BACKUP GOALTENDERS IN NHL PLAYOFF BETTING
In general, sports bettors tend to overrate the significance of injuries. The mainstream sports media doesn’t help things either—they have a tendency to hype up any injury to a key player as ‘cataclysmic’. While there are instances where the absence of a player or players materially changes the overall ability of the team they’re not as common as the ESPN’s of the world would have you believe. On balance, you’re likely better off betting on teams with key player injuries—often they’ll be overcompensated for in the betting line and you’re getting some additional value.
In the NFL, the mainstream sports media gets hysterical whenever a starting quarterback is injured. In the NHL, the same type of reaction is reserved for starting goaltenders. This is particularly true during the Stanley Cup playoffs. In the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs, hockey writers almost immediately wrote off the chances of the Tampa Bay Lightning when starting goaltender Ben Bishop went down with an injury early in the playoffs.
Bishop is definitely an important part of the Lightning team and they’d much rather have him in the lineup than not. He raised his game considerably this year and is one of three finalists for the Vezina Trophy awarded to the league’s top goaltender. You can make a pretty compelling case that he’s been the Lightning’s playoff MVP thus far. But as we noted above, the media is already in hysterics suggesting that Tampa Bay’s chances of advancing to the Stanley Cup finals—let alone winning the Cup—are now slim and none.
THE REALITIES OF BACKUP GOALTENDING
Before you rush to make futures bets against the Lightning a little historical perspective is in order. This is the same refrain that the Lightning’s Conference Final opponents heard late in the regular season. When the Penguins’ starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury suffered his second concussion of the year the same sort of panicked commentary ensued. The Penguins kept right on winning, however, thanks to the play of 21 year old rookie goaltender Matt Murray. Murray played so well that even though Fleury was healthy again he’s still ‘riding the pine’ as Murray’s backup. Murray’s play was so excellent in the Penguins’ Stanley Cup run that Fleury is likely on the way out of town.
Something that was lost in all of the post mortum articles declaring the Lightning’s Stanley Cup hopes dead and buried. They got an excellent performance by backup goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy who made 21 saves in his sixth career playoff appearance. Vasilevskiy is 21 years old—the same age as Murray—and until Bishop started to really become a ‘next level’ goalie over the past two seasons there was many who thought that the Russian native would be the Lightning’s goalie of the future.
That’s a well known fact among hockey experts that the mainstream sports media still doesn’t get—most NHL teams have an excellent backup goalie. There are countless examples of backup goaltenders—including very young backup goalies—taking over during the playoffs and performing very well. Carolina’s Cam Ward took over for Martin Gerber during the 2006 playoffs and helped the team win their first Stanley Cup. It was his rookie year and he’d played 22 games in the regular season but the Hurricanes were down 0-2 to Montreal in the first round. Carolina’s then coach (and current Nashville Predators’ coach) Peter Laviolette made the switch and it worked wonders. He tied Ron Hextall’s record for playoff wins by a rookie goaltender (15) and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
Ward’s heroics were far from unprecedented—Montreal won the Stanley Cup in 1986 with rookie Patrick Roy between the pipes and although the Philadelphia Flyers lost the 1987 finals to the Edmonton Oilers in 7 games their rookie goalie, Ron Hextall, was named playoff MVP. More recently, then Washington Capitals’ rookie Semyon Varlamov took over for starter Jose Theodore early in the playoffs and played well. There’s nothing in recent NHL history that suggests that a rookie goaltender can’t play well. The mainstream sports media still fixates on rookies being unable to deal with ‘playoff pressure’. This year Matt Murray was considered one of the Penguins’ MVPs in their Stanley Cup win
Every team wants to have their best personnel on the ice at the most important time of the season. NHL teams—particularly successful NHL teams—are adept at dealing with adversity and having role players step up big when their number is called. The quality of goaltending in the NHL has never been better. Modern goalies are better athletes, working with better coaches and playing with better equipment. Unfortunately, the same thing can’t be said for the quality of sports reporting circa 2016.