Already a month into the season, us hockey fans can make many assessments so far. The Colorado Avalanche seem like they’re for real (bad prediction, my bad), Sergei Kostitsyn is an idiot, injuries have bitten some of the best talent, and Alex Ovechkin is numero uno. But enough of that, let’s discuss “goaltending battles”, since everyone loves a good controversy…
à WASHINGTON CAPITALS: Semyon Varlamov v. Jose Theodore
Talk about a team that has it all. You got the arguably the best player in the world complimented with the likes of Alexander Semin and Niklas Backstrom to form the NHL’s most deadly line. On the backend you have the best offensive defenseman in Mike Green. However, goaltending is this team’s Achilles heel. Varlamov gets the nod here because of the higher ceiling he has, as well as his stellar performance in last year’s playoffs. Although with a shaky start (3.02 GAA, .895 SV%), former Vezina winner Theodore is a capable handcuff.
à NASHVILLE PREDATORS: Pekka Rinne v. Dan Ellis
A classic case of 1A/1B here. Rinne was slated to be the starter going into the season, but less than stellar play has carved the way for Ellis to receive some early starts. The predators haven’t been very good this year, and aside from budding star Shea Weber this team will struggle to score goals and give their goalies some goal support. I suspect Rinne to eventually emerge who’ll get probably %60 of the starts, however he’ll need to stay sharp or else the Preds will role with Ellis who’s not great but solid. This will be a battle to look out for all year.
à ST. LOUIS BLUES: Chris Mason v. Ty Conklin
Very intriguing situation here. The Blues are a young team on the rise, however in the tough Western Conference will need to rely on steady goaltending to help them win games. Between Mason and Conklin, the Blues have some experienced netminders to roll with, and should play the hot hand on a consistent basis (a generally accepted philosophy in the NHL – you win, you play). I see here another 60/40 split here, probably in Mason’s favour. However don’t count out Conklin, who saw a rise in his play last year when filling in admirably for the powerful Detroit Red Wings during the season. Maybe a product from a good system, but I think a real underrated talent.
à TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: Jonas Gustavsson v. Vesa Toskala
This goaltending battle is on hold for the time being due to injury. Jonas “The Monster” Gustavsson was placed in IR early this season, and isn’t expected back for a few more weeks, leaving the Leafs with starter Toskala and journeyman Joey MacDonald. Toskala is hardly the player he once was when in San Jose, and all signs point towards Gustavsson assuming the role of goalie 1 when he returns. The Leafs came out the gate 0-6-1. No offense, no defense, and no goaltending. Clearly they can’t sink any lower, so it appears The Monster will be given a chance to prove his worth when Brian Burke recruited him. Many compare this scenario to when the Rangers recruited fellow Swede Henrik Lundqvist, and the Leafs hope lightning strikes twice here.
à CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: Antti Niemi v. Cristobal Huet
It’s amazing what $5+ million can buy you in the NHL. You’d think a quality NHL starting goalie, but that’s hardly the case in Chicago. Cristobal Huet’s arrival last year marked the end of the Nikolai Khabibulin era in Chi-Town, who’s now tearing it up in Edmonton. And on top of that, Huet has been unable to develop any consistency in his game, something the Hawks absolutely need to establish themselves as Stanley Cup contenders. So in comes Antti Niemi, the hotshot rookie goaltender looking to take the Windy City by storm. Spotting a 3-1-0 record with a .909 SV% and 2.07 GAA, 1 shutout, he’s clearly the better option for now. Now the Blackhawks will be handicapped because of Huet’s cap hit, and they might be against having such a high paid player ride the bench as a backup. However from a hockey perspective, Niemi deserves the call and it’s his opportunity to run with it.
Bonus: à MONTREAL CANADIENS: Carey Price v. Jaroslav Halak
This is a bonus battle because it’s a story that garners much attention in a great hockey hotbed. Some may even argue this is hardly a battle because the backup in this situation has never been given a fair chance to battle it out. Carey Price is the starting goaltender of the Montreal Canadiens. Even if his stats don’t justify it (2-4-0, .886 SV%, 3.36 GAA), they are a reflection of poor play in front of him and low goal support. The loss of Andrei Markov also doesn’t help. His competition, the young Jaroslav Halak, recently snapped a 5 game losing streak that was beginning to cause panic in Montreal. Fans are calling for the Habs to go with the hot hand, and Jaroslav Halak certainly qualifies to earn the right to fight it out with Price for starts. After all, it was Halak who carried the Habs to the playoffs last year when the team was in shambles. We all know GM Bob Gainey’s views on Price, however if Halak continues to deliver wins and is not dealt in a trade as many rumours may suggest, the Canadiens might be forced to re-think their goaltending plan moving forward.