Backup Goalies Key To Success

This was supposed to be the Golden Age for goaltending in New York. The three area teams all went into the season featuring All-Star goalies who are the best players on their rosters and among the better netminders in the league. The Rangers have Henrik Lundqvist, Rick DiPietro tends goal on Long Island and the Devils feature future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur. Arguably not since Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider were roaming centerfield at the Polo Grounds, Yankee Stadium and Ebbets Field respectfully had one city seen so much talent at one position.

The backup goalies on these teams didn’t expect to see too much action on game days, other than opening and closing the door to the players’ bench. Maybe they could hope to start 10-12 games a season and relieve the star on those rare occasions they are having an off day and the coach feels the need to shake up the team. Of course, the backup is expected to stay sharp and be ready when called upon, but realistically, they had to know the call wouldn’t come very often.

But this season has hardly gone as planned for New York area goalies. Of the big three, only Lundqvist is still playing and it’s no surprise the Rangers are doing better than their two regional rivals in the early part of the season.

Rick DiPietro had two offseason surgeries and was not ready to start the season for the Islanders. He appeared in only three October games before suffering another knee injury and undergoing a third surgical procedure in the last eight months. DiPietro landing on the injured list and has yet to return to the lineup.

Meanwhile, the Devils got their season off to a hot start and the play of Brodeur was one of the biggest reasons. New Jersey was 6-2-2 after beating Atlanta on November 1st. Unfortunately for the Devils, they lost Brodeur for approximately four months with an arm injury that required surgery. The Devils, who have been built around the spectacular goaltending of Brodeur, suddenly had to face life without their rock.

With DP out of the lineup, the Islanders turned to unheralded Joey MacDonald, a 28-year-old career minor leaguer who had started only 14 NHL games prior to the start of this season. Much to everyone’s surprise, MacDonald has been more than equal to the task of playing every night. In 15 games, MacDonald is 7-6-2 with a 2.68 goals-against-average and a save percentage of .915. The Islanders’ unexpected starter has accomplished these solid numbers despite the fact that the club has been missing as many as four of their top six defensemen from the lineup.

Islanders’ coach Scott Gordon has been impressed with MacDonald’s play this season and believes his play has improved as the season progressed. “He’s tracking the puck a lot better than he was at the beginning of the year, even pucks that miss the net, pucks that don’t get to the net,” said Gordon, himself a former NHL goaltender. “He’s finding the rebounds and reacting accordingly.”

MacDonald believes that knowing he is going to play every day makes a big difference for him. “You don’t have to sit around and wait for a week or two weeks being the backup,” MacDonald explained. “You can play a good game and you take it for the night and get back to work tomorrow. The more you play, the more confidence you get.”

He also has enjoyed hearing the Nassau Coliseum salute him with chants of “Jo-ey, Jo-ey”. “It’s great to have that many people chant your name,” a sheepish MacDonald said. “It’s a real momentum boost.”

All of this improved play was not accomplished without hard work on MacDonald’s part. During the summer, the Halifax, Nova Scotia, native worked on his lateral movement and on playing the angles more effectively than he had in the past when he relied more on his natural athletic ability and speed. The Islanders have two goalie coaches in Mike Dunham and Sudarshan “Sudsie” Maharaj and both of them have worked extensively with MacDonald in recent months.

Veteran center Doug Weight has seen a lot of goalies in his 17-year NHL career and he’s impressed with what he’s seen from MacDonald. “He exudes a lot of confidence,” Weight explained. “As quiet as he is, he plays the game well, he has great positioning, he’s quick and he’s a very confident goaltender and we’ve fed off that. He’s made big saves at big times in every one of our seven wins. We’re feeding off Joey’s energy and he’s playing great for us and obviously with Ricky on the shelf, it’s unbelievable to our success.”

MacDonald even played well in New York’s losses, having only one poor game thus far this season, a 7-1 loss to the Sabres in which he got very little support from the team in front of him. The Islanders feel comfortable playing in front of MacDonald and he’s established the fact that he is an NHL quality goaltender. The Islanders have now won three straight and are creeping back into the Eastern Conference playoff race.

“Even when we didn’t win, Joey gave us a chance to win every time,” added Islanders’ center Frans Nielsen. “He’s been good for us and he’s playing great right now.”

While the Islanders have received solid play from MacDonald, their division rivals in New Jersey have struggled since losing Brodeur on November 1st. The Devils are 2-5 without their starting netminder including a four-game losing streak. More importantly, the Devils have allowed 23 goals in seven games without Brodeur for an uncharacteristic 3.3 goals per game.

Kevin Weekes, who was on the NHL roster serving as Brodeur’s backup, got the first crack at starting for Devils in Brodeur’s absence, but lately, coach Brent Sutter has given Scott Clemmensen, who is now in his second tour of duty with the the club, a chance to show what he can do. Weekes is 1-3-0 with a 3.06 goals-against-average and an .898 save percentage while Clemmensen has been slightly better statistically with a record of 1-2-0 with a 2.95 GAA and a .901 save percentage.

Both backups are determined to make the most of their unexpected chance to play. “I want to play well,” Clemmensen said. “This is my eighth year as a pro and I have to take advantage of these opportunities. It’s something you prepare for, and you wait your whole career for something like this. I’m not trying to replace Marty, but the situation is what it is, and I’m trying to showcase what I can do out there.”

For his part, Weekes wants to help his team forge ahead. “Obviously, the best goalie in the world is no longer here right now,” Weekes explained. “We certainly miss him, but our strength is in numbers. We have to continue to believe in that.”

One disadvantage the Devils have is Brodeur’s past durability and consistency. While DiPietro has missed some time due to injuries during each of the previous two campaigns, the last time Brodeur played fewer than 70 games in a season was 1996-97 when he played 67. Since the lockout, Brodeur has averaged 76 starts per year, leaving his backups a mere six starts. Weekes served as the backup last year but appeared in only nine contests all season, starting five. He hasn’t played more than half his team’s games since 2003-04 when he was with Carolina. Clemmensen, meanwhile, has never started more than nine games in a season at the NHL level.

New Jersey has also played a defense-first style for more than a decade. Part of that style relied on the strong goaltending of Brodeur and suddenly it’s not there anymore.

While there are a number of veteran goalies supposedly available on the trade market like Manny Fernandez, Dwayne Roloson and Nikolai Khabibulin, the word out of New Jersey is that GM Lou Lamoriello will not be making a major trade to acquire a goaltender to tide the Devils over until Brodeur’s scheduled return in either February or March.

“We’ve got to find a way to stay in the hunt,” Sutter said. “We’re not going to use excuses. The easiest thing to do is say it’s injuries. The bottom line is, the guys who are playing have to be rock solid.”

The Devils have to hope that with regular playing time, either Weekes or Clemmensen can pick up their game and be the man in net for a few months. The team hopes to hold on until Brodeur gets back, but that will be tough in the tight and competitive Eastern Conference playoff race. For the Islanders, MacDonald needs to keep up his surprising and consistent play until DiPietro returns to health. No date has been set as of now for his return.

The 2008-09 fate of both of these teams will rely heavily on the performance of backup goaltenders. That’s a long way from just opening and closing the door to the bench for 75 games a year.

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