As the backup goaltender for the Tampa Bay Lightning, Curtis McElhinney is a few rungs lower on the importance ladder than about half the team. At least that’s the perception. Tampa has arguably the best goalie in the league manning the pipes on most nights in Andrei Vasilevskiy. So all you need is a guy to come in every once in a while, be serviceable when called upon, then go quietly to the back of the bench until needed again. Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong.
So many armchair goalies out there think that McElhinney’s job is one of the easiest in pro sports. Not so much the position he plays, but the frequency of which he has to play it. This season he has gotten the nod in just seven contests. That’s compared to 26 starts for Vasilevskiy. McElhinney currently sits 62nd out of 86 goalies to have played in at least one NHL game this season. Of the 24 goalies he’s in front of, 12 of them were emergency call-ups or rookies getting their one and only start of the campaign.
Is that enough games for a backup goaltender to play and be a real help to the incumbent starter? The answer is an emphatic no. Even in a year with just 56 regular-season games, starting goalies playing multiple back-to-backs in a row for weeks on end will take something out of them heading into the playoffs. And the guy you definitely do not want mentally fatigued after the regular season ends is Vasilevskiy.
McElhinney Needs to Play More to Preserve Vasilevskiy
When Vasilevskiy on his game, which, let’s face it, is pretty much every night, the Lightning have the advantage over every opponent they face. Yes, Tampa has the firepower that not many teams can match, especially with a healthy Nikita Kucherov in the lineup. But everybody knows the backbone of the team is Vasy, even more so than Victor Hedman.
Vasilevskiy is being talked about as a potential Hart Memorial Trophy winner, the first goalie to do it since the 2014-15 season when Carey Price won it. This goalie is special, and the Bolts need to do anything and everything to make sure he’s right as rain heading into the postseason. That’s where McElhinney comes in. He needs to step up and play solidly when asked to, so head coach Jon Cooper isn’t so reluctant to give Vasy a night off more often.
His stats for this season are substandard by most measures for an NHL caliber shot-stopper. The record is a mediocre 3-3-1, with the personal stats not much better. McElhinney’s goals against average (GAA) is a paltry 3.16, to go with a subpar .880 save percentage (SV%). Is this due to the infrequency he’s been given the chance to start? Or is it because Cooper knows he’s seen better days and doesn’t want to lose any ground to the hard-charging Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers.
Cooper has to understand that the road to repeating as Stanley Cup champs will be a lot easier if the team finishes first instead of second, or even third. Winning the division means only having to play one of the other two teams mentioned in the first two rounds. In the Central Division this season, these three teams have demonstrated their collective superiority over the other five teams for most of the season. As the gap gets wider between the top three and whoever finishes fourth, it becomes clear that there are two races going on.
Vasilevsky Is the Key to a Stanley Cup Repeat for the Lightning
There’s a real chance either of the Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Nashville Predators can win that fourth-place spot. Even the Dallas Stars have a shot just seven points out of it with seven games in hand. As these teams kill themselves to just make it into the playoffs, whoever wins the division will most certainly be playing a compromised opponent. Sometimes those teams end up being really dangerous, especially in the first round, but that’s not the case this season.
The chasm between the top three and the next four teams this season is too wide. Aside from the odd game here or there, the only teams that have given Tampa a real problem are Carolina and Florida. The Blue Jackets are usually a pesky team to play against, especially against the Lightning, but this season is a down one for them. So much so, that head coach John Tortorella has been on the hot seat for about two months.
The Blackhawks, Preds and Stars can all present problems, but none of them have nearly enough to beat the Bolts in a seven-game series. That is if Vasy is mentally sharp and rested going into the playoffs. A tired starting goalie has been the Achilles heel of many a superior team in the past. Conversely, a goaltender that hasn’t been overworked, especially with the talent of Vasilevskiy, can be nearly impenetrable. The only way to ensure that is McElhinney must get more starts going down the stretch. The only way to ensure the Bolts win the division is for him to step up and give the team a chance to win when he’s in there.
Former competitive hockey player at the D3 college level. I have also worked as a hockey referee, time keeper and assistant youth coach, as well as being a longtime member of USA Hockey. I started creating sports content covering the Tampa Bay Lightning, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Orlando Magic for BackSportsPage.com