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In These N.H.L. Playoffs, Backup Goalies Have Taken Center Stage


TORONTO — Several N.H.L. teams had a sudden conundrum in this postseason: They could not rely on their No. 1 goaltenders to get them through the two-month grind. They had to hope that their No. 2s could perform like a No. 1 and could come in cold if needed.

Several of the 24 teams that participated in the restart had goalie controversies or shake-ups, and the performances of the backup became their story in the postseason.

By the second round, six regular-season backups were functioning as No. 1s, including Anton Khudobin, who has played extensively in place of an injured Ben Bishop and helped the Stars reach their first Stanley Cup finals in 20 years.

Khudobin, a 34-year-old from Kazakhstan, turned the postseason into his personal showcase. Before this postseason, Khudobin had appeared in only two playoff games. On Monday, he improved to 12-6 in 19 appearances this postseason (2.62 goals-against average, .920 save percentage, one shutout), including wins in each of the Stars’ three most recent games as they closed out their Western Conference finals series with Vegas.

At only 5 feet 11 inches in a league of behemoth goalies, Khudobin backstopped Dallas to all three of its series-clinching wins. If he manages to maintain this level of play in the Stanley Cup finals, he should find himself as a candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs.

As a camera rolled inside the Stars locker room after the victory, Khudobin shouted, “We’re not going home!” to a thunderous roar from his teammates. Forward Tyler Seguin paid tribute to his goaltender by saying that Khudobin was a competitive goalie who worked hard in practice. “He’s always been that goalie in practice that you don’t love shooting on because you don’t score much,” Seguin said.

The Stars are Khudobin’s fifth N.H.L. team in 11 seasons. Dallas signed him as a free agent two summers ago after he had bounced around among the Minnesota Wild, the Boston Bruins, the Carolina Hurricanes and the Anaheim Ducks. Stars General Manager Jim Nill was looking for a quality backup to Bishop because of all the travel that teams in the West do.

“Boston and ourselves play a similar style of game, and I thought he would be a good fit with us,” Nill said. “We did our homework as far as his personality. He’s infectious. He’s one of the best guys you’ll ever meet. He fits in any room. He leads the room. He’s a battler, he never gives up, and that’s why he’s having success now.”

Khudobin was spectacular in Game 1 for Dallas, shutting out Vegas and becoming only the 10th goaltender in league history to record his first postseason shutout at age 34 or later, achieving that feat just one day after Thomas Greiss (another backup) had done so with the Islanders.

But the goaltending situation still became unsettled for Dallas in the Western Conference finals. The Stars went with Jake Oettinger at the start of the third period in Game 2 against Vegas after Khudobin had allowed three goals on 27 shots through the opening 40 minutes.

Oettinger became the only goaltender since the league expanded in 1967-68 to make his N.H.L. debut in the round preceding the Stanley Cup finals. Khudobin returned for the other games in the series.

Another third-string goaltender found the sweet spot on his team.

Louis Domingue, 28, used the cooking skills he learned from his mother while growing up in St.-Hyacinthe, Quebec, to bake pies, cinnamon rolls and banana bread to keep his Canucks teammates well fed in the league’s Edmonton, Alberta, bubble.

“They put their bodies on the line, so I decided to reward them,” Domingue told CTV News in Edmonton.

By the second round, only the Philadelphia Flyers (Carter Hart), the Tampa Bay Lightning (Andrei Vasilevskiy) and the Islanders (Semyon Varlamov) were almost exclusively running with their No. 1 goalies.

With teams enduring a monthslong layoff because of the coronavirus pandemic and then playing a compressed postseason schedule, pressure was intense on the goaltender position right from the start.

“It’s so different this year with so many teams playing back-to-backs in the playoffs,” said Corey Hirsch, a former N.H.L. goaltender who is a Vancouver radio analyst. “You’re getting a few more injuries, and you’re getting more backups who are getting opportunities to play.”

Bishop, the Avalanche’s Philipp Grubauer and Vancouver’s Jacob Markstrom all sustained injuries, and other No. 1 goalies were replaced, if only temporarily, after spotty play. One other, Boston’s Tuukka Rask, chose to leave the Toronto bubble and go home. Cam Neely, the Bruins’ president, said that Rask had told the team he had a family emergency. (A Boston sports radio host, Greg Hill, reported that he had spoken with Rask and had been told that the emergency was a medical one involving Rask’s young daughter.)

“At this time, there are things more important than hockey in my life, and that is being with my family,” Rask said in a statement that sent ripples throughout the league.

But the Boston situation wasn’t as dire as first thought, because the Bruins had a quality backup in Jaroslav Halak — although he hadn’t won a playoff series as a starter in 10 years, when he was with Montreal.

“You would expect there would be a massive drop-off,” said Jamie McLennan, a former goaltender who is an analyst for the Canadian channel TSN. “But that’s not the case with Halak. He’s been a starter. He’s played at critical times. He’s won playoff rounds.”

Halak got the Bruins through the opening round, but Boston lost in five games to the Lightning in what could be viewed as a mild upset because the Bruins had been far and away the best team during the regular season, winning the Presidents’ Trophy.

After the season was paused in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, goaltenders had difficulty keeping sharp. It’s hard to make saves when there are no players to shoot the puck.

“I was working off the ice,” Khudobin said. “But I wasn’t able to find ice in my city at that time, because everything was on quarantine and closed.”

Partly because of that, several No. 2 goalies, many of them veterans, were thrust into the spotlight while off-ice situations, of different forms, played out for Boston and Vegas.

A tweet brought the Golden Knights’ goaltender battle into sharp focus when Marc-Andre Fleury’s agent, Allan Walsh, posted an image on social media of Fleury being stabbed in the back with a sword. Fleury has been the face of the franchise in its three seasons, and he had been the No. 1 goaltender through the regular season. But Robin Lehner, who had been acquired at the trade deadline, took over as No. 1 in the playoffs.

The tweet could have pitted the goaltenders against each other, but Fleury and Lehner shook it off.

“Me and Marc, we were just laughing,” Lehner said. “Because it’s always the media who makes a big deal out of this. Me and Marc, we get along great. He’s a really good guy.”

Fleury requested that the tweet be taken down, and he addressed the news media afterward.

“Bottom line is we all want to win,” Fleury said. “That’s why we’re here. I don’t like being a distraction for my team. I really like Robin. We have a good friendship, and I think he’s a really good goalie also. There are no hard feelings.”

After that drama, Fleury started Game 1 of the conference finals in a 1-0 loss to Dallas, but Lehner returned to the starting position for the next four games.

In Vancouver, Thatcher Demko became Mr. September for the Canucks when Markstrom was injured early in their second-round series against Vegas.

After not starting for six months and watching Markstrom play all 14 games through August, Demko got the start with Vegas up, 3-1. In the next two games, Demko was brilliant. He stopped 90 of 91 shots, allowing Vancouver to win, 2-1 and 4-0, before Vegas clinched the series in Game 7.

“There were times it felt like we could have played six hours and not scored,” Vegas Coach Peter DeBoer said.

Demko, like many backups, took a self-effacing approach. Perhaps owing to his philosophy and psychology studies at Boston College, Demko was able to reduce the situation to its simplest terms.

“My job is the same regardless of the score,” Demko said before Game 7 with Vegas. “I’m just trying to keep the puck out of the net. When we were down, 3-1, our goal was to win one game at a time and eventually get to a Game 7, which is what we did.”

Fatigue, or loss of focus, can sometimes play a part in a starting goaltender’s ability to perform for long stretches, and a weak moment can open the door for the backup.

The Islanders discovered that when Varlamov suddenly developed cracks in his game against the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round.

Moments after he had set a franchise shutout streak record, the Flyers jumped all over him in Game 2 of the second round, prompting the Islanders to relieve him with Greiss, who also became the surprise Game 7 starter and entered in relief in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against Tampa Bay.

For the Avalanche, when Grubauer was injured in Game 1 of their second-round series against Dallas and ruled out indefinitely, Colorado turned to Pavel Francouz, who was in his first full N.H.L. season after playing professionally in Europe. But Francouz was yanked after allowing five goals on 26 shots in Game 4, and the Avalanche started their No. 3 option, Michael Hutchinson, for the final three games. Hutchinson won two straight before losing Game 7.

International hockey is not so reliant on the two-goaltender system because tournaments are shorter, and although they usually carry three goaltenders, teams in those competitions generally go with the hot hand all the way through.

For instance, Hirsch played every game for Canada in the 1994 Olympics, winning a silver medal.

In the N.H.L., over the course of an 82-game regular season, coaches can’t use their No. 1 goalies in every game because they would wear down. But that’s not the case in the postseason.

“In a playoff series, if one guy gets hot, just keep rolling with him,” Hirsch said. “It’s also important for your team. It’s important to know who’s back there and know what they’re like and know that you have the confidence in that guy. A goaltender can be your stability piece for the rest of your team.”

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