As an assortment of skaters throughout the league struggle to find offensive chemistry, one of the more interesting narratives of the shortened schedule has become the role of backup netminders and the surprises that have already emerged between the pipes.
Piggybacking on the abbreviated season has been the additional layer of drama residing in the crease to puck nerds who enjoy watching a little competition in the locker rooms as well as on the ice.
Of course, not all teams have a lights-out workhorse. Across the board there seem to be a few story lines that just about every club can relate to with regard to its goalie situation, or at the very least, may find itself in at some point. Take your pick.
1) Injury issues (Jaroslav Halak, Miikka Kiprusoff, Nikolai Khabibulin, etc.)
2) Struggling starters (Jonathan Quick, Michal Neuvirth, Ryan Miller, etc.)
3) Tandem teamwork (Marc-Andre Fleury/Tomas Vokoun, Antti Niemi/Thomas Greiss, Corey Crawford/Ray Emery)
Obviously the third situation seems the most favorable, but let's start with the injury bug. With only so many off-days crammed between games, recovering from the vigor of tending net catches up quickly as lingering issues don't have the recovery time afforded by the luxuries of a much longer season. Secondly, goalies, even the best at times, can be unpredictable and struggle with mental aspects of the game. It's not uncommon for an all-star to stumble out of the gate and it's even worse when a shortened season affects a training camp. The best scenario for any club, however, would be the benefit of having a reliable spot starter to ease the workload for the number one, even if it comes down to riding the hot hand in the long run.
Let's have a look at some of the early season surprises that have anchored in goal so far.
Perhaps the most surprising turnaround in Vancouver has been the atmosphere surrounding Roberto Loungo. A heavy magnet for criticism, Vancouver's whipping boy seems mentally sharp considering the media has been calling for his head since early last season. But then something strange happened. Cory Schneider was pulled last month, and Loungo has since given his team opportunities to win ever since.
Never heard of him? Well, you probably shouldn't have. Fasth is a 30-year-old rookie that makes Brandon Weeden feel like a college junior now that he made the jump to the NHL after playing five seasons in the Swedish leagues. The Swede has been stonewalling opponents as his starts increase and he recorded his first NHL shutout in his fourth game. So much for having to adapt to the North American game, huh?
If someone told you in January that Craig Anderson would lead all starting goalies in save percentage, would you have believed them? Me neither. Anderson has been a rock in goal for Ottawa, but unless the Senators can step up their offensive production his efforts will go unnoticed. The fact is that no one really anticipated Anderson would play this well, let alone be named the first NHL star for the month of January. The guy has been a gamer.
It's been awhile since Ellis decided to "stir the pot" on Twitter, but the journeyman is finally finding a purpose in Carolina and is being recognized for the right kind of reasons. A rough outing in Philly might have brought him back down to earth, but the fact remains that Ellis has become a reliable spot starter when Cam Ward needs a night off.
It's no secret that the Leafs have had their share of troubles in goal, but 24-year-old James Reimer has shown some promise between the pipes on occasion. While his stats may be nothing to write home about, Optimus Reim has been steady and given Toronto a chance to stay competitive this early in the season. If he can keep putting up wins, you can probably put those Luongo rumors to rest.
During the offseason, I predicted that Bryzgalov would have a difficult time readjusting to the NHL. Just a few months later, it seemed inevitable when even his Russian club overseas felt that his shaky play had worn out its welcome. Still, Bryzgalov has become one of the only reliable starters in a Flyers lineup that is struggling on the blueline and gasping for the offensive production. While his stats aren't stellar, the Flyers don't seem to be missing Sergei Bobrovsky just yet.
New Jersey's roster has been filled with unsung heroes, but Hedberg has the difficult task of filling in for a future Hall of Famer in Martin Brodeur. Together the two combine to form the oldest goalie tandem in the National Hockey League. Still, you wouldn't know it just by looking at them. Hedberg has been a solid replacement, and when he does get ice time, he's been able to make the most of it. The Jersey backup has surrendered just one goal in his first two spot starts.
Follow Jason St. Angelo on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@jaysaintny