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Using two goalies more prevalent in playoffs for many reasons

Injuries, style, form, intuition play into who gets net, succeeds in postseason

by Kevin Woodley / Correspondent

VANCOUVER -- Few coaches know better than Barry Trotz how hard it is to juggle two goalies when the Stanley Cup Playoffs arrive.

That's a good thing because Trotz, in his first season with the New York Islanders, might face the toughest goalie decisions among the 16 coaches whose teams qualify for the postseason.

Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss have near identical numbers this season, and Trotz said he could use each in the playoffs, which begin Wednesday.  

"We've had discussions; we're in a unique position," Trotz said in February. "We could actually go into the playoffs and say, 'Hey, you know what? We're just going to switch goaltenders.' It's happened before in my coaching career. I am not saying it's going to happen now, but you look at the save percentage, the wins, the losses, they are pretty well virtually the same."

Lehner is 24-13-5 with a .928 save percentage and five shutouts in 45 games (42 starts). Greiss is 23-14-2 with a .927 save percentage and five shutouts in 43 games (38 starts).

Video: NYI@WPG: Lehner dives across crease to deny Scheifele

The Islanders have allowed the fewest goals (191) of any team in the regular season, three fewer than the Dallas Stars.

Trotz has shown little fear in alternating goalies during the playoffs, which is becoming more commonplace but has not always been considered conventional.

While with the Washington Capitals last season, Trotz started backup Philipp Grubauer for the first two games of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Columbus Blue Jackets before switching to Braden Holtby, the No. 1 goalie throughout the season.

Holtby, who was struggling down the stretch, responded by winning 16 of 23 postseason games with a .922 save percentage and a playoff-best 2.16 GAA, and the Capitals won the Stanley Cup for the first time.

There was risk associated with those moves, but it wasn't even close to the riskiest goalie decisions Trotz has made during his coaching career.

During the 1996 Calder Cup Playoffs, while coaching Portland of the American Hockey League, Trotz started the postseason with Martin Brochu because he liked Brochu's ability to take away the bottom of the net in what he knew would be low-scoring, clutch-and-grab hockey. In the third round, he switched to Ron Tugnutt, a more reaction-based goalie, and rode him all the way to Game 7 of the Calder Cup Final before a 2-1 loss to Rochester, which was coached by John Tortorella, now the coach of the Blue Jackets.
For Trotz, it is a matter of feel when implementing a goalie rotation.

"You just have to go with the moment," Trotz said. "You can't go with your heart all the time. You have to go with what you see and what's real and then you adjust from there."

More and more NHL coaches have had to make similar decisions recently.

Each of the past four Cup-winning teams started multiple goalies during their championship runs. The 2016 Pittsburgh Penguins used three goalies: Marc-Andre Fleury, Matt Murray and Jeff Zatkoff.

This postseason, as many as six teams enter having used a goalie rotation to close out the regular season: the Islanders, Boston Bruins, Carolina Hurricanes, Calgary Flames, Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche.

In the case of the Stars, the situation arose because of injuries.

Ben Bishop leads the NHL with a .933 save percentage and is one of the best puck-handling goalies in the NHL, but he has battled lower-body injuries this season, as he has late in several recent seasons. Bishop has been out since March 27 but could play against the Minnesota Wild on Saturday, the final day of the regular season.

That made Anton Khudobin an ideal free agent addition last offseason, in part because he has enough experience in the backup role to handle gaps between starts, but also because he has proven capable of playing at a No. 1 level. His active, rhythm-reliant style seems to get better with a heavier workload. Khudobin has proven that again this season (.926 save percentage in 40 games), giving the Stars a great option if Bishop is injured, as well as the possibility of switching things up if Bishop falters. Khudobin has a less predictable style that can be tougher to pre-scout.

Boston has two unique options in longtime No. 1 Tuukka Rask, who is 27-12-5 with a .915 save percentage in 45 games while playing with a little more flow and reliance on rhythm than playing partner Jaroslav Halak, who is 22-11-4 with a .922 save percentage in 40 games and plays a more neutral, inside-out positional game.

The Avalanche mostly have been riding Grubauer, who has gotten hot late for a second straight season, with two shutouts and a .952 save percentage in his past 13 games. But Semyon Varlamov, who is 20-18-9 with a .910 save percentage in 48 games, has the kind of explosive athleticism and ability to turn around a series.

Carolina has two goalies with near-identical season save percentages but can always start with the athletic upside and late-season hot streak of Petr Mrazek, who is 12-3-0 with three shutouts and a .943 save percentage since Feb. 8, knowing that steady veteran Curtis McElhinney is no stranger to coming in cold and performing in pressure situations.

In Calgary, David Rittich has more wins (27) and a higher save percentage (.911) in 45 games than Mike Smith, who has 23 wins and an .898 save percentage in 41 games. But Smith has playoff experience, can alter an opponent's forecheck with his puck-handling skill, and has kept opponents to two goals or fewer in 10 of his past 12 starts since Feb. 18.

Video: CGY@LAK: Rittich makes flurry of saves

With all those options, the only sure bet seems to be that at least one of those teams will end up using both goalies.

"I don't think you have to have just one guy," Trotz said.

Recent playoff history shows you probably need two.

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