Live or Die by the Backup Goaltender

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Philipp Grubauer
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 12: Goalie Philipp Grubauer #31 of the Washington Capitals looks on against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first period in Game One of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Capital One Arena on April 12, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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For a backup goaltender, their playing time in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is almost nonexistent. It is rare, but in some series, the backup goaltender will get some playing time. In very rare cases their play may even impact their team’s destiny in the playoffs.

Teams Live and Die by the Backup Goaltender

Philipp Grubauer and the Washington Capitals

Most recently in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Washington Capitals decided to start Philipp Grubauer for the first two games against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Grubauer went 7-3-0 in March and April in the regular season. He took over after Braden Holtby struggled in late February and early March. This year Holtby recorded his lowest save percentage (.907) and his highest goals against average (2.99) since he began playing for Washington in the 2010-11 season.

The Capitals started Grubauer based on his success toward the end of the regular season. The German goaltender was in net for the 4-3 overtime loss and was pulled in Game 2 before they lost 5-4 in overtime. The Capitals quickly found themselves down 2-0 in the series and made the decision to go back to Braden Holtby, their long-time starter.

The choice paid off immediately as the Capitals won the next four against Columbus. They then won the next two rounds. With that earning their way into the Stanley Cup Final.

With Grubauer in net for even one more game, the Blue Jackets might have had it in them to close out the series and prolong the Capitals misery.

Scott Darling and the Chicago Blackhawks

In 2015, the Chicago Blackhawks faced off against the Nashville Predators in the first round. In the first game, Chicago’s starting goaltender Corey Crawford allowed three goals on 12 shots and was replaced by Scott Darling. The Blackhawks won Game 1 following Darling’s 42 saves on 42 shots.

Chicago went back to Crawford for Game 2 and the move backfired greatly. The Predators evened the series with a 6-2 win as Crawford only stopped 29 of 35.

The Blackhawks recognized that the problem was in net. With that, they elected to give Darling a shot to get them back on top. As a starter for Game 3, Darling stopped 35 of 37 and the Blackhawks won 4-2. With the win, Chicago kept Darling in net for Games 4, 5, and 6.

Darling won the third game and lost the fourth, putting the pressure on the Blackhawks to win Game 6. Darling struggled in the sixth game, giving up three goals on 12 shots ­– the exact same statistic as Crawford in Game 1. The Blackhawks switched goaltenders and again, the move worked as they won 4-3 and advanced.

The Blackhawks went back to starting Crawford for the remainder of the year, but the efforts of Scott Darling in the first round bailed them out of an early exit and played a crucial part in giving Chicago its third Cup in six years.

Darling was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes in 2017 and was made the starter for the most recent season. Crawford still remains the starter for the Blackhawks

Tomas Vokoun and the Pittsburgh Penguins

While some decisions to go with the backup pay off, it is not always the right move. In 2013, the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins took on the New York Islanders in the first round. Pittsburgh began the playoffs with Marc-Andre Fleury in net after he got them into the first place spot in the Eastern Conference. After the Islanders tied the series at 2-2, the Penguins benched Fleury for Tomas Vokoun.

Vokoun helped the Pens eliminate the Islanders. In return, he was kept as the starter for the remainder of their time in the playoffs. Fleury came on only to relieve Vokoun in game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Bruins where he stopped 14 of 17 in Boston’s 6-1 win.

The Penguins went on to be swept by Boston.  While it is rather unlikely, not going with Fleury for the Conference Final could have been the decision that broke the top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference. Yes, Vokoun helped them when they needed him, but the choice to not shake up their goaltending situation cost them a shot at the Cup.

Game 4 of the ECF was Vokoun’s last game in the NHL, while Fleury is fighting for his fourth Stanley Cup.

Making the Move at the Right Time

Backup goaltenders don’t typically see much playing time in the playoffs. However, given the circumstances, they may be more important than most imagine. Washington may be grateful that Grubauer did not perform well in the first round. The Blackhawks can thank Darling for their most recent Cup. Lastly, the Penguins should have trusted Fleury in the Conference Final.

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