Shots on Goal: Elusive Starts
By Peter Maingot
This is the time of year when teams ride their No. 1 goalies heavily in an attempt to either secure a playoff berth, improve their seeding, win their division, and/or possibly lock in home ice advantage for at least a couple of rounds. Owners need to be very hands-on these days if they want to maximize their goalie starts. They also may need to dump underperforming "names" (Stastny, Duchene, Hejduk, Neal, Hartnell, etc) sometimes in order to pick up a backup goalie or a hot lesser "name". Time is very much of the essence.
We'll look at some teams where starts are up in the air and/or there are injuries affecting the rotation. Sorry, but we're going to ignore some of the league doormats and other teams (Rangers, Predators, Devils, Blues, Canadiens, Canucks) that will be playing their top goalie for pretty much the rest of the season.
The Ducks' playoff drive, which had been derailed by the injury to All-Star goalie Jonas Hiller, has been given a major boost by the play of the recently acquired Dan Ellis. Ellis, an afterthought in Tampa Bay after they traded for Dwayne Roloson, has been lights out since his arrival in Orange County. In six games with the Ducks Ellis is 4-1-1 with a 2.25 GAA and .911 SV %.
Ondrej Pavelec was out of the lineup from Feb. 26 to Mar. 8 and missed four games. So what does Pavelec do upon his return? He merely stops 35 of 37 shots in a 3-2 win at Carolina. Pavelec makes for a decent spot starter for contending roto squads, as the Thrashers players are playing for jobs next season and it's a young team that should still have its legs this far into the season. Moreover the return of Pavelec and the infusion of new blood in Wheeler and Stuart should keep them enthused.
Injuries on the blue line have a to be a concern for Thomas and Rask owners alike. Andre Ference remains out of the lineup with the dreaded "lower-body injury" designation and the B's have lost their last three games. With Ference out there's a shortage of grit on the back end. Guys like Tomas Kaberle and rookie Steve Kampfer aren't very physical while rookie call-up Matt Bartkowski is a relative unknown. Bartkowski did rack up 145 PIMs in 80 games in college but it's a lot easier to act tough when everyone's wearing a full cage. Shane "the Sheriif" Hnidy is approximately 10-to-14 days away from deployment.
If you need wins as badly as this manager does, you'll want to strongly consider picking up Jhonas Enroth, who will play Saturday at home to Toronto or Sunday in Ottawa. Meanwhile the Sabres are playing winning hockey since the ownership change and arrival of Brad Boyes at the deadline. The arrival of Boyes gives them another proven top-six forward, thereby reducing the scoring reliance on the relatively inexperienced diminutive duo of Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe.
The Flames continue to climb the Western Conference standings and their forward depth is one reason why. With Brendan Morrison (knee) out of the lineup the Flames moved David Moss (normally a right wing) to first line center and they haven't missed a beat, Thursday's defeat at Phoenix not withstanding. Moss has played failry well with Jarome Iginla (props to Iggy for joining an elite group of forwards who have scored 30 or more goals for 10 consecutive seasons) and Alex Tanguay while the second line of Glencross-Jokinen-Bourque have been equally dangerous. Meanwhile Miikka Kiprusoff has won five of his last seven starts with two shutouts. Even more impressive is the fact that he's 15-4-3 over his past 22 starts.
Cam Ward is playing like a situational No. 2 fantasy goalie these days, as the Canes struggle to remain in the playoff mix. While Ward is 3-1-1 in his last five games, in two of those contests he posted save percentages below .900. If you're real thin at left wing, Cory Stillman has five points in six games since his return to Carolina.
Not only has Corey Crawford completely taken over the goalie reigns in Chicago he has taken the lead in the Rookie-of-the Year race against Carolina's Jeffrey Skinner (23 goals/49 points in 67 games) and San Jose's Logan Couture (25 goals/45 points in 65 games). Schneider has started 12 consecutive games for Chicago, sporting a 9-2-2 record during that time span with a 2.36 GAA. Overall Crawford has a 26-13-4 record with a 2.26 GAA and .917 SV %. While Crawford has lost his last two starts, the most recent outing - a 27-save performance in a 4-3 shootout-loss to Tampa Bay - was far from bad.
Steve Mason has fallen on hard times after an inspiring run that provided glimpses of the form he displayed during his Rookie-of-the-Year season two years ago. Mason seemed to be back to his former ROY self when he went 7-2 in February including two shutouts. March, however, is a different story. Thus far he's 0-2-2 with a 3.58 GAA and he was pulled from one of those games after 20 minutes when he allowed three goals on 14 shots. Moreover, he's posted a save percentage below .890 in three of the four starts. Backup Mathieu Garon allowed four goals in his only March start so far. The Blue Jackets' playoff hopes look bleak now, as they sit eight points out of a playoff spot with 16 games to play.
Jonathan Quick has had just two starts in March but he's gone 1-1 with a 1.51 GAA and .953 SV % against powerhouses Detroit and Vancouver. Jonathan Bernier is 1-1 in March with a 1.99 GAA and .908 SV % including a shutout. Quick owners can't be happy with the time-share so far this month and despite Quick's outstanding form vs. Detroit during their last game, Bernier will start Saturday at Columbus.
The Wild sit two points out a playoff spot with 14 games left. Niklas Backstrom needs to be playing his best hockey and it hasn't happened so far in March. Backstrom is 1-2 in March with a 4.39 GAA. Backstrom has allowed three goals or more in four of his last five starts, which is putting a lot of pressure on their fairly tepid offense. Backup Jose Theodore is 0-1-1 in March with a 1.98 GAA. Coach Todd Richards has a difficult decision to make as far as who plays in nets but he's expected to go with Theodore for Friday's tilt with Dallas. Either way, these aren't good times for Backstrom owners.
The Al Montoya story continues to be a compelling one for Islanders fans. Montoya is rocking in March with a 3-1 record and 1.95 GAA. Overall Montoya is 6-2-2 with a 2.02 GAA and .927 SV %. How many goalies drafted in the top-6 overall have just three wins by their 26th birthday? Montoya is truly a late bloomer. The Isles are proving to be dangerous spoilers when it matters most and their future looks a lot brighter than it did 40-50 games into the season. The recent comments by budding star center Jonathan Tavares that he has no intention of leaving the team when his rookie entry-level contract is up is the icing on the cake.
Two story lines stand out of late for the Sens: Craig Anderson's outstanding results since his arrival from Colorado, he's 6-3 with a ridiculous 1.44 GAA and magnificent .960 SV %; and the promising performance of two rookie right wingers - Eric Condra (four goals/six points in 11 games) and Bobby Butler (six goals/10 points in 21 games). Getting rid of Alexei Kovalev has not only saved the Sens close to a million bucks, its also given available playing time for the young right wingers. Add Daniel Alfredsson's injury and its been a rare opportunity to try to break in a couple of top-six prospects. The Sens should have some money to spend this summer, for a host of expensive Sens for all or the better part of this season (Leclaire: $3.5 million, Fisher: $4.2 million, Kovalev: $5 million, Kelly: $2.13 million, Campoli: $1.4 million, Ruutu: $1.3 million) will all be off of the books. Signing Anderson should be their first priority. Aside from a No. 1 goalie, who can also serve as a mentor for young Robin Lehner, No. 2 center is their biggest need. The closest candidate in Ottawa right now, Peter Regin, is out 4-6 months after recent shoulder surgery. Even if Ottawa drafts Quebec junior center Sylvain Couturier, the kid will be just 18 years old and likely better served with another year in junior. The Sens will be drafting in a very balanced and solid top-five in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft with three forwards (Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Couturier) and two defensemen (Adam Larsson, Dougie Hamilton) expected to be the first five taken this June. Larsson has been playing pro hockey for three years in the Swedish Elite league and should be able to be a top six defenseman immediately.
The Flyers have struggled of late and the question is whether 21-year-old rookie Sergei "Bob" Bobrovsky is ready to deliver over a long playoff run. We hate to flog a dead horse here but we must remember that his career high for games played in a season is 45 and that was in junior hockey. He only played 35 games last year for the KHL's Novokuznetsk, a league doormat that didn't make the playoffs. His compete level is high, as is his mental toughness and it will have to be for he's never faced the pressure and scrutiny that lay ahead.
The Penguins managed to snag 12 points out of a possible 20 points over their past 10 games (4-2-4) despite missing two of the four best hockey players on the planet. Marc-Andre Fleury is 3-1 in his last four starts with a 2.68 GAA. Trade deadline acquisition James Neal finally scored a goal as a Penguin but it took seven games for him to do so. Their other deadline pickup at forward, Alex Kovalev, has but one goal in six games. Kovy has managed to be completely useless for two teams this season. Fans outside of Pittsburgh may consider Matt Cooke to be a low-life cheap shot artist but he's been fantasy gold with 11 goals, 28 points, 110 PIMs and a plus-13 defensive rating.
After winning eight games in a row and 12 of 14 overall, Antti Niemi has had a minor hiccup with a 1-1-1 record and 3.32 GAA over his last three games. Hey, nobody's perfect. Antero Niitymaki, who's been hurt off and on since tweaking his groin during the morning skate on Jan. 20 in Vancouver, is expected to finally return to the nets either during the Sharks back-to-back games March 14-15 or March 23-24. Niitty has been healthy enough to be dressed as the backup for their last two games.
Expect to see James Reimer play the remainder of the Leafs games this season, except for perhaps one of the starts during their two back-to-back sets - March 16-17, April 5-6. While Reimer is 2-2-1 in March, he's allowed 12 goals over his last 163 minutes which equates to a 4.41 GAA. Jean-Sebastien Giguere has not started a game since Feb. 16 and he was pulled after 20 minutes.
With Semyon Varlamov (knee) out and Michal Neuvirth injured (a piece of metal from his mask went into his eye after a shot) in the early part of Monday's game, Braden Holtby was called into action up and performed admirably. Holtby went on to start the next game, a 5-0 shutout win over the young and hapless Edmonton squad. Holtby will now start Friday at home against Carolina. Neuvirth was apparently unhappy with the decision but it's standard procedure to play a goalie coming off of a shutout. Neuvy will draw back into the lineup as soon as Holtby loses a game, if not sooner.