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Panthers situation shows need for strong third goalie

by Kevin Woodley

It shouldn't have taken craziness in the Florida Panthers crease on Tuesday to remind teams of the importance of always having three NHL-capable goaltenders in their organization.

OK, it's rare to need three in the same game, which happened when Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya were injured against the Toronto Maple Leafs, setting off a wild scramble that saw each of them play while injured and 41-year-old goalie coach Robb Tallas gear up.

It's also becoming increasingly rare for a team to make it through an entire NHL season without using a third goaltender.

Season Number of Goalies to appear in one game Number of teams to only use 2 goalies entire season
2008-09 89 10
2009-10 83 11
2010-11 87 8
2011-12 89 11
2012-13 82 11
2013-14 97 3
2014-15 (after Ellis plays) 88 5

Six teams this season have played only two goalies, and that number will drop when Dan Ellis, who was called up by the Panthers on Wednesday, starts Thursday against the Dallas Stars. The Stars have used four goalies this season, one of six teams to do so. It will become seven teams when the New York Islanders use Michal Neuvirth.

So far this season, 87 goalies have appeared in at least one NHL game. Last season, 97 goalies got into a game, and three teams (the New Jersey Devils, Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks) got through the season playing two.

The 2013-14 total was the highest in six seasons. The fewest goalies used over that stretch was in 2012-13, when 82 goaltenders got into at least one game and 11 teams used two.

The best franchises build their own depth. Think of the Los Angeles Kings, who have been able to trade Jonathan Bernier, who they drafted and developed, and Ben Scrivens, because they also developed Martin Jones. And if the Kings need to move Jones or run into injuries, minor-league goaltending coach Kim Dillabaugh has Jean-Francois Berube on the rise in the American Hockey League.

The Vancouver Canucks have been able to go from Cory Schneider to Eddie Lack to Jacob Markstrom, in part because of the work they put in developing those goalies: one drafted, one signed as a later-blooming free agent, and one acquired as part of the trade of Luongo.

The New York Rangers have so far only needed to use 20-year-old No. 3 goaltender Mackenzie Skapski once while starter Henrik Lundqvist is out with a vascular injury, but you could certainly argue there have been signs of fatigue and diminishing returns at times for backup Cam Talbot and wonder if a more proven third-string option might have played more by now.

Other teams acquire goaltending depth through free agency or a trade.

Rookie Andrew Hammond has the Ottawa Senators back in the Stanley Cup Playoff race with a 5-0-1 streak since being called up because of injuries to Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner.

The Minnesota Wild's organizational goaltending depth was depleted by Josh Harding's illness, but they turned their season around by adding Devan Dubnyk in a trade with the Arizona Coyotes.

The Islanders, long a franchise that buys rather than builds its goaltending, will turn to Neuvirth as a third goalie this season after free agent Chad Johnson struggled backing up Jaroslav Halak.

Petr Mrazek got the Detroit Red Wings through serious injuries to Jimmy Howard and regular backup Jonas Gustavsson. The Calgary Flames probably would not be in playoff contention if not for rookie Joni Ortio's 4-1-0 run in January.

The Philadelphia Flyers asked 33-year-old third-string Rob Zepp to make his NHL debut ahead of Ray Emery when Steve Mason was injured. Calvin Pickard has more wins (six) and points (15) for the Colorado Avalanche than regular backup Reto Berra.

The St. Louis Blues brought in likely Hall of Fame goalie Martin Brodeur midseason because they weren't sure their third option was good enough after Brian Elliott was injured.

The importance of a competent third goalie isn't limited to surprise starting, and in a couple cases starring.

The Tampa Bay Lightning have turned to Russian rookie Andrei Vasilevskiy as their backup, though his emergence cost them additional depth by leading Evgeni Nabokov into retirement.

Even the teams riding a workhorse No. 1 need a third option.

The Washington Capitals and New Jersey Devils called up a third goalie to send the regular backup to the AHL to get playing time after prolonged spells on the bench.

The Chicago Blackhawks have 13 wins and .933 save percentage from Anttii Raanta and Scott Darling, who have flip-flopped between the backup and No. 3 roles this season behind Corey Crawford.

Sometimes the importance of a third goaltender goes beyond wins and losses.

On the night the Panthers were desperately searching for a third option in one game, the Vancouver Canucks were giving their third goalie his first start of the season in another. Former Florida prospect Markstrom lasted less than eight minutes in his season debut after giving up three goals on four shots against the San Jose Sharks, but the value of his start extended beyond that.

Usual backup Lack played four straight since Ryan Miller injured his knee, including a physical game against the Boston Bruins that included a couple of violent crease collisions. There were signs Lack's game was slipping while giving up 10 goals in his next two starts, a 6-3 loss to the Sabres and 6-5 shootout win against the Blues.

Having Markstrom start against the Sharks allowed Lack to spend the two previous days recovering mentally and physically while using the extra time before and after practice fine-tuning his technique with Canucks goaltending coach Roland Melanson.

Even though Lack didn't get the game off, that respite helped.

"To be honest, this was probably the best I felt in a while," Lack said. "I had time to get some repetitions with Rollie and I didn't feel tired and fatigued or anything. I felt like myself again."

That's why the Canucks, who are in the midst of 16 games in March without Miller, will probably need their No. 3 goalie again this season, and why it's a good idea for every NHL team to have that option.

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