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Backup goalies need to be seen more for Cup success

by Ken Baker
Roberto Luongo, Reimer, Ryan  Miller, Mike Smith, Kari Lehtonen, Martin Brodeur. The list of top NHL goalies who have been saddled with injuries so far this season reads more like a potential goalie rotation for the 2012 Tim Hortons NHL All-Star Game later this month in Ottawa.

With the long grind of an entire regular season, such is the reality of today's NHL, in which the practice of relying on a single starting goalie to remain strong and healthy enough to carry you to -- and then deeper into -- the Stanley Cup Playoffs increasingly is looking as out-dated as Bernie Parent's leather pads at the Winter Classic alumni game a few weeks back.
Speaking of the Classic, in an interview on HBO's 24/7. Rangers coach John Tortorella revealed that he wanted to play his No. 1 guy Henrik Lundqvist in about 65 of the team's 82 games this season in order to keep him fresh for the entire run. For you "mathletes" out there, that works out to appearances in about 80 percent of the team's regular-season games.
Is Coach Torts' "80-percent rule" a sound one?

No. In fact, he would best cut back King Henrik's current in-the-crease reign even further, as he did by giving him a night off on Saturday against the Leafs. 

Here's why:


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Hank has appeared in 74 percent of the games so far. But in today's hyper-physical game – rife with injuries, back-to-back nights, net-crashing forwards and big-body wingers regularly toppling on 'tenders -- even that many appearances can be too many to demand from your starter, who then will be expected to play 20 or more postseason games to reach the ultimate goal of winning the Cup. That's too much, even if the goalie is a seemingly indefatigable workhorse like Lundqvist.
Of course, Lundqvist has been dominant this season. And he has done so without any serious injury. But to roll the dice on a gamble that, at this pace, he won't get hurt, won't get mentally fatigued, and that backup Marty Biron will be adequately ready if any of the above does happen, is a risk the Rangers should not take if they want to take seriously the task of winning the Cup.
Torts might want to look at the anti-fatigue goaltending formula up I-95 in Boston, where Timmy Thomas has played spectacularly appearing in 68 percent of the Bruins games, with Tuuka Rask posting even better stats than TT while appearing in the minority. Last season, Thomas started 67 percent of games and backstopped the B's to a Cup win. A winning formula that the B's wisely appear intent on replicating.
Vancouver also is wisely divvying up their PT between Schneider and Luongo, with the team's nominal starter Luuuu playing in 66 percent of games. With the Canucks sitting atop the Western Conference standings, this balanced attack from the crease bodes well for them in the long term; as well as for teams like the St. Louis Blues, whose 50/50 Halak-Elliott tandem represents the most balanced split in the League.
But the luxury of having two starting goalies who give your team an equal chance to win every night, like in St. Louis, is not realistic for most teams, which must rely far more heavily on a No. 1. In some cases, this goes to an extreme: Nashville (Rinne, 91 percent of the team's starts), Anaheim (Hiller, 88 percent of the starts), Detroit (Howard, 84 percent), and Calgary (Kiprusoff, 80 percent of starts and 84 percent of games).
The temptation to play your (highly compensated) All Star-caliber goalie every game is certainly alluring. After all, coaches are under immense pressure to deliver immediate gratification (aka "wins") to fans and management. Plus, you'd be hard-pressed to find a goalie who actually wants to sit on the bench, even it is for his own good. But, as old hockey pros often like to point out: "The game's changed, boys."
Simply put: Gone are the days of 77-game marathon seasons from the likes of Martin Brodeur, where a team rides one goalie 'til he drops. In the new NHL, to rest is a virtue, to ride is to slide.
So what is the ideal percentage of games your No. 1 should play? It would be naive just to throw oUt a blanket number. Too many factors play into the equation – the age of the goalies involved, the number of games being played on back-to-back nights, the competitiveness of your division, the mental and physical stamina of your netminders. And, of course, injuries – be they nagging ones or those of a more serious nature.
But, safe to say, having a goalie play in 80 percent is not an ideal slice of the puck-stopping pie.  Likewise, less than 55 percent poses the risk of not having a main guy who can find a groove. The magic number lies somewhere in between.

So unless Torts really wants to hit Vegas way early before next June's NHL Awards, he should hedge his current goalie gamble and try to rest Lundqvist even more than he already has.

There's a reason why NASCAR drivers change their tires throughout the race. They want fresh wheels for the stretch, so they don't crash and burn.
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