortorella plans on deploying except under the worst possible circumstances. An injury to Bobrovsky, and the Blue Jackets are cooked.
This may be a bit unfair to Al Montoya, a capable veteran backup who had some good moments with the Canadiens this year, but if Carey Price goes down at any point this spring, so, too, will Montreal’s playoff hopes crash and burn. Perhaps no one team’s post-season fortunes rest on one player’s shoulders as much as the Canadiens and Price; and his loss would be crippling to Montreal’s psyche. Yes, the Canadiens nearly surprised the Rangers in the 2014 Eastern Conference Final with Dustin Tokarski in net after Price’s injury sidelined him the rest of the series. However, at the end of the day, they did not win that series, and it’s hard to imagine they’d fair half as well this time around if forced to play without Price.
Jim Cerny has covered the National Hockey League for more than two decades. He has handled play by play duties for the New York Islanders, hosted the NHL Live talk show, been a hockey writer for The New York Times, and spent the previous nine years as the Digital Content Producer for the New York Rangers offical team web sites and social media accounts.