Having one set of back-to-back games in each first-round playoff series is an unusual scheduling quirk this year that could tip the balance toward teams with two capable starting goaltenders
After a season of splitting goaltending duties to keep them rested for the playoffs, Bruce Cassidy knew several months off had cut into that well-planned advantage for the Boston Bruins.
With the back-to-back in his first-round series against Carolina set for Games 5 and 6 more than a week away, Cassidy figured his staff could “cross that bridge when we come to it” on how to handle the workload. Then, the five-overtime marathon between Tampa Bay and Columbus on Tuesday pushed Game 1 of Carolina-Boston back to Wednesday and created another back-to-back dilemma.
“We’re going to let the game play out first,” Cassidy said.
Fortunately for the Bruins, they have goalies Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak ready for anything.
Back-to-backs are no longer common in the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs, but the urgency to finish them this year means each first-round series has one set of them scheduled. Advantage goes to the teams that are able to rotate in a No. 1-A netminder rather than tax a starter by playing him two days in a row.
“I think it’s a benefit for any team to have it,” said Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour, who successfully split his qualifying round back-to-back between Petr Mrazek and James Reimer to complete a sweep of the Rangers. “You can’t afford to falter too much, and so if one guy’s not sharp or you need to rest a guy, you can’t afford to give away games, so having both guys ready and capable I think is an asset for any team.”
Vegas general manager Kelly McCrimmon pointed to the Hurricanes’ Mrazek-Reimer move as reason a two-goalie system can work this year. His Golden Knights earned the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference on the strength of Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner and could employ both as the playoffs go on.
McCrimmon couldn’t see this future when he acquired Lehner from Chicago — Vegas’ first-round opponent — at the trade deadline. Now, he’s sure glad he did, with Lehner starting Game 1 for the Golden Knights on Tuesday night.
“It’s a bit of a luxury to have two goaltenders of that caliber, but it was an opportunity that presented itself and we just felt the risks of not moving ahead were greater than we were ready to assume,” McCrimmon said.
“It’s back to back for a goalie, but it’s also three games in four nights for a goalie. … It’s an advantage for the teams that have that type of depth.”
Colorado coach Jared Bednar nods his head, even while shaking it when asked if he’ll say whether Philipp Grubauer or Pavel Francouz is starting in net for Game 1 against Arizona. Seeing back-to-backs in the qualifying round prepared the Avalanche’s coaching staff for this possibility.
Craig Berube, coach of the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, is a fan of back-to-backs dating to his playing days. He expects players to look forward to it and has been saying since training camp he expects goalies Jordan Binnington and Jake Allen to each see work in the playoffs.
Goaltenders Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin of the Dallas Stars and Cam Talbot and David Rittich of the Calgary Flames are in the same boat. Dallas could easily flip to Bishop next after Khudobin allowed three goals in a series-opening loss, and the Stars and Flames play their back-to-back in Games 2 and 3 Friday and Saturday.
The New York Islanders have the option of turning at any point to Thomas Greiss, but they chose to play Semyon Varlamov in all four games of the qualifying round, including a back-to-back. Varlamov lost his first back-to-back of the season but bounced back to win Game 4 against Florida.
“I felt pretty confident and comfortable to play back-to-backs,” Varlamov said. “I’m in good shape, so I can do it, I guess.”
Philadelphia’s Carter Hart feels the same way, even though the coaching staff has preferred to split back-to-backs between the 21-year-old and veteran Brian Elliott.
“We’ve all been there before,” Hart said. “It’s nothing that we’re not used to. If necessary, we’ll be ready for it.”
Some goalies are ready to shoulder the full load. Montreal’s Carey Price, Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, Chicago’s Corey Crawford, Washington’s Braden Holtby and Vancouver’s Jacob Markstrom are undisputed starters who could play every game.
Arizona’s Darcy Kuemper very well may become that guy after an injury to Antti Raanta. Kuemper stopped 39 of 40 shots in the second half of the Coyotes’ qualifying round back-to-back and can definitely handle the workload if need be.
“The last year and a half he’s played a lot of games for us,” coach Rick Tocchet said. “He’s a horse. And in these kind of things, these kind of play-ins into the playoffs, it favors those guys, the goalies that are big and they’re horses and they can play a lot of minutes.”
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno.
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