Sports Minute: First-round back-to-backs favor NHL teams with 2 top goalies
By STEPHEN WHYNOAP Hockey Writer
Craig Berube remembers playing plenty of back-to-backs in the playoffs and actually likes them.
“I think it’s something the guys will look forward to,” the St. Louis Blues coach said. “There’s nothing wrong with it.”
Berube also wasn't a goaltender. But in Jordan Binnington and Jake Allen, his Blues do have two goalies capable of starting in the playoffs.
While back-to-backs are no longer common in the NHL postseason, the urgency to finish it this year means each first-round series has one set of them scheduled. Advantage goes to the teams that are able to rotate in a No. 1A netminder rather than tax a starter by playing him two days in a row.
"I think it’s a benefit for any team to have it," said Carolina coach Rod Brind'Amour, who successfully split his qualifying round back-to-back between Petr Mrazek and James Reimer to complete a sweep of the Rangers. “You can’t afford to falter too much, and so if one guy’s not sharp or you need to rest a guy, you can’t afford to give away games, so having both guys ready and capable I think is an asset for any team.”
Vegas general manager Kelly McCrimmon pointed to the Hurricanes' Mrazek-Reimer move as reason a two-goalie system can work this year. His Golden Knights earned the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference on the strength of Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner and could employ both as the playoffs go on.
McCrimmon couldn't see this future when he acquired Lehner from Chicago — Vegas' first-round opponent — at the trade deadline. Now, he's sure glad he did.
“It’s a bit of a luxury to have two goaltenders of that caliber, but it was an opportunity that presented itself and we just felt the risks of not moving ahead were greater than we were ready to assume,” McCrimmon said. “It’s back to back for a goalie, but it’s also three games in four nights for a goalie. ... It's an advantage for the teams that have that type of depth.”
Colorado coach Jared Bednar nods his head, even while shaking it when asked if he'll say whether Philipp Grubauer or Pavel Francouz is starting in net for Game 1 against Arizona. Seeing back-to-backs in the qualifying round prepared the Avalanche's coaching staff for this possibility.
Boston split its goaltending duties roughly 60/40 between Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak during the regular season as preparation for the playoffs. Keeping Rask fresh helped the Bruins reach the Stanley Cup Final last year, though coach Bruce Cassidy thinks the long break cuts into the benefits of his team's net-sharing strategy.
Cassidy said it's Rask's “ball to run with for now” and the Bruins will worry about their back-to-back later since it doesn't come until Games 5 and 6.
For the Dallas Stars and Calgary Flames, the back-to-back is Games 2 and 3. That led Dallas coach Rick Bowness to quip he needed to make decisions early because “we play four games in 5 1/2 days.” Good thing for the Stars that they have Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin — Khudobin started Game 1 — and the Flames can turn to David Rittich if Cam Talbot's performance slips.
The New York Islanders have that option too with Thomas Greiss, but they opted to play Semyon Varlamov in all four games of the qualifying round, including a back-to-back. Varlamov lost his first back-to-back of the season but bounced back to win Game 4 against Florida.
“I felt pretty confident and comfortable to play back-to-backs,” Varlamov said. “I’m in good shape, so I can do it, I guess.”
Philadelphia's Carter Hart feels the same way, even though the coaching staff has preferred to split back-to-backs between the 21-year-old and veteran Brian Elliott.
“We’ve all been there before,” Hart said. “it’s nothing that we’re not used to. If necessary, we’ll be ready for it.”
Some goalies are ready to shoulder the full load. Montreal's Carey Price, Tampa Bay's Andrei Vasilevskiy, Chicago's Corey Crawford, Washington's Braden Holtby and Vancouver's Jacob Markstrom are undisputed starters who could play every game.
Arizona's Darcy Kuemper very well may become that guy after an injury to Antti Raanta. Kuemper stopped 39 of 40 shots in the second half of the Coyotes' qualifying round back-to-back and can definitely handle the workload if need be.
“The last year and a half he’s played a lot of games for us,” coach Rick Tocchet said. “He’s a horse. And in these kind of things, these kind of play-ins into the playoffs, it favors those guys, the goalies that are big and they’re horses and they can play a lot of minutes."
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno.
More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
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