First, the good news: the Vegas Golden Knights will officially return to the playoffs this season after a one-year absence. However, any and all celebrations have been dimmed by the cloud of goaltending uncertainty, with only important games ahead.
Logan Thompson remains out with a lower-body injury, marking the All-Star netminder’s second extended stint on the sidelines in as many months. His backup for much of the season, Adin Hill, hasn’t played since also suffering a lower-body injury on March 7. For now, the crease belongs to the tandem of Jonathan Quick, who was acquired as insurance at the deadline, and Laurent Brossoit, who has only seen eight games of action this season due to his own injury woes. Even 2017 sixth-round pick Jiří Patera was thrown into the fire for two starts – both wins.
This patchwork goaltending arrangement still has the Golden Knights holding a narrow edge atop the Pacific Division with five games to go. That being said, it still doesn’t engender a great deal of hope for the postseason. Quick has the most playoff experience by a wide margin, but the 37-year-old has continued his shaky season (a 3.53 goals-against average and a .896 save percentage) since joining Vegas. Meanwhile, Brossoit has been solid (2.50 GAA, .918 SV%) but hasn’t been so good as to eliminate questions about his readiness.
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However, keep in mind that the Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings, their two chief division rivals, are dealing with goaltending issues of their own. It’s also worth remembering that the Golden Knights would hardly be the first team to enter the postseason with turmoil in net.
Here are some clubs that found success in the NHL’s second season despite significant puck-stopper questions:
Carolina Hurricanes, 2005-06
Martin Gerber entered the 2006 Playoffs as the Carolina Hurricanes’ undisputed No. 1, thanks to a 38-win regular season. However, in their first-round series with the Montreal Canadiens, it took 11 goals allowed over two ugly outings – reportedly influenced by the stomach flu – for Gerber to be benched. Enter rookie Cam Ward, whose middling 28 games of regular season experience was significantly less than any Vegas netminder.
The unproven first-year ‘tender would go 15-8 the rest of the way, with a .920 SV% and 2.14 GAA. The Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup triumph that spring wasn’t solely the work of the then-21-year-old, but he did earn Conn Smythe honors for his heroics. Who knows what would have become of Carolina’s Cup hopes that year if head coach Peter Laviolette hadn’t made the switch?
2017-18 Washington Capitals
Vegas fans would probably just as soon not be reminded of the Washington Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup triumph, but it fits the pattern. One forgotten aspect of their Cup run was that Braden Holtby, who posted shutouts in Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Final to give the Caps the chance to compete for the Cup, didn’t begin the postseason in net.
Following a bumpy end to the regular season that saw Holtby go 9-7-2 with a .887 SV% and 3.70 GAA after the All-Star break, Capitals head coach Barry Trotz went with backup Philipp Grubauer to open their first-round series with the Columbus Blue Jackets. A Game 1 loss and a slow Game 2 start later, Holtby was back in the crease. How did he respond? He went 16-7 the rest of the way with a 2.16 GAA and .922 SV% while delivering the franchise’s first and only championship.
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2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins
Few teams have entered the postseason with their goaltending as in flux as the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016. Franchise legend Marc-André Fleury was not yet Vegas-bound, but concussion symptoms had the current Minnesota Wild netminder on the sidelines. Matt Murray was in the midst of a stellar rookie campaign but was also injured ahead of their first-round series against the New York Rangers, leaving the crease to third-stringer Jeff Zatkoff.
Fortunately, the situation straightened itself out surprisingly quickly. Zatkoff outplayed Henrik Lundqvist in Game 1, while Murray returned to take the reins in Game 3. The rest is history. The 21-year-old rode a .923 SV% and 2.08 GAA to the first of two consecutive Stanley Cups. A healthy Fleury returned to the crease in the Eastern Conference Final, but a rough outing in a Game 5 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning ensured that he’d watch the rest of the Penguins’ triumph from the bench.
As we near the postseason, we know things haven’t gone to plan in the Golden Knights’ crease. But it’s worth remembering – other things that haven’t gone to plan include an All-Star nomination for Thompson or the acquisition of a two-time champion and former Conn Smythe Award winner in Quick. Vegas will surely need help, and it seems unlikely that any one goalie will handle every start, but they have options that could allow for playoff success. After all, it’s been done before.