Shots on Goal: Backup Blues
What is that old axiom, "Live by the sword, die by the sword"? If you've been living by the sword of backup goalies to fill your net most nights, your team goals against-averaged may just have been gutted this past week. The latter half of the past week has not been kind to the likes of Cory Schneider, Brian Elliott, or Andrew Raycroft. That's not meant to say don't play these guys, hardly, as we've been preaching the prudent use of backups all season. What this does do is remind us of the fragility of such a bold plan and also the risks inherent in such a plan. Be ready to turn on a dime and always assume that backups are spot starters, no more and no less. This writer decided to stop carrying five goalies in one experts league where I'd punted goalies in the league draft (only taking one starting goalie - Marc-Andre Fleury), as it had become too time consuming and, at times, frustrating when you deploy the wrong ones on a given night. With an abundance of multi-positional forwards on my team, I'd been able to carry five goalies, including backups from some of the best teams in the league (Tuuka Rask, Cory Schneider). However, injuries became an issue and I was falling behind in games played on defense. Thus I moved Mathieu Garon along with an aging Brendan Morrow for a much-needed D-man with grit in Kevin Bieksa along with another multi-position top-six forward (and possible trade chip) in Vinny Prospal. Then, after Raycroft's meltdown in Dallas on Saturday, I dropped him for another D-man in Jamie McBain. McBain scored two goals in his first game playing for new coach Kirk Muller and, while he probably won't score two in a game again this season, he did earn the trust and admiration of his new coach and that should translate into more ice time and more power-play time than teammate Tomas Kaberle. With the trio of Fleury, Rask and Schneider as my goalies, I decided there was room for one more and chose Scott Clemmensen over Jonathan Bernier. While both are talented backups Clemmensen should see more starts than the seldom-used Bernier and the Kings just lost their second best forward (Mike Richards) and their fourth best defenseman (Willie Mitchell) to injury for a while. So far, my team is doing well, currently in first place, despite having only one No. 1 goalie and having taken the once great Alexander Ovechkin - now reduced to being a predictable 65-to-70-point forward - as the first overall pick.
Enough about that, it's time to get between the pipes.
Ryan Miller has finally returned from that Milan Lucic-induced concussion only to be run over in his first game back by Nashville's Jordin Tootoo. Tootoo should know that that's a no-no. Miller jumped him and tried to pummel him, clearly showing his irritation at being a target again but he survived the attack and won the game while stopping 32 of 34 shots - a tidy .941 SV %. The good news for Jhonas Enroth owners is that he's still worth rostering for at least the next month, for the Sabres have back-to-back games in three of the remaining four weekends of December. Rookie power forward Zach Kassian is making a good impression at right wing filling in for the injured and disappointing Brad Boyes. They will need Kassian's grit and tougness as Paul Gaustad was hurt in the melee after Tootoo ran Miller Saturday in Nashville. In addition to Boyes and Gaustad, Patrick Kaleta and tough guy Cody McCormick are also both out with injuries. Nathan Gerbe is also day-to-day with facial lacerations but Tyler Ennis is back in the lineup and finally potted his first goal of the season (in his ninth game) Saturday. It speaks to the depth and quality drafting in the organization when you can survive so many injuries and still win games. On defense they are without three regulars (Tyler Myers, Jordan Leopold, Mike Weber) though Leopold could return this week. Marc-Andre Gragnani was a cool plus-3 Saturday but he's yet to rack up many power play points, despite getting the second highest amount of power-play time on the Sabres after Christian Ehrhoff.
Semyon Varlamov has won three of his last five while posting an impressive 1.78 goals-against average and .940 save percentage. Varly's strong play has kept veteran Jean-Sebastien Giguere on the bench. JSG hasn't started a game since Nov. 20 but should see a start later this week when the Avs play back-to-back games in Alberta. In the meantime do not start Varlamov vs. Detroit or Vancouver. Rookie D-man Stefan Elliott, whom I labeled this year's Kevin Shattenkirk in last week's column, has three points and nine shots on goal in four games. Ryan O'Reilly leads Colorado in scoring with 19 points through 26 games. There's a head-shaking stat for you.
December has been a mixed bag for Curtis Sanford and his owners so far. While he's 1-1 in the early stages of the month he has a 3.93 GAA and .881 SV %. The worse news is that Jeff Carter is out with an ankle injury. The Blue Jackets need all hands on deck when it comes to their top skaters and the ability to win is seriously compromised when they're missing one of them. Just look at their record without one of James Wisniewski or Carter this year - they have not won a single game this season when one of them is not in the lineup. In other news, top-six winger Kristian Huselius is back after missing the first 19 games of the season while slumping center Derick Brassard's agent (Allan Walsh) has gone pubic with his demand for his client to get more playing time. Regular No. 1 goalie Steve Mason remains out with a concussion while goalie prospect Mark Dekanich (groin) has begun doing some light skating.
Kari Lehtonen's groin injury has him out three weeks and Andrew Raycroft is the temporary No. 1 goalie in Dallas. Despite playing without Alex Goligoski (broken thumb, out until mid-Dec.) and Brenden Morrow (back injection, could be back this week), Raycroft backstopped the Stars to wins over Colorado and Ottawa before Saturday's wipeout vs. the Islanders where he allowed five goals on 27 shots. Raycroft still has value as a No. 3 fantasy goalie worthy of spot starts until Lehtonen returns but Saturday's face plant is a reminder that he can't be counted on too heavily and has some risk. When Goligoski returns Raycroft will be a safer play but just be careful out there.
Nikolai Khabibulin lost on Saturday to Calgary while allowing four goals on 31 shots. Meanwhile Devan Dubnyk won his last start, albeit against Columbus. This goalie situation remains relatively fluid so owning both goalies should be useful this week, as they finish the week with back-to-back games hosting Colorado then visiting Calgary. Keep in mind that the Oilers' new run and gun style, though very exciting for hockey fans, will lead to more high-scoring games which will be a drag on the Oilers' goalies' stats.
Jose Theodore deserves a lot of credit for Florida's success this season and his owners have to be smiling. Still, it may be prudent to pick up Scott Clemmensen. Coach Kevin Dineen stated publicly earlier this past week that Clemmensen was an important part of the team, he called him a "big part" of the team, and that he was looking to get him into a game. Clemmensen finally got his shot Saturday and he went out and beat San Jose. That's an impressive win, as was his earlier shutout win over Dallas. Clemmensen is a proven backup, Florida is a playoff contender, and 18-20 starts over the next 56 games is a realistic number - and that's not even factoring in Theodore's injury history and age (35).
Josh Harding gets another chance to start Sunday at Anaheim. Niklas Backstrom left Friday's win against New Jersey in the first period with a lower body injury but he's not expected to be out for too long. Those of us who have jumped on the Cal Clutterbuck bandwagon were sad to see him get hurt Wednesday against Edmonton, especially after he'd scored five goals and seven points in his previous eight games. Clutterbuck, who had been moved up to the first line with Mikko Koivu and Dany Heatley, could be back Sunday but whether he gets back onto the first line is another matter entirely.
Al Montoya, with impressive peripheral stats - 2.17 GAA and .931 SV %, now rules the Island and all those talented kids at forward are starting to wake up and score. Montoya has started three of the last four games and performed admirably. The only game he didn't start this past week was the second game of back-to-backs and he still ended up playing in that game as Rick DiPietro had to leave the game at Dallas Saturday with groin issues after allowing four goals on 27 shots. Now Evgeni Nabokov and DiPietro are both out indefinitely so it's clear sailing ahead for Montoya.
Sergei Bobrovsky may be 2-1 in his last three appearances with only three goals allowed in 162 minutes but he's still the backup goalie in Philly. Ilya Bryzgalov is 2-0 with a 2.42 GAA thus far in December with the two wins happening in back-to-back games at Anaheim and at Phoenix. Kimmo Timonen, who seems to be the only Flyer defenseman worth owning these days with Chris Pronger almost always hurt, has six points in his last six games.
Backup Brian Elliott finally allowed more than two goals in a game Saturday when Chicago put four past him. Look for Jaroslav Halak to start their next game Tuesday when they host Detroit. Assuming that's a loss for Halak, Elliott could be back in nets as early as Thursday vs. Anaheim. Neither makes for great start Saturday vs. San Jose. This will remain a time-share until Halak gets hot. Welcome back David Perron! Perron scored a goal in his last NHL game, Nov. 4, 2010, against San Jose then missed 12 months of hockey. What does he do? He scores a goal in his first game back on Dec. 3, 2011, against Chicago.
Mathieu Garon stopped 32 of 35 shots Saturday against the Rangers but it wasn't enough as they fell 4-2. Since Garon started and won both games in their home-and-home weekend series against Florida, he's gone 0-2 but the peripheral stats - 2.54 GAA and .914 SV % - have remained solid. With four games this week, including back-to-back games Monday and Tuesday at Ottawa and Long Island, look for Dwayne Roloson to see at least one start as he attempts to wrestle back the No. 1 goalie spot.
James Reimer is back in the lineup for Toronto but backup Jonas Gustavsson will still likely see a start this week with the Leafs playing back-to-back games Monday and Tuesday at the Rangers then home to the Devils. Reimer gave up four goals on Saturday in his first start back from injury but the opposition was Boston and Reimer's teammates spent the game chasing the puck to no avail. The Leafs should do better with Reimer back, despite Saturday's performance, and they are suddenly deep at forward with Mikhail Grabovski the best third line center in hockey right now.
Roberto Luongo is poised to begin a long run of starts now beginning Sunday against Calgary. Cory Schneider's amazing run ended against Nashville Thursday when he stopped only two of five shots in 19:59 before being pulled and it could be a while before he sees the ice again. The Canucks' schedule sees them having only one set of back-to-back games this month, Dec. 28-29. If Luongo gets on a roll it could be a very quiet month for Schneider. Nevertheless, the goalie drama in Vancouver has been far from predictable and they do have four games in eight days starting Sunday so the backup could still see action as early as this week.