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Goalie rotation could be key for bubble teams

by Mike G. Morreale
The compacted March schedule the NHL's "bubble teams" greet coming out of the Olympic break will make or break their season.

No NHL team will play fewer than 14 games in March, while the Atlanta Thrashers and Nashville Predators have the unenviable task of navigating through a 17-game slate.

One would assume the heavy workload would bode well for those clubs possessing a strong two-goalie rotation. In fact, don't be surprised if more than a few goalkeepers are acquired by teams prior to the March 3 trade deadline to add depth down the stretch.

"I think it's really important," New Jersey Devils forward Zach Parise told, "especially if your goalie is going to the Olympics, playing hockey there and then having to deal with all the games in March. We're going to need both (Martin Brodeur and Yann Danis) to be fresh for the playoffs."

Nashville Predators goalie coach Mitch Korn is hoping his team will rise to the occasion behind goalies Dan Ellis and Pekka Rinne. The Predators are seventh in the Western Conference, just two points ahead of eighth-seeded Calgary.

The Predators face a stern test in March. In addition to their 17-game schedule, they'll be pushed to the max with back-to-back games on four different occasions.

"I hope it's going to be an advantage for us because on back-to-back nights or when you play three games in four nights, it'll give you someone who's a little bit fresher," Korn said. "The margin between victory and defeat in this League right now is an eyelash and on any given night it could sway so easily."

Ellis (13-11-1, 2.59 goals-against average, .913 save percentage) and Rinne (20-12-4, 2.80 GAA, .902 save percentage) have performed admirably when put to the test this season.

"Any time you can have two guys carry a load, it always helps," Ellis said. "When you play that many games, there's always the risk of burnout or injury riding one guy. It's never a bad idea to keep both guys fresh, but there are different theories at this point of the year. Sometimes you want to get one guy rolling and that's kind of been our trend as of late. But, either way, you always have to prepare yourself for any opportunity you get."

Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, spectacular in the Olympics for Team USA, has 52 of the Sabres' 60 games, going 30-14-7 with a 2.16 GAA and .930 save percentage. Backups Patrick Lalime and Jhonas Enroth have combined to go 3-4-2 with a 3.67 GAA and .894 save percentage in 11 games, leaving coach Lindy Ruff with some tough decisions to make upon resumption of the season. The Sabres play 16 games in 31 days, including four back-to-back situations.

While Nashville coach Barry Trotz is pleased with his two goalies in the fold, he won't shy from sticking with the hot hand for longer stretches if the opportunity presents itself.

"I think whoever is hot is the way to go with us," Trotz said. "If we can go on a run where someone is really carrying the ball, for us it'll be really important to string 5-6 wins together to vault us into a good position, so it's more of who can get hot. Both of their numbers are similar in terms of goals-against and save percentage. (Rinne) has a few more wins, but our goal production for the goalies is a slim margin on most nights."

The Predators have averaged 2.70 goals per game while allowing 2.79, leaving little margin for error.

Devils captain Jamie Langenbrunner, whose team plays 15 games in March, doesn't feel a two-goalie rotation is as critical as some make it out to be.

"I think each individual is different," Langenbrunner said. "Some goalies feel they need some time off and some feel like they need to play all the time. I think you have to base your decision on a person-by-person basis. Because of the back-to-backs and the amount of games, you're definitely going to need two guys to play at different times. But obviously, and especially in our case, we know one guy is going to play a majority of them."

Langenbrunner is referring to Brodeur, who already has established an NHL record for career games by a goalie with 1,057. He's played in 58 of New Jersey's 61 games this season, while backup Yann Danis has seen time in just nine games (3-1-0, 1.85 GAA, .932 save percentage).

"Anytime you can have two guys carry a load, it always helps. When you play that many games, there's always the risk of burnout or injury riding one guy. It's never a bad idea to keep both guys fresh." -- Dan Ellis

"I think (March) will be a big time for positioning in the standings," Brodeur said. "You just need to start streaking the right way to try and gain some headway. Regardless what position you're in -- whether you're 12th or third in the division -- it doesn't matter and that's the thing that everyone has to be conscious about. But that's kind of the beauty of it. The trade deadline is only a couple days after the Olympics and teams are going to have to make a decision because no one is really out. That makes it interesting."

Looking at it from a purely statistical point of view, the Boston Bruins seem to have the most formidable duo in the Eastern Conference, with Tuukka Rask (14-7-4, 2.08 , .928) and Tim Thomas (13-15-7, 2.52, .915). In the Western Conference, the Chicago Blackhawks, behind Cristobal Huet (24-11-4, 2.29 GAA, .903) and Antti Niemi (17-4-1, 2.16, .913), seem to have an edge.

The Bruins, who have 16 games in March and three back-to-backs, are seventh in the East with 65 points -- two behind sixth-seeded Philadelphia. The Blackhawks, with 15 games slated and four back-to-backs, are second in the West -- two behind top-seeded San Jose.

"March is going to be that last push for teams, really," Nashville defenseman Ryan Suter said. "If you're hot in March, you'll be sitting pretty. It's important to come back from the Olympic break and feel rejuvenated -- ready to make that last push."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: mike_morreale

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