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THN.com Blog: Backup goalies taking the reins

Jaroslav Halak is 6-4-0 this season with a .907 SP and 2.80 GAA. (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Jaroslav Halak is 6-4-0 this season with a .907 SP and 2.80 GAA. (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

Based on the up-and-down season the Montreal Canadiens have experienced, it’s no surprise goaltending has been an issue. And while Carey Price has been given the majority of starts so far, you can’t say he’s been the hands-down better netminder.

Admit it; if Jaroslav Halak hadn’t been drafted 271st overall in 2003, versus Price being anointed The Chosen One with the fifth pick overall in ’05, the two goaltenders’ public profiles would be much different.

Halak, who was incredible Tuesday night against Ottawa, has naturally had his off-nights, one of which was his previous start against Buffalo. The Slovakian national admitted he was bad against the Sabres, but in his defense, it was the Sabres – a team that sits ahead of Montreal in the standings despite playing four fewer games.

In fact, looking at Halak’s workload, you’ll find a backup thrust into some very un-backuppy games. Montreal’s second option has four losses to his name this year: Buffalo, Pittsburgh and twice to Calgary. Each of those teams is currently fighting for first place in its respective division.

Price, who has played twice the amount of games as Halak, has losses against Toronto, Tampa, Edmonton and Ottawa. All his fault? Of course not, but if you’re Montreal, those are games that must be won, even if your goalie has to steal them for you.

Hot streaks have cast backups into the lead role several times this season and here’s a couple other tandems flipped on their heads lately.

Brian Boucher/Ray Emery, Philadelphia – This one’s pretty straightforward; Emery is undergoing surgery for a tear in his abdominal wall, which helps explain why he’s been shelled in the past two weeks.

But while he (and the boys in front of him) struggled, Boucher played reasonably well, never allowing more than three goals a game – which, based on Philly’s offensive weapons, should be enough at least some of the time.

Boucher finally got the team off the schneid with a win over the Isles Tuesday night and more starts are in his future with Emery out.

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Antero Niittymaki/Mike Smith, Tampa Bay – As Bart Simpson would say, “the ironing is delicious.” Niittymaki was jettisoned by the Flyers in the off-season and caught on with Tampa as a low-priced backup for Smith, who cut his teeth behind Marty Turco in Dallas and was seen as the future and present in Tampa.

But Niittymaki’s the man with the stats this year. The Finnish national boasts top-10 numbers with a 2.24 goals-against average and .927 save percentage while Smith has struggled to a pedestrian 3.05 GAA and .901 SP.

Further irony: despite the fact Niittymaki was named the top goalie at the 2006 Olympics, his name has been buried behind fellow Finns Miikka Kiprusoff, Niklas Backstrom and even Pekka Rinne for Vancouver. But with ‘Kipper’ making like he doesn’t want to go, could Niittymaki steal the show once again?

Jimmy Howard/Chris Osgood, Detroit – The Red Wings told Howard it was his year to step up and help the big team, but he’s also besting Osgood’s stats in all important categories.

Howard has the edge in wins, GAA and save percentage, while appearing in one fewer contest. The 25-year-old has started four of the past five games for Detroit and was expected to get the nod Wednesday night as well.

Ryan K
ennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays. 

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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