Every season sees someone unexpected step up out of nowhere and guide their team throughout the year. Some players such as Martin St-Louis and Patrick Roy came out of nowhere, performed well and became superstars, while others like Michael Leighton faded back into obscurity after their moment in the limelight.
This season four teams, the New Jersey Devils, St. Louis Blues, Tampa Bay Lightning and Vancouver Canucks are all relying on their backups due to the poor play of their starting goaltenders and it is paying off in wins.
The Devils had a poor season last year and few were expecting much this go around. Sure, Brodeur only played 80 minutes before leaving the second game of the season with a bruised right shoulder, but his play wasn’t exactly inspiring to that point. In comes Johan Hedberg who has been stable behind an underwhelming defense unit and the Devils are 4-2-1 and sit in eight place in the Eastern Conference despite playing fewer games than any other team in playoff position except the Washington Capitals. Brodeur’s contract is up after this season, so the Devils will have to find a replacement for the franchise player soon and the 38-year-old Hedberg certainly isn’t it long term. For the time being though, Hedberg is the guy providing the goaltending this team needs to make a playoff push.
Jaroslav Halak became a household name after taking the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens to the conference final in 2010, but now his goals-against average is a shade under 3.5 and his record stands at 1-4. Brian Elliott has stepped in and has the Blues back at .500 with a 3-0 record including wins over powerhouses Philadelphia and San Jose, despite the Blues being outshot 101-87 in those games. Their offense has yet to get going this season, so goaltending has been key. Halak can be streaky, but Elliott has been a starter in the past so he better get his game together in a hurry.
Dwayne Roloson just may be the top playoff goalie in the league, so it’s surprising to see him struggle so much, even having just turned 42, playing on possibly the best team of his career. The Lightning were impressive all around in the season opener, but Roloson fell apart after that, allowing at least five goals in each of the next three starts. Mathieu Garon lost his first two as well, but was playing better and earned the trust of coach Guy Boucher, who really had no other choice. He has given them the confidence they need to win in every start, including Tuesday night’s game against Buffalo in which he was named first star despite giving up two goals in the first 2:31.
Roberto Luongo is a notoriously slow starter, but this year he has Cory Schneider behind him, ready to show he is a number one goalie. He is 2-1 and played better in the loss than Luongo has at any point yet this season. This is an interesting situation because Schneider certainly has the potential to be a star, so what will happen if he continues to outplay Luongo? He can’t be moved, but Schneider would be an attractive option especially if he were to lead Vancouver up the standings. Regardless if they want to move him or not, it is definitely time he got a legitimate shot at the starting role and now is as good a time as any.
The real question for all four teams is should they stay loyal to the guy pegged to be the starter or go with the hothand. The answer should undoubtedly be the latter, though it is trickier for the Devils since Hedberg is out due to injury. Brodeur hadn’t played 100 minutes yet, but Hedberg has given the Devils a better chance to win this season and last and he should be allowed to take the team as far as he can. The change doesn’t have to be permanent, but it would be foolish for a team to ignore a goaltender on fire.