2-on-1: Surprising Goalie Battles in Boston, Pittsburgh and San Jose
Every week two of our hockey writers will discuss one topic: it's the 2-on-1. This week, Adam Gretz and Chris Botta discuss the goaltending controversies created by the strong play of backups in October.
Chris Botta: Take a good look at the goalie stats lately, Adam? Pretty wild. Tim Thomas had an October to remember in Boston, while incumbent No. 1 Tuukka Rask is relegated -- at least for now -- to being his backup. Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury is 1-5 with a goals against average of 3.35 (35th in the league) and save percentage of .863 (40th among 41 NHL goalies). Journeyman backup Brent Johnson is 5-0 and second to Thomas in goals against average and save percentage.
The goalie with the worst numbers in the league? Antti Niemi, formerly the No. 1 goalie of the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, whose 4.49 goals against average and .854 save percentage has him on the bench while Antero Niittymaki leads the Sharks with a 4-0 record. So the issue for this week, Adam, is which of these goaltending reversals are real and long-term?
Adam Gretz: What a bizarre start to the season. The two worst save percentages in the NHL right now belong to, as you pointed out, Fleury and Niemi, the past two Stanley Cup winners. I'm not sure what that says about the state of goaltending in the NHL right now -- or its importance -- but I'm not sure when we've seen the most recent Cup-winners were at the bottom of the pile like this. The only good news for them? It's still early.
If you made me pick one of these situations that's going to be permanent for the rest of the season, I'd be inclined to say Tim Thomas, though, that's certainly a good situation for Boston to be in because both of those guys -- Rask being the other -- have proven to be excellent No. 1 goaltenders before.
CB: No doubt, Adam. What Claude Julien and the Bruins have is a good problem. Rask really hasn't lost the job so much as Thomas ripped it from him. There is no doubt in my mind Rask will get his chance to run with the ball at some point this season. Where it will really be intriguing is come playoff time. Then who's the No. 1? There are about 20 teams in the NHL right now that would sign up for a problem like Thomas-Rask.
AG: The situation that's most interesting to me, and that's probably because I'm so close to it and see it play out every night, is the one in Pittsburgh. I've written about this quite a bit over the past couple of months, but Fleury really is a polarizing figure in Pittsburgh. The media loves him. The team loves him. Ray Shero told me over the summer he feels he's a top-10 goalie. There's a large portion of the fan base that loves him. But there's also a large portion of the fan base that doesn't, and there's no middle ground between the two sides. So far this season Johnson has been, by a sizable margin, the better goaltender, and as far as I'm concerned, should continue to play until he proves otherwise. As we've seen in the NHL recently it's not always about the best goalie, but the hottest goalie, and right now fewer are hotter than Johnson. Maybe Thomas and Jaroslav Halak, but that's about it.
CB: No argument there. Johnson has been on fire, so go with the hot hand while Fleury figures is out. The aspect I don't understand -- and you live near Pittsburgh so I'm counting on you for clarity -- is why there seems to be a lack of confidence in MAF. He was one of the leaders on the Cup team in 2009. He's regarded highly enough to have been chosen as one of the three goaltenders on the Canadian Olympic team. Yet every time he has a bad game, it seems like the sky is falling.
AG: The problem with Fleury is this has been building for a while now, at least since they won the cup -- and as I've pointed out before, I actually think he was better the year they lost than the year they won. He had a bad season last year, he had a terrible playoffs, and he's been even worse at the start of this season.
He's a freak of an athlete, one of the most agile and athletic goalies in the league, so there's obviously plenty of talent. But he gives up some of the worst goals in the NHL. It's almost like teams purposely throw bad-angle shots at him because they knew he has a tendency to let them in, and it's happened quite a bit this season. With Johnson, they're not getting that. He's making the routine saves. He's making the saves he has to make. And he's making big saves. If you're going to pay a goalie what the Penguins are paying Fleury, you have to count on him to bail out your defense from time-to-time, and for the better part of a year now, he hasn't really been doing that.
CB: Simple. When the games really get important for the Penguins, Marc-Andre Fleury will be the starting goaltender. Hopefully for Penguins fans, Johnson stays sharp if he gets the call after a long layoff.
Niemi has only played four games for the Sharks. Niittymaki was pretty good for Tampa Bay last season, so it's not a shock for both of them to get starts in San Jose. I like Niemi. Love his poise. Probably a bit early to judge this one, right?
AG: I had some concern about Niemi going into this one. Playing in Chicago he never really had to be "the guy" or a difference maker because the Blackhawks play that puck possession game and kept the play away from him. Now he's going to a San Jose team that has a much weaker defense, and I just wondered what would happen to him when he wasn't playing for a team that didn't out-shoot its opponents by 10 shots every night (though, San Jose has been pretty good in that regard so far this season, and it's still not helping Niemi). This is the one situation I'm just not sure about.
My initial reaction is to look at these two guys on paper and say it's a major weakness and concern for the Sharks. But, you look at recent history, and one of these guys has won a Stanley Cup, and he did so by beating a team that was playing an in-season waiver-wire pick up. It all goes back to what I mentioned earlier and getting somebody hot at the right time.
CB: I disagree with you somewhat on Niemi, Adam. As good as Chicago was in the playoffs, he still had to make several key stops under pressure and was often one of their best players. He earned his series victories over Nashville, Vancouver, San Jose and Philadelphia in the playoffs. Do I think he's a future member of the Hockey Hall of Fame? No, but it's unfair to say he wasn't "the guy." It will be fun to watch, if he gets another shot at it next Spring with the Sharks.