Bruce Cassidy hasn’t had to fuss much under the hood with his lineup thus far in the postseason. Injuries to Jeremy Lauzon and Kevan Miller have led to swapping Connor Clifton and Jarred Tinordi into the backline, but otherwise, the lineup Cassidy envisioned headed into the postseason again was the one that took the ice in Washington Sunday night with a chance to eliminate the Caps and move on Stanley Cup round No. 2.
As lineup bedrock goes, no position — or decision — is more essential than the goalie. For his part, Cassidy hasn’t fretted one second over the net, putting to rest completely the pre-playoff talk show cacaphony that rookie Jeremy Swayman, with zero playoff experience, would be the wiser choice over veteran Tuukka Rask.
It was Rask in Game 1, Rask in Games 2, 3 ,and 4, and Rask yet again for Game 5 in D.C. The 34-year-old stalwart turned back 40 of 41 shots and picked up his 55 career playoff win in 98 starts.
So, nothing to see here, folks. As sure as Patrice Bergeron is the Black-and-Gold’s No. 1 center, Rask remains the franchise tender, building on a pedigree that includes twice leading the club’s charge to a Cup Final (2013, ’19) and falling but one win short of a Cup in the Game 7 loss to the Blues just two years ago.
Don’t expect that to change. It’s going to be Tuukka all night long, for as long as those nights last for the Bruins, who, if successful in rubbing out the Caps, next will face either the Penguins or Islanders (locked in a 2-2 series tie).
Joel Quenneville only wishes he had the same kind of 24-square-foot assurance in Florida.
The Panthers’ net has been nothing short of a disaster, with No. 1 Sergei Bobrovsky’s value sinking faster than bitcoin’s and longshot reliever Chris Driedger, he of zero prior playoff experience, faring slightly better, but still getting torched by Tampa Bay. With a win Monday night in Sunrise in Game 5, the Bolts can send the Panthers into the playoff sunset.
Bobrovsky, on the Panthers books for five more seasons at $10M a year, now stands 1-2 this post-season with a frightening 5.33 goals against mark and a ghastly .841 save percentage. So close to the beach, yet unable to stop a beachball. Driedger, an all-but-forgotten former Senators draft pick, has slightly better numbers. In tandem, the Panthers backstops have done nothing but feed the Bolts’ scoring ego.
All of which had Quenneville, who banked three Cups (’10, ’13, ’15) in his salad days behind the Hawks bench, musing Sunday that Spencer Knight, who just eight weeks ago was still Boston College’s franchise tender, could be in the mix to start Monday’s night’s elimination game.
“He gives you an option, something to consider, " noted Quenneville. “I think his track record has earned him that consideration.”
Knight just turned 20 last month. He has played in four NHL games (all wins), and now in the blink of an eye, he could be the Panthers’ last-ditch effort to salvage the post-season.
Now, Sunday’s “consideration” can be Monday morning’s sober default to the $10-million-a-year Bobrovsky. That’s usually how these things go. Coaches, even those backed up against the exit door, almost always reach for the best known commodity.
Knight is every bit Florida’s Swayman — even moreso, considering he was the first goalie picked in the 2019 draft. Even with their limited NHL resumes thus far, both look like they’ll be around the league for a while. One or both could be that rare goaltending prospect that morphs quickly into a legit franchise cornerstone like, say, Ken Dryden, Martin Brodeur, or Patrick Roy. It’s rare, but it happens.
Quenneville, before wrapping up his off-day zoom presser, was clearly aware of the odds at play, noting that beyond Knight there were “two other options we like as well.”
“I don’t think it’s time to get too much involved in it,” added Quenneville, “but I know [Knight] has been on big stages before.”
Not quite as big as Game 5 elimination, of course.
The Panthers weren’t along in trying to mend their net woes. Witness Peter Laviolette and his Caps.
Preferred post-season starter Vitek Vanecek was injured only 13 minutes into Game 1 of the series. Then 39-year-old reliever Craig Anderson (now 40), took over, filched the W, and was back in two nights later when the Bruins evened the series on Brad Marchand’s OT winner.
Laviolette then went with Ilya Samsonov in Game 3, in which the rookie tender blipped out in OT and gift-wrapped the game-winner for an opportunistic Craig Smith. Samsonov then couldn’t handle the Bruins big late push in Game 4, surrendering three goals on 14 shots. He again proved too easy to beat in Game 5.
Like Qunneville in Florida, Laviolette only wished he could plug the likes of Rask into his net and concentrate more on, well, how his forwards could solve Rask in the other net.
Not that any Bruins fan will shed a tear, but St. Louis coach Craig Berube has been living the playoff netminder nightmare, too. Two years ago, he watched Jordan Binnington, then 25 and with zero playoff experience, put on a 16-10 tour de force and led the Blues to the Cup. Binnington’s stellar first-period saves in Game 7 against the Bruins essentially handed the Blues their first Cup in franchise history.
On Sunday night, Binnington was in net when the Avalanche eliminated his Blues with a fourth consecutive win to sweep the series. He now has lost nine consecutive playoff starts since the night he backed the Blues to that Game 7 win at the Garden.
There are still many miles to go in the ’21 playoffs. But headed into Game 5 Sunday night in D.C., Rask again was delivering the goods. It’s something we all take for granted, even with the likes of Florida and Washington and St. Louis this year serving to remind us it’s a lot trickier than he makes it look.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.