What Is It About Backup Goalies That Drive the Kings Nuts?

A note for first-timers rink rats and novice hockey supporters: not everything in this beautiful game makes sense. There are ridiculous trades, boneheaded plays, and referee interpretations of “goalie interference” that makes my head nearly explode. And then we have this recent trend for the Los Angeles Kings, a team poised to return to the playoffs where they are accustomed to lengthy stays. How is it that this championship-level club continually struggles against backup goaltending?

Like I’m sure many of my fellow Los Angeleans (that’s a thing right? I’m committed to it at this point), I wish I could dismiss the Kings’ recent slip-ups as a measly fluke. But on their recent seven game road trip, the Kings managed to go a pedestrian 3-3-1, and in the process faced five backup goalies. They won two of those games against the second goaltender, each by a goal, with one victory needing overtime. This isn’t an anomaly or an outlier, this is a trend. “Seven single acts of indiscretion,” as Jim Carey’s character in the movie “Liar Liar” would say.

Is there a reason for the Kings’ constant struggles against backup netminders? Well as hard as it is to believe outside of the Los Angeles city limits, this pattern is not unique. In fact, many teams at all levels of hockey have to deal with this nagging issue. Allow me to explain in three sections:

Letting Their Guard Down

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You can rigorously train a hockey player into believing that all opponents are dangerous, and each should be regarded highly. But the words “Henrik Lundqvist will be sitting tonight” will be heard loud and clear. It’s just human nature. When you watch the Kings play a big game, one in which valuable points are up for grabs, you see a sense of urgency in the way they execute. The passes are crisp. The forechecking is relentless. And each player skates with a tenacity that never lets up. It’s what’s won the franchise two Stanley Cups this decade, and it’s what will be the driving force if they are to win a third.

Yet for all the hardworking that takes place against starting goalies, the Kings seem to far more passive when a new face is in net. Their skating strides aren’t as smooth. The pressure is inconsistent. And laziness, for whatever reason, creeps into the locker room like Matthew McConaughey sharing stories by himself in his Buick. There is a budding sense of entitlement when the backup goalie plays, as if the Kings believe it will be significantly easier to score goals. This is causing that extra step, that desire to generate an additional scoring chance, to lay in waste. L.A.’s shot totals against the Islanders, Devils, and Capitals were moderately high, but the quality was severely lacking.

Rallying Around the Backup

There is some thought that it is much easier to score on a backup goalie in an NHL game. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Sure, a team might be able to exploit a new netminder’s weak tendencies, and find offensive success in areas they wouldn’t have against a premier starter. But there is a bigger picture to consider. When a backup goalie gets the nod from his head coach, it lights a fire under the rest of the roster (or at least, it should). Our brother is getting his chance. We need to help him get this W. We need to get this done for him. The goalie is certainly a key piece in the lineup, but he is not the only piece. Every forward and defenseman sees a new goalie as an added duty to perform greater than expected. The results, much to the Kings dismay, have been an inspired level of play from their opponents.

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Against the Devils, journeyman goalie Keith Kincaid registered his first career shutout in a 1-0 New Jersey victory. Anybody who watched a segment of that game could identify that while Kincaid played flawlessly, his support system was equally dominant. The Islanders decided to play underrated backup Thomas Greiss when L.A. came to Brooklyn, and his teammates responded with three first period goals to show their support. You could even see the rallying effort in Washington D.C., where the league-best Capitals aided backup netminder Philipp Grubauer by forcing the majority of the Kings’ scoring chances to the outside, and chopping away at their endurance in the later stages. This game winning goal from Evgeny Kuznetsov (assisted by, OH MY GOD, THAT’S MR. GAME 7 HIMSELF, JUSTIN WILLIAMS!), highlights how worn down L.A. had become in the capital city:

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I see a lot of Kings standing around and watching, with little movement to match Washington’s frenetic pace. Sometimes a team needs a spark, and a coach will decide to switch which goalie starts in order to force his team to respond. It’s no different from when Kings coach Darryl Sutter decides to pull Jonathan Quick from his net early in a game, even when he is not at fault for the goals given up. The Devils, Islanders, and Capitals all raised their respective level of energy with a new goalie.

Playing Down to the Competition

I don’t want to belittle what appears to be a historical great season by the Washington Capitals, or the solid clubs that the Devils and Islanders have both assembled. But over the course of an NHL season, teams will not always have their best stuff each night, even if the energy level and determination is there. The Kings had chances to beat the Caps and the Devils, while the Islanders were practically holding the door open in the name of chivalry to invite L.A. back in the game. But those moments went unseized, and those chances were left unclaimed. The Kings still struggle in this regard, with the ghosts of a season ago still haunting their ability to win the games they should. Against a backup goalie, with all things equal, this team should have an advantage. Instead their opponents are overcompensating, and the Kings are underperforming.

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Now clearly the Kings are an established NHL enterprise, and every team is going to be blood-thirsty to hand them a satisfying loss. It should be expected at this point, given both the length of their current reign as an NHL power and the fact that it became the running Hollywood joke of last Spring. When faced with adversity, you can either play the victim or do something about it. The determination on this team is generationally great, and these players understand how to correct mistakes. Against a floundering Calgary Flames team, the Kings were trapped in the same ugly predicament. Backup goalie (Joni Ortio for the Flames), weak opponent, close game. Yet this time the Kings were able to overcome a slow start, take a second period lead, and avoid any hazardous breakdowns in the third. When the final horn sounded, it was a 2-1 Kings victory, just as it should be.

At some point the Kings will probably be able to figure out this pestering problem and nip it in the bud. The sooner the better, with the rising Anaheim Ducks and the persistent San Jose Sharks on their tail. This is the NHL, and in this league the starting goalies will be given a few nights off to rest up and recuperate. Just don’t assume that their teammates will do the same.