Debating the goalie match-ups is one Stanley Cup Playoff tradition this year hasn’t been able to change. But for the teams who have to go through the NHL play-in series to get there, the question is more important than ever.
Looking at the in the Goalies in the NHL Play-In Series
Short Round, Short Leash
Teams have invited extra players to camp, knowing not everyone will be going with them to Toronto or Edmonton. The lengthy break has let a lot of players heal up from the march that is the regular season. But the shortened season has also left some questions undecided. Most importantly, who is in net for the playoffs? Any hot streak a goalie was on happened four months ago.
For teams in the Round-Robin, they have three essentially consequence-free games to warm up to the playoffs. Those in the play-in round, on the other hand, face elimination. Teams have had a longer break than they get between seasons: these are virtually whole new teams. How much weight should coaches give play in camp compared to during the season? There may be no more important decision for them than who starts the shortened play-in series. But close behind that is how long do you stay with them?
Goalie Match-Ups in the West
Calgary Flames vs Winnipeg Jets
David Rittich showed himself capable of taking over the Calgary Flames‘ starting position last year. He completed his second NHL season with a .911 save percentage in 45 games. This year, however, he has been outplayed by Cam Talbot, who was brought in as support. Talbot would be leading the way for the play-in, but it looks like the team wants to go with their “goalie of the future” to at least start the series. Rittich played the bulk of the season, but Talbot is the one with Stanley Cup Playoff games under his belt.
The Winnipeg Jets are one of the teams with absolutely no questions about who is starting – and staying – between the pipes. Connor Hellebuyck is the front-runner for the Vezina Trophy this year, and his backup is… not. There is very little chance we’ll ever see Laurent Brossoit this season, however long Winnipeg’s run lasts.
Game One: Rittich vs Hellebuyck.
Vancouver Canucks vs Minnesota Wild
Another team with certainty in net is the Vancouver Canucks with Jacob Markstrom. Markstrom’s steady play for the past three years starting has been an anchor for a declining team. Now that the team is on the upswing, there’s no doubt he’s starting and likely playing every game Vancouver does. Should the Canucks get past the Wild, Markstrom will play the first Stanley Cup playoff games of his career.
Devan Dubnyk has been rock-solid since coming to the Minnesota Wild in 2015… until this year. His save percentage in six years is a sparkling .918 even after being dragged down by this season’s miserable .890 in 30 games. His four playoff appearances have all been with Minnesota and he’s got mixed results there. He’s split net duties with career backup Alex Stalock, whose .910 save percentage is his best in six years. His playoff numbers are fantastic, but he’s only played four games and started just one. Both will be 33 years old when the play-in series starts, and there’s an outside chance neither starts. Rookie Kaapo Kahkonen took advantage of injuries to start five games, getting three wins and seven points for the Wild. His .913 save percentage beats either of the veterans, but his lack of experience is hard for coaches to trust.
Game One: Markstrom vs Stalock.
Nashville Predators vs Arizona Coyotes
The Nashville Predators‘ Pekka Rinne has fallen far from his Vezina-winning season two years ago. As excellent as he has been for Nashville through his career, this was his worst year since establishing himself as an NHL starter in 2008-09. He still started 35 games this year, but it’s hard to argue that was based on his play. He has lost his spot to Juuse Saros, and this play-in round will be a passing of the torch.
Both Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta had excellent seasons with the Arizona Coyotes this year. Kuemper played out the end of the season, but does what happened over four months ago matter? Kuemper had – narrowly -better numbers and a few more games playoff experience, but a coin flip would work, too. The starter may come down to who does better in camp.
Game One: Saros vs Kuemper.
Edmonton Oilers vs Chicago Blackhawks
The further from Peter Chiarelli’s firing we get, the better at least one of his signings looks. Mikko Koskinen spent the year living up to the limited no-trade deal he signed last season. His first year was a rough one, which shouldn’t have been a surprise as a 30-year old entering the NHL. Koskinen has improved with the Edmonton Oilers and leads them into the series with Chicago.
In any other year, the Chicago Blackhawks starter would be a forgone conclusion: Corey Crawford. They went into the trade deadline as sellers, moving Robin Lehner out to help with their rebuild. Now, they may be relying on newcomer Malcolm Subban: Crawford has yet to make an appearance at training camp, though the team is “hopeful” he will join the team in Edmonton for Phase Four. Collin Delia has 18 games of NHL experience with the team, but outside a medical disaster, Subban and Crawford will be dressed.
Game One: Koskinen vs Crawford. (If Crawford comes back – and we think he will – this is the most predictable of the goalie match-ups.)
Goalie Match-Ups in the East
Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Of all goalies in the play-in round, Frederik Andersen might be under the most pressure to perform. Not so much for his sake, but the Toronto Maple Leafs fans are wondering how long they can keep the talent they have. Should he falter, however, Jack Campbell replaced the disappointing Michael Hutchinson as Andersen’s backup earlier this year. That’s a marked improvement, but this series is going to be up to Anderen to hold the fort.
Elvis Merzlikins had an eventful rookie season. The ten losses he suffered at the start of his career were mirrored by an eight-game win streak later. That was followed by another seven losses. As good as his overall numbers were for 2019-20, it’s unlikely Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella crosses his fingers. He’ll go with Joonas Korpisalo, who entered the year as a starter for the first time. Tortorella is known to have an itchy trigger finger, and in a short series we could see both soon enough.
Game One: Andersen vs Korpisalo.
New York Islanders vs Florida Panthers
If the New York Islanders were a movie, it might be Defense of the Clones. There was less than a dimes’ worth of difference between Thomas Greiss and Semyon Varlamov this year. Varlamov played more games of the two, and his .914 save percentage and 2.63 goals-against average were marginally better than Greiss’ .913 and 2.74. Greiss’ record for the year was 16-9-4, though, much better than Varlamov’s 19-14-6. Odds are that they stick with their regular, but who can tell?
A huge gamble to close what was seen as the Florida Panthers‘ one big weakness has yet to pay off. Ten million dollar man Sergei Bobrovsky has been badly outplayed by rookie Chris Driedger. Driedger has clearly pushed past Sam Montembeault, but to say he’s taken Bobrovsky’s spot after just 12 games is naive. Bobrovsky is going to get every chance to establish himself as his seven-year contract begins.
Game One: Varlamov vs. Bobrovsky.
Carolina Hurricanes vs New York Rangers
When asked to name Carolina Hurricanes players, most fans will name a few forwards and a LOT of their defensemen. Eventually, they’ll say something like “Hey, isn’t that where James Reimer ended up?” Which is both A) true, and B) unfair. His first season in Carolina has been a solid one. Though well past his Optimus Reim days, he did outperform Petr Mrazek and deserves the nod. But memories of Mrazek’s huge comeback series win over the Washington Capitals last year are still fresh.
This is the year the New York Rangers switched their relationship with Henrik Lundqvist to “It’s complicated.” Lundqvist had the worst season of his 15-year career, both in overall numbers and games played. Alexandar Georgiev has taken the starting role in his third year, though he didn’t play much better overall than Lundqvist. The big surprise was Igor Shesterkin, who produced far better numbers than either of the veterans in his 12 games. Lundqvist is under pressure to leave before the final year of his deal, so the question is to give him one more run or not. And if not, which young replacement? Georgiev, who was *shrug* fine, or Shesterkin, who was excellent – for 12 games? Whoever it is may just get one game to prove themselves.
Game One: Reimer vs Shesterkin. (Though as far as goalie match-ups go, this series could see the highest number of changes.)
Pittsburgh Penguins vs Montreal Canadiens
The Pittsburgh Penguins continue to be the Team that Wouldn’t Die. They’ve dropped below a .600 points percentage exactly once in 13 years: .598 in 2014-15. The next year, they won the Stanley Cup. This year, it was in front of the strong play of Tristan Jarry. Last year, it was Matt Murray and an excellent year from Casey DeSmith. Before that, Murray, Jarry, and DeSmith. Before that, a Cup win with Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury. We’re not saying Jarry hasn’t played well, but more importantly, it’s his turn.
As with Chicago, the Montreal Canadiens are playing with house money. They never expected to be here. And also like Chicago, there is exactly one choice in goal, and the odds of anyone other than Carey Price seeing a minute of time are remote.
Game One: Jarry vs Price.
Conclusion So Far
The goalie match-ups are a mixed lot, with some glaringly obvious (Vancouver, Montreal) and some far less so (like Arizona). Injuries, illness, and coach’s decision can change this all in a day, but for now? There are our best guesses at the play-in goalie match-ups.