Ron Hextall sat at the podium and knew the questions were going to be asked.
The Philadelphia Flyers general manager didn’t sugarcoat his answer or reply with some eloquent rebuttal that ranged off into several tangents. He knew there was one simple answer to some up his feelings on having two quality goaltenders on your roster.
“I guess if you asked the Pittsburgh Penguins or the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, they’d say you need two, right,” Hextall said after the Flyers had cleaned out their lockers, having missed the NHL playoffs for the third time in five years.
Hextall was not only referring to a team like the Penguins which has two goaltenders who can step on the ice at any time and their team will not miss a beat. He was also referring to how Pittsburgh was set up for postseason success behind a hot goaltender for the second straight year.
When Matt Murray was lost to a lower-body injury during pregame warmups of Game 1 of the team’s first round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, immediately there was a sense of panic within the Penguins organization. The 22-year old goaltender had won 15 games for Pittsburgh during its 2016 Stanley Cup run, tying an NHL rookie record for wins in a single playoff year with three players including the Flyers’ GM. With no other alternative, they turned to veteran Marc-Andre Fleury, who helped the team claim the Stanley Cup in 2009.
In the seven years since, Fleury had never led his team past the Eastern Conference Finals and was ultimately jumped by Murray on the depth chart. Fleury had that disastrous series against the Flyers in 2012 playoffs where he went 2-4-0 and gave up at least four goals in four games. Murray went down, Fleury went in, and once again, the Penguins took off.
Fleury is 8-3-1 in twelve postseason games with a .926 save percentage, which is fourth-best among playoff goalies who have played in at least ten games. He’s limited the opposition to two or fewer goals in seven playoff games. He posted 49 saves, his second-most ever in a playoff game, versus Columbus in the series-clinching Game 5. For a player who was rumored to be shipped off at the trade deadline or potentially after the season, he saw an opportunity and he has been one of the integral reasons Pittsburgh may represent the east in the Stanley Cup again.
If Fleury has found his rhythm again, Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne has been dancing and standing on his head, literally and figuratively. Under the direction of former Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette, Nashville was the last team to qualify for a playoff team in the West but they were the first to qualify for a spot in the conference finals, its first trip in team history.
The 34-year-old Rinne has upped his play this postseason stopping 274 of 288 shots against in ten games (8-2-0). He never allowed more than two goals in a game during the team’s first round series with the Chicago Blackhawks including a pair of shutouts. The Flyers last saw Rinne back on Dec. 19, a 2-1 Predators victory where he made 31 saves and stood tall on shooutout attempts by Nick Cousins and Claude Giroux. Hextall would probably love to have a team riding a goaltender playing with the confidence of Rinne or Fleury.
The last time the Flyers saw Fleury was back on Oct. 29 when he made 38 saves but surrendered four goals. Pittsburgh came out with the victory, but that was what Fleury had given his team for the last few years: high save totals while still surrendering far too many goals. On the other side, the Flyers were beginning to notice a trend that would become a staple of their season: interchanging goaltenders.
Steve Mason was given the start in that game and had been given a two-goal advantage early. However, he allowed three goals in 55 seconds and was pulled after the first period. Backup Michal Neuvirth was inserted and the Flyers were able to score two in the second to tie the game at 4-4 going into the final period. Neuvirth surrendered just one goal in the third but it was the game-winner.
Fast forward a month later and it looked like Mason was beginning to solidify the goaltender position. From November 27 to December 14, the Flyers went on a ten-game winning streak and much of it was because of the 28-year-old goalie’s improved play. Mason went 8-0-0 with a 2.33 goals against average while becoming the first Flyers goalie to win eight straight starts since Hextall in 1996-97.
That was the highpoint of his season as inconsistency not only in net, but from the team as a whole hindered any shot at the postseason in the ensuing months. Mason gave up 33 power play goals in the regular season, tied for 10th most in the NHL. He did finish the year out well going 7-2-1 with .923 save percentage in his final ten games, though.
Neuvirth endured an inconsistent year as well, going 11-11-1 in 24 starts. For a player who had one of the best performances of the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs with 44 saves in the Flyers’ Game 5 victory over the Washington Capitals, he was never able to build up any momentum from that.
He started the season opener against the Los Angeles Kings, but he never emerged as anything more than an average-at-best option in net. His season hit a breaking point when he collapsed on the ice in a game versus the New Jersey Devils on April 1 and had to be taken off on a stretcher. He was released from the hospital a few days later, but it was brutal culmination in a disappointing year for Neuvirth.
Hextall liked using the tandem at different points in the year and feels having two, viable goalies is necessary to win in today’s game.
“The games are too competitive and you don’t win games without really goaltending. If you have a guy that plays 70 games, there’s going to be a few there where he doesn’t perform up to his best.” Hextall said. “You can’t afford that anymore.”
With the Flyers out of the playoffs, Mason nor Neuvirth were ever given the opportunity to show they may be able to have the same success as Fleury or Rinne. If Fleury isn’t in net, Pittsburgh may not have even gotten out of the opening round, but they’re sure pleased they didn’t trade him. If Rinne hasn’t been turning back the clock with his stout netminding, Nashville may not have been the first team in the conference finals or even moving on to the next round altogether. Sometimes all it takes is a hot goaltender to propel a team on a deep run.
Think of Cam Ward with 2005-06 Carolina Hurricanes, and Jonathan Quick and the 2010-11 Kings. Both goalies played on a completely different level than they had for much of the regular season or possibly even in their entire careers. They took their respective teams to new heights and for those specific playoff runs they were the best goaltender in the game.
Runs like this aren’t just kept to the NHL. In the AHL, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms enjoyed one of their best seasons in franchise history winning 48 games and amassing 101 points, both team highs since their Calder Cup title team of 2004-05. A big part of that was the play of goaltender Anthony Stolarz. Stolarz posted a 18-9-0 record and .911 save percentage with the Phantoms. In addition, the 23 year-old played in seven games with the Flyers including four starts going 2-1-1.
The season came to a brutal end for Stolarz after he was injured in the Phantoms’ regular season finale and was not available for the postseason. He figures to be in the Flyers goaltender rotation in the coming years and another goalie who was brought in to assist Lehigh Valley during the AHL playoffs after Stolarz went down figures to be another piece of that.
Carter Hart has done nothing but impress since being drafted by the Flyers in the second round of 2016 NHL Entry Draft. Hart has won the Western Hockey League goaltender of the year two consecutive years while playing in net for Everett Silvertips. He was 32-11-2 to go along with a 1.99 goals-against average and nine shutouts, both tops in the league. Perhaps Hart’s most notable game was when he made 64 saves in a five overtime win over Victoria in the first round of the WHL playoffs.
The 18-year-old goaltender also played for Canada at the IIHF World Junior Championships where he went 3-0-1 while helping the team claim a silver medal. Hart’s season ended on a high note of his own as he was called up to the Phantoms to be the backup goalie during their AHL playoff run. Currently, Mason and Neuvirth are the tandem being utilized by the Flyers but expect Stolarz and Hart to be integrated into the mix within the next few years before potentially taking over those spots.
If you count last year’s postseason, Mason, Neuvirth, Stolarz and Hart have all had moments where they improved their overall performance and it trickled down to the rest of the team they were playing for. Fleury and Rinne are in similar positions and they’re proving it on the stage where the Flyers are hoping at least one of their goaltenders can eventually lead them to.