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Goalie rotation in playoffs could be popular choice

by Kevin Woodley /
This week, St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock once again declined to name his goalie for Thursday's Game 1 against San Jose. He wants to delay for as long as possible the decision on which half of the Blues impressive goaltending tandem will get the call to start the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It won't be an easy call.

Brian Elliott leads in the NHL in save percentage and goals-against average, and Jaroslav Halak, just two years from a magical playoff run in Montreal, isn't far behind him. Together they've matched a post-expansion record with 15 shutouts, so it's easy to understand why Hitchcock continues to run both out there, saying the real thinking starts with the playoffs.

The question is whether it really has to?

Tandems can work in postseason

Corey Schwab doesn't hesitate when asked why a straight-split tandem worked for the 1995 Albany River Rats, who won the American Hockey League championship by alternating starts between Schwab and Mike Dunham.

The key, stressed Schwab, was going back and forth all season.

"[Head coach] Robbie Ftorek said he was going to play us both and whether we won or lost, he was going to stick with the rotation," said Schwab. "So you knew going in you just played to win and then you were ready for the next game."

The rotation continued throughout the playoffs, with Schwab and Dunham, then a rookie, going back and forth every game en route to the Calder Cup and co-MVP awards.

Both now work as goaltending coaches -- Schwab as a development coach for San Jose and Dunham with the New York Islanders -- and both had nothing but good things to say about the way their tandem worked. Yet, neither expected to see anything similar in the Stanley Cup Playoffs anytime soon.

"Unless you go into the season, or spend the majority of the season going back and forth with two, I guess you could call them 1As, and both guys responding well to that type of scenario, I don't think a coach would do that," Schwab said. "Playoffs are a little different in that you do like to get in a rhythm. To both our credit we were able to support each other and mentally be strong enough to stay sharp. Again, credit to Ftorek for making it clear we were both going to play, being honest throughout the season, giving us chance to get into that sort of rhythm, and in playoffs saying he was going to do same thing."

Ironically, San Jose is the last team to come close to a strict back-and-forth in the regular season, with Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala trading starts for most of 2006-07 until a mid-February injury to Toskala allowed Nabokov to assume the No. 1 designation.

While every goaltender prefers the rhythm of playing every game, especially in the playoffs, both Nabokov and Toskala conceded at the time that the back-and-forth allowed them to maintain at least some semblance of that rhythm. For Schwab, the straight rotation 11 years earlier also removed a lot of the problems typically associated with trying to balance playing time for two goalies.

"There's a difference between having played a lot and just going out and letting your instincts take over versus not having played in a week or 10 days," Schwab said. "It's almost like it's something new to you because the speed is different than practice. You have to get used to it and once you start making a few saves and get into it, your instincts take over and there's less thinking involved."

There's also a lot less to think about between and during games when you know you're going right back in, which Schwab said removes a lot of the added mental pressure that comes from the win-and-stay-in mantra of some coaches.

"It's a little easier mentally knowing no matter what type of game your team has that night you are still going to get the opportunity to play again," he said. "If the other guy plays four or five in a row it can sometimes come into your thought process that 'if we don't win tonight I might not play for a couple of weeks.' But with the rotation it was easy to support each other and really want the other guy to win because we knew we were going to play the next game anyways."

For Dunham, a promising rookie coming off an NCAA championship in 1993 and representing the United States at the 1994 Olympics, the rotation provided a valuable lesson in preparation, while also keeping both goalies well rested.

"I think we both felt fresh," Dunham said. "What it did was had you learn how to play one game at a time and prepare yourself for that. If you had a good game or a bad game you knew you were going to be out the next game but had to be prepared for following game. It really taught me how to prepare for my game."

It came in handy during the Northern Division Final against Providence, when a circus in one of the buildings created a seven-day break between games. And it came in handy again later as the backup to workhorse Martin Brodeur for two years behind a stingy Devils team that didn't give up a lot of shots.

"It goes back to concentrating, making it a smaller game within the game, and breaking it into segments," Dunham said. "Marty has done that so well over his career, and the rotation is how I learned it in Albany before going up."

Doing so with a championship and playoff MVP was a bonus.

"It worked out for both of us," Schwab said, "we both won a Calder Cup and went on to NHL careers."

-- Kevin Woodley
Other than picking a name for Game 1, does the decision he's putting off really have to be made at all? Or could this be the year when the recent trend toward tandems translates into the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

History says no.

Despite a clear link between goalies that play less in the regular season having success in the playoffs -- since 2005-06, goalies in the Stanley Cup Final averaged fewer than 45 starts, Marc-Andre Fleury is only one over 60 games to win, and only one that played more than 70 games in the regular season has even made it to a Conference Finals -- the postseason preference remains to ride a No.1, with one goaltender posting each of the necessary 16 wins the past three postseasons.

Of course, history has rarely seen a tandem like in St. Louis, where the split is almost even and neither has gone much more than a week between games.

If nothing else, Hitchcock at least conceded that having two of the NHL's top statistical stoppers means he won't hesitate to keep going back and forth.

"I think for us, if it's not going well then we won't hesitate to make the move," Hitchcock said at the end of a longer statement about his Blues having similar faith in -- and playing the same way in front of -- both goalies. "We won't question whether the other guy can stop the puck. We already know he can."

Similar sentiments echo in the locker room of the Vancouver Canucks.

Incumbent Roberto Luongo, who backstopped the franchise within a win of its first Stanley Cup this past summer, is expected to be between the pipes when the postseason starts. But few would be surprised to see second-year backup Cory Schneider, who is second only to Elliott in save percentage amid a fantastic run since Christmas, also sees the net.

The same situation may play itself out in Florida. For weeks, the predominant train of thought was that Jose Theodore would be the No. 1. But, Scott Clemmensen has out-played Theodore down the stretch and made things much more difficult for coach Kevin Dinnen

The Vancouver controversy, though, has captured the headlines and caused a rift among Canucks' supporters. But at least one NHL goalie believes a two-goalie system could work in Vancouver.

After all, the Canucks' longest win streak this season came with the goalies going back and forth during the final few weeks of the season, including a seventh-straight win after Schneider replaced Luongo to spark a comeback.

"It could work," Phoenix backup Jason LaBarbera, who has played with both Luongo and Schneider, said of a playoff tandem. "There's obviously no proof it couldn't if you have two guys that are both great goalies. I think these guys [in Vancouver] could do it. You could keep both guys fresh and motivated. I'm sure Lu wouldn't want that, but it probably could be possible."

Possible, yes, but in the next breath LaBarbera stressed it's also improbable.

"I doubt it because coaches don't like to roll like that," he said.

Most prefer to stick with one guy, especially if he's an established No.1 or on any kind of a roll.

Often the first part means coaches are willing to wait for the second -- sometimes too long.

Only four teams have had two goaltenders post at least four wins en route to a Stanley Cup, and the most recent one -- Pittsburgh in 1990-91 with Tom Barrasso and Frank Pietrangelo -- was more than 20 years ago. Before that it was the 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers with Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog.

In both cases the split was caused by an injury to the No. 1, but it's not like a straight back-and-forth rotation has never worked before.

The Albany River Rats -- then the primary affiliate of the New Jersey Devils -- won the 1995 American Hockey League championship while alternating starts between Corey Schwab and rookie Mike Dunham, who were named co-MVPs of the playoffs.

"Pretty much the whole season we went back and forth and playoffs we did the same," said Schwab, now a goaltending development coach with San Jose.

Schwab praised the back-and-forth, saying it removed a lot of the normal pratfalls associated with using two goaltenders, including added mental pressure of the win-and-stay-in system used by some, while allowing both goalies to maintain a rhythm in net. It may not be the play-every-day rhythm preferred by most goalies, but there were also no extended periods of dormancy.

Still, Schwab doesn't expect to see a true playoff tandem used now.

"I don't think you are going to see that, especially in the NHL," agreed Dunham, now a goaltending coach with the New York Islanders. "The No.1 goalies are so good, and often the MVP of teams, that they are going to ride them in the playoffs."

That doesn't mean the backup can't still play an important playoff role beyond opening the bench door, or charting faceoffs from his front-row seat. With the quantity of quality No.2 goalies higher than ever before, there may be, as Hitchcock hinted, more willingness now to make a mid-series switch.

It worked for three-straight Stanley Cup winners from 2006 to 2008.

Carolina rookie Cam Ward took over for Martin Gerber en route to the 2006 Cup -- and Gerber even got another start in the Eastern Conference Final. Ilya Bryzgalov posted the first three wins of Anaheim's run in 2007 before giving way to Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who had been dealing with a health scare involving his newborn son. Chris Osgood supplanted a struggling Dominik Hasek during the first round before leading Detroit to the 2008 Stanley Cup. And Philadelphia used two goalies to get to the Cup Final in 2010 before losing to Chicago.

It doesn't always have to be about injury or indifferent play either.


NBC's unprecedented playoff exposure

By Dave Lozo - Staff Writer
For the first time in the history of the NHL, the Stanley Cup Playoffs will be broadcast in their entirety nationally. READ MORE ›
Tampa Bay rested last year's playoff hero, Dwayne Roloson, in the Conference Final, giving Boston a totally different look in Mike Smith before going back to Roloson. That's a scenario the Blues and Canucks might consider.

"You want to run with a hot guy," stressed Hirsch, "I think you want to have a guy that everybody is confident in and they know is the guy, but if you got to spell a guy off a little bit, I think that's OK."

Travel may also play a role. Anaheim is the only West Coast team to win a Stanley Cup, and it needed both goalies to do it. So, too, can a particular opponent or building have an effect. Luongo's troubles in Boston were well documented, and Schneider started (and won) the regular-season rematch there. So another meeting for the Cup may harken back to 1994, when the Devils sat out a rookie named Martin Brodeur so Chris Terreri could start all the games at the old Boston Garden.

The problem, Schneider said, is picking a proper time to make a switch.

"I do see the benefit, it's just tough to time. When do you decide?" said Schneider, who has insisted all along Loungo should start the playoffs.

Do it when you're up in a series and you risk providing the dreaded bulletin board material. Wait too long when you're down in a series and it might be too late.

Maybe the solution is to keep using both throughout?

"The interesting case would be St. Louis," Schneider said. "But the stakes are so high that every move you make would be so criticized if it doesn't work."

That may be enough to ensure we never find out if it could.

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