Thursday, September 10, 2020

A futile attempt to learn something from all four remaining teams

We’re down to four teams left in the playoffs, and that means it’s time for one of the NHL’s most cherished annual traditions: Looking at the final four and deciding that everyone needs to be just like them.

It’s a copycat league, after all, and we’ve already tried to figure out what lessons we can learn from individual teams. Teams love to point at the winners and say “Let’s be that”. And with two rounds left, we should be able to find some key elements that all four contenders have in common.

Or at least, you’d think we’d be able to do that. This year’s final four turns out to have an annoying habit of using three teams to teach us something important, then having the last team show up and ruin it. Trust me, it gets annoying. So today, let’s comb through some of the important lessons that we can learn from the final four, as long as you ignore one of them.

Lesson 1: The NHL is a two-goalie league now

The lesson: Legendary teams of that past would ride one goalie all the way through the playoffs. But while that worked in the days of Brodeur, Roy and Belfour, today’s contenders need two goalies they can trust. Between injuries, fatigue, slumps and the dreaded back-to-back, you’re going to need both guys to play, and they have to be able to play well.

Look at the Stars, where Ben Bishop put up a Vezina-caliber regular season, but has been hurt for most of the playoffs. Anton Khudobin has stepped in and played just well enough to keep the Stars in the running while they wait to see if Bishop can return. Then there’s the Islanders, who’ve spent the last two seasons deploying a platoon system in goal. Semyon Varlamov has mostly handled the load in the playoffs, but when he started to falter against the Flyers, Barry Trotz didn’t hesitate to switch to Thomas Greiss for a winner-take-all Game 7. It worked, with Greiss posting a shutout. And when Greiss struggled in Game 1 against Tampa, it was right back to Varlamov.

And then there’s the most obvious example: the Golden Knights, who went out and got Robin Lehner even though they already had a goalie with tons of playoff experience. The decision to go with a two-goalie system hasn’t exactly been a popular one with everyone involved, but it’s working.

Teams around the NHL are already learning this lesson. Even the Canadiens, with the highest-paid goalie in the league, went out and traded for a reliable backup. That’s the modern NHL, where you need two goalies.

Except…: The Lightning are going old-school with Andrei Vasilevskiy, and it’s working fine. He’s their undisputed number one, with a big contract kicking in next year, and it’s his net. In fact, there’s a decent chance you’re not even sure who the Lightning’s back even is. It’s Curtis McElhinney, if you’re wondering, but the 37-year-old hasn’t seen the ice for so much as a minute this postseason. And barring an injury, it’s almost impossible to imagine him getting a start.

Apparently, you can win just fine with one goalie after all. Huh. OK, on to the next lesson.

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