And so the fate of the Calgary Flames rests with . . . Leland Irving?
Of all the fascinating scenarios unfolding in a compressed 48-game NHL schedule, perhaps none are as intriguing as the goaltender carousel.
Even more than in the normal 82-game slate, goaltending is a huge make or break factor as teams try to qualify for a playoff position. With more games played in fewer days, and myriad back-to-back dates, starters need their rest – but can backups be trusted?
The Flames may soon find out. Miikka Kiprusoff had played every minute of every Calgary game until he left Tuesday’s game against Detroit after 40 minutes with a lower body injury. Irving, with all of 7 previous NHL games experience, finished off the 4-1 Flames victory over the Red Wings.
Irving saw his first game action of the season on the same night that Buffalo Sabres backup Jhonas Enroth was embarrassing himself on a couple of soft Senators shots in a 4-3 Ottawa win. While the Sabres tried to fight back from a 4-1 deficit, the hole was too deep. Predictably, as Enroth unravelled, the camera panned to starter Ryan Miller sitting on the Sabres bench, getting a rare night off.
“We need better goaltending, there’s no secret to that,” Ruff told reporters afterward. “I think (Enroth) will admit that he has to have a couple of those.”
Enroth has given up nearly five goals per game while losing both his starts. How can Ruff stick to his pre-season plan of having Miller play in about 38 games with Enroth handling 10?
Enroth isn’t the only backup the Senators have exploited. They had a field day when Peter Budaj started for the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 30, allowing five goals on 27 shots. In Sunday’s rematch in Montreal, Carey Price was in goal for a 2-1 Canadiens win despite the fact Price played the day before against Buffalo.
In some cases, backups are doing their jobs, giving their teams a chance to win while giving starters a badly needed break. In rare cases, backups are raising the bar, outperforming the alleged No. 1.
In a very public way, the Vancouver Canucks planned to hand this year’s starting assignment to Cory Schneider while erstwhile starter Roberto Luongo backed him up, at least until Luongo could be moved in a deal. How’s that working out?
On merit, Luongo has swiped his job back, sending Schneider’s agent, Mike Liut, into spasms over his client’s playing time. Liut said he hoped the Canucks would come to a “resolution” soon, by which he meant – get Luongo on the next flight out of town. But if you’re Canucks general manager Mike Gillis, how do you move Luongo when he has clearly been the better goalie? Vancouver would be in a world of hurt without Luongo’s three victories. He has been there to help the Canucks record eight of the team’s 12 points.
There are less celebrated examples of backups threatening to steal the thunder of the starter. With the Carolina Hurricanes, Dan Ellis has been terrific while Cam Ward tries to regain his usual form. Ellis shut out the Senators last week and has recorded half of Carolina’s four wins.
In Anaheim, where the surprising Ducks have handled some of the top teams in the Western Conference, including the San Jose Sharks, backup Viktor Fasth, a 30-year-old Swedish league veteran signed as a free agent last May, has been as big a factor as starter Jonas Hiller. Fasth and Hiller each have three victories, but while Hiller’s numbers are below average, Fasth has sparkled in his three starts, 3-0-0 with a 1.30 goals-against and .946 save percentage. Fasth was scheduled to start again Wednesday night against Colorado.
Elsewhere, Mathieu Garon has been strong in relief of Tampa Bay starter Anders Lindback, and former Senator Ray Emery has been reliable for the Chicago Blackhawks when No. 1 Corey Crawford sits. And who is the starter in Pittsburgh these days, is it Marc-Andre Fleury or Tomas Vokoun?
Acquiring the 36-year-old Vokoun from Washington in a draft day swap that only cost the Penguins a 7th round pick may turn out to be a godsend for Pittsburgh. While Fleury picked up the 4-2 win against the New York Islanders Tuesday, Vokoun – with three victories — rescued Pittsburgh, one of the east’s top contenders, when Fleury struggled early on.
While Washington and Florida can’t string together wins regardless of who starts, the Toronto Maple Leafs have had middling success with James Reimer and Ben Scrivens. Reimer seems to have settled into a starter’s role, but is just 3-3. It was Scrivens in goal for the Leafs win over the hapless Caps Tuesday.
Pick a team with a winning record and you’ll find a strong goalie behind it. That includes Ottawa’s Craig Anderson, the NHL’s first star for the month of January, starting his seventh straight game Thursday against the Hurricanes.
Backup Ben Bishop has only had one start, a loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Does he get another shot versus Winnipeg Saturday?
It takes a strong No. 1 to contend, but in a condensed season, clubs may find out they need a reliable No. 2, too.