For years, the conventional wisdom in hockey has been that a goaltending platoon cannot win the Stanley Cup. Teams needed to sink or swim with one goalie, with the other only seeing spot action in a blowout or in the event of an injury. Having two goalies really means having none, in some extreme interpretations of the maxim.
But the Carolina Hurricanes are doing their best to prove that assumption wrong.
In their qualifying round series win over the New York Rangers, both Petr Mrazek and James Reimer were outstanding. The Hurricanes are one of two teams that have two goalies within the top 10 of Goals Saved Above Average according to Natural Stat Trick, and both players have more than earned the trust of their coaches and teammates.
It was an impressive performance, one made all the more evident by the widely held belief prior to the series (including by, ahem, present company) that the Rangers’ one indisputable advantage was in net.
So with the Hurricanes off until at least Tuesday, when the first round proper begins, and both goalies coming off solid performances, will Rod Brind’Amour’s approach to his goalie rotation change at all? Don’t count on it.
“Do I anticipate both guys playing? Yeah, I do,” Brind’Amour said on a Zoom call Friday morning. “Especially with having those back-to-backs and that kind of schedule which I’m sure it will be.”
The compressed qualifying round schedule, which would have seen the Hurricanes play four games in six days had the series gone to a fourth game, will likely be replicated at least in part in the four rounds of the playoffs. The playoffs will begin on August 11 and the latest possible date for the Stanley Cup Final is October 4, a reduction of about a week from the typical 58-60 day timeframe. That means back-to-backs, while not necessarily a regular feature, will likely take place on occasion, and having two starting goalies certainly makes those occasions easier to handle.
Having two starters is a unique position for most teams. The last team to make the Stanley Cup Final with a platoon was the 2017 Penguins, where the job was shared by Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury, although there was a clear delineation in the conference final when Murray wrested the starter’s job from Fleury and held onto it from then on. Prior to that, you’d have to go all the way back to the 2010 Flyers, when the journeyman tandem of Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher backstopped the team to a conference title and to within two wins of the Stanley Cup.
But for the Hurricanes specifically, it’s not unusual at all. Of the four times in club history when they’ve made it at least as deep as the conference final, three of them have featured timeshares. Only in 2009, when Cam Ward put the team on his back for three months, did the Hurricanes have a clearly defined number-one.
Brind’Amour has been around for each of them: in 2002 and 2006 as a player, and last year as a coach. He knows that as a player, when you have two guys that the players in front totally trust, which one is playing on any given night doesn’t make a significant difference. In fact, it might make the game a little simpler, and that certainly is the case for the coaches.
“We feel we’re right about it whichever way we go. That’s how we feel about it,” said Brind’Amour. “It’s almost like saying who the goalie is on the other end. As a player you didn’t care. You couldn’t tell me I was going to shoot a puck somewhere different ‘cause this goalie is in versus that goalie. It doesn’t matter.”
Last season, it was former goaltending coach Mike Bales who consulted with Brind’Amour. This year, it’s Jason Muzzatti. But no matter who it is, it seems beyond clear that the coach has confidence in both guys, as well as in his coaching staff and his own decision making. That makes what might otherwise be a tough choice much easier.
If the Hurricanes are going to add to their tally of deep playoff runs, they’ll need both Mrazek and Reimer to keep up their strong play. Brind’Amour, for one, thinks they will.
“I trust that we have two good options and that’s it. It’s that simple.”