Monday, May 23, 2016

Weekend report: Phil Kessel vs. Shawn Michaels, and other less important thoughts

Faceoff: The backup plan

Easily the weirdest story to emerge from this year's conference final is the rise of the backup goaltender. All four teams have turned to their backup at some point during the round, including three that have switched starters. It's the first time since 1980 that we've seen all eight goalies pressed into action in the conference finals.

Of course, not all backup promotions are created equal. Martin Jones and the Sharks just had a rough night on Saturday, and he was pulled in favor of James Reimer largely to give him a chance to rest up for Game 5; after posting back-to-back shutouts earlier in the series, he's in no immediate danger of losing his grip on the starter's job. And the Lightning haven't had much choice in the matter, with Ben Bishop's injury in Game 1 forcing Andrei Vasilevskiy into action. Bishop will resume the starter's duties once he's ready to play, although at this point we're still not sure when that will be.

But things haven't been quite so clear cut in St. Louis or Pittsburgh, where we've seen controversial mid-series switches that were coach's decisions. The first of those calls was made by Ken Hitchcock, who benched Brian Elliott in favor of Jake Allen because... well, nobody's quite sure. Elliott didn't do anything to lose his job; he's been fantastic all season long. But the Blues needed some sort of jolt after failing to score in Games 2 or 3, and Hitchcock apparently felt that a goaltending switch was one way of achieving it. The Blues won Game 4 on Saturday, breaking out of their offensive slump en route to a 6-3 win, so we're all obligated to say that Hitchcock's move worked brilliantly. As for where that leaves Elliott, well, we'll get to that down below.

A similar situation is playing out in Pittsburgh, although there's a twist. Instead of a veteran being sat down for his younger backup, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan's goalie switch saw the veteran regain his net. Marc-Andre Fleury was the Penguins' starter all year and never really lost the job on merit. He got hurt late in the season, and Matt Murray's strong play left Fleury on the bench even after he was healthy enough to play. One rough game by Murray on Friday was enough to open the door for Fleury's return on Sunday, and the results were decidedly mixed. Midway through the game, the Penguins were up 2-0 and Sullivan looked like a genius. But a Lightning comeback ended with a 4-3 OT win, and now it looks like the coach has overplayed his hand.

Between the Blues and the Penguins, we've seen both sides of the goalie switch coin. And with a pair of Games 6s to come, and maybe a Game 7 or two after that, there's still time to see a few more switches.

Top Five

Celebrating those who've had the best week.

5. Eric Fehr—Is it? Could it be? An actual hockey hit that's hard but clean and absolutely nobody is complaining about? Do they still make those?

I think it just might be. But just to be on the safe side, let's all agree to complain twice as much about the next one, OK?

4. Peter DeBoer—Yeah, I'm getting the sense that he doesn't really want to help pump Ken Hitchcock's tires right now.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

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