Boston's Goaltending Strategy Extending Into The Playoffs

( Photo Credit: John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images )

By: Michael DiGiorgio  |  Follow Me On Twitter @BostonDiGiorgio

 

After Tim Thomas solidified a championship-winning run for the Boston Bruins in 2011, he took a longer than expected sabbatical from the NHL leaving Tuukka Rask the keys to the kingdom. Rask has been the Bruins sole beneficiary to their successful season since 2012. A recent question to Head Coach Bruce Cassidy by The Athletics’s Fluto Shinzawa has made Bruins fans wonder, how long until teams are using the same goalie tandems they’re using in the regular season in the playoffs?

Fluto Shinzawa’s question to Cassidy centered around how goalie tandems are so heavily used in the regular season, but perish in the playoffs entirely. Fluto asked if and when we will see the same regular-season timeshare used in the playoffs. “I don’t know if it will be this year. But I think eventually, if they’re structured that way during the regular season, then why would you necessarily change it in the playoffs? So I could see it happening, definitely. Absolutely,” Cassidy said during one of his pressers. For years, the NHL has relied heavily on one goaltender to carry a team throughout a playoff run. Martin Brodeur led his New Jersey Devils to three Stanley Cups; two of which he had played over 70 games in the regular season.

Dominik Hasek had played in 65 games before his first cup with Detroit. Jonathan Quick led his Los Angeles Kings to two cups, playing in 69 and 49 regular-season games in their respective years. Tim Thomas played in 57 regular-season games in 2011, before hoisting the cup in June 2012. Starting goaltenders have always been expected to play most of the regular season, and continue that regularity into the playoffs. Recently, the NHL has seen goalies’ workload split almost evenly between starter and backup in the regular season. Teams have been focusing on finding reliable backups who can give rest to their star keeper. It’s only a matter of time before we see this continue into the postseason.

Andrei Vasilvesky is Tampa Bay’s young promising goaltender, who has already won the Vezina Trophy (best goaltender in the regular season) at the age of 24. He was part of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s historic run last year when Tampa roared through the entire NHL racking up 128 points. The 2018-2019 Lightning won 76% of their games, in large part due to their lethal offense and stingy defense and goaltending. Vasilevsky played in 53 games last season. The Lightning were not only heavy favorites to sweep the Blue Jackets in the first round of the playoffs, but was predicted to walk into the Stanley Cup Final. The Lightning (and the rest of the NHL) were stunned to see the Columbus Blue Jackets sweep the series four games to none. Vasilevsky’s regular-season timeshare was questioned and many wondered if he was overused.

The 2019 Stanley Cup Final was represented by two goalies: Tuukka Rask and Jordan Binnington. Binnington at one time played for the Bruins’ farm system as an emergency loan before ultimately starting for the St. Louis Blues. The Blues were at the bottom of the standings by Christmas and were viewed as heading for a rebuilding year and sellers at the upcoming trade deadline. Jordan Binnington received the call-up because their current goalie, Jake Allen, sported a 2.83 goals-against average and a .905 save percentage. Binnington sparked a winning streak in the Blues and appeared in 32 regular-season games and eventually carried his team to the Final. Binnington’s usage during the regular season had been a unique situation, but the message stays the same: goalies who have more rest during the regular season enter the playoffs fresh. They fare extremely well the deeper the playoff run extends.

Tuukka’s situation was more common. He had never had a strong backup who could handle a larger workload. They swung and missed on numerous back-ups including Malcolm Subban, Zane McIntyre, and Nicklas Svedberg. Anton Khudobin seemed to handle the backup role quite well, but was given a two year, $5 million raise from the Dallas Stars and the Bruins were unwilling to match for a perennial backup. In the 2018 off-season Don Sweeney, current General Manager of the Boston Bruins, signed former New York Islander starter Jaroslav Halak to take on Rask’s backup duties. He was signed to a $5.5 million deal over two years, which exceeds Khudobin’s raise.

The difference here is that Halak was a long-time starter for the Canadiens, Blues, and Islanders. He had the resume that could withstand a long season with dependable starting opportunities, which is something the previous backups lacked. Halak most recently guarded the Islanders’ goal from the 2014-2017 seasons. The Islanders had a strenuous 2017-2018 season allowing the most shots on goal in the entire NHL, making Halak’s job harder than it already was. He posted a weak 2.80 goals-against average on Long Island. Halak came into Boston giving Rask something he wasn’t used to a reliable backup who can handle a substantial amount of starts appearing in 40 games in the 2018-2019 season. Halak was back to his old form in the black and gold posting a 2.34 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage.

 

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Halak’s reliable play put Tuukka in a fantastic situation to tend the twine deep into the playoffs. It, unfortunately, did not gain the Bruins a championship, but Rask was often the best player on the ice throughout the playoffs, which can be attributed to his regular-season rest. The closest we’ve seen to a team using a goalie tandem in the playoffs was the Pittsburgh Penguins during their historic run winning back-to-back championships in 2016 and 2017. In 2016, Marc-Andre Fleury was one of the team’s biggest stars, which is a high accolade playing alongside Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang. Fleury played in 58 games in the regular season, with a promising young goalie prospect, Matt Murray, only providing rest for 13 games.

Jeff Zatkoff played in the remaining 11 games. Fleury, a three-time Cup winner, was injured in the second game of the playoffs, ceding the crease to Murray. Behind some impeccable offensive firepower, Murray and the Penguins won their fourth Stanley Cup championship. The following season the two net-minders split time almost evenly. The Penguins gave Fleury the starting nod come playoff time. Fleury was a force in the first two playoff series, ensuring his team won both. He was eventually pulled in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals after allowing four goals on nine shots. Murray started the rest of the way, earning the franchise’s fifth championship.

The goalie tandem is not unheard of in the NHL but has not been viewed as best practice. Certain circumstances have shown that it is necessary. If a goalie in the regular season benefits from a reliable backup, what’s stopping that same philosophy in the playoffs? The Bruins are set up to be one of the best teams to test this theory, given they essentially have two starting-caliber goalies and a coach who is not afraid to play the hot hand, regardless of a player’s salary. These upcoming playoffs could come with an interesting twist if Cassidy decides that Halak and Rask can co-exist in the sport’s most crucial time of the year.

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