Friday night was Night of the Living Backups in the NHL.
Backup plans came to the forefront last night, as Friday's games featured a number of No. 2 netminders getting game action. Several storylines will be worth watching to see how things shake out in goal for some teams as the season goes along.
Thomas Greiss, Kevin Poulin and Nikolai Khabibulin all got their first starts of the season, as did Jeff Zatkoff, who made his NHL debut at 26 years old. Florida’s Jacob Markstrom started for the Panthers in place of Tim Thomas and Dallas’ Dan Ellis got into his first game of the season, replacing Kari Lehtonen, who left the Stars-Jets game in the second period with a lower-body injury. And, of course, there was career fringe backup, Joey MacDonald, who continues to surprise on the sizzling Calgary Flames.
Greiss and Khabibulin both backstopped their new teams, Phoenix and Chicago, to wins, relieving any lingering worries, at least temporarily, about whether they’d be reliable backups for Mike Smith and Corey Crawford. Poulin and Zatkoff, however, left their teams to wonder whether they’d be back in net any time soon.
Evgeni Nabokov has started strong for the Islanders, who hadn’t lost in regulation coming into Friday’s game against Chicago. Then in came Poulin and the club's hot start was quickly cooled after a 3-2 loss. Last season, the Islanders could run out Nabokov for all but seven games in the shortened season. He’s 38 years old now, however, so they need a dependable backup to spell him for at least 20 games.
Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, Tomas Vokoun’s long-term injury and Brad Thiessen’s departure overseas meant Zatkoff became the backup behind Marc-Andre Fleury almost by accident. The Penguins might rethink their default position after Zatkoff was shelled in a 6-3 loss to the punchless Panthers, who’d scored just seven goals in their four games prior. Markstrom hasn’t looked particularly pretty so far for Florida, but the Panthers don’t have a Stanley Cup on the line this season.
In Winnipeg, the Stars skated to a 4-1 win, but the oft-injured Lehtonen was felled yet again and Dallas can only hope it's nothing long term. When Cam Ward went down last season, Carolina was third in the Eastern Conference, then in came Ellis and the Hurricanes plummeted out the playoffs. If Lehtonen is out for any significant stretch, there will be some big-time handwringing in ‘Big D.’
That brings this around to MacDonald and the first-place Flames. His stats are everything to snort at: 2.98 goals-against average and .895 save percentage. But, bottom line, he’s winning: 3-0-1. At 33 years old, he’s making the most of what’s likely his last chance at being a No. 1 netminder in the NHL.
It’s still early, but for some teams their Plan B’s are already having something to say about how they will have to handle their Plan A’s.
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