A Canadian. A Finn. A rookie. A veteran. On paper, Stanley Cup final goaltenders Jordan Binnington and Tuukka Rask had little in common. But they shared one common trait that may have carried them within a few feet of hockey’s highest summit.
Between the AHL and the NHL, Binnington played 48 regular-season games. Rask: 46. They crusaded to the final with light workloads. For Binnington, just 25 and in his physical prime, a relatively low number of games may not have mattered a ton, but for Rask, 32, there’s evidence a more restful season than usual made a massive difference in his spring play.
Rask’s 45 starts in the regular season made up 54.9 percent of Boston’s schedule, giving him his smallest chunk of the goaltending pie since 2011-12, when he was Tim Thomas’ backup. According to Bruins GM Don Sweeney and coach Bruce Cassidy, the reduced workload was by design. That’s why the team signed Jaroslav Halak, who had years of starting experience, to a one-year contract last summer at a “luxury backup” price of $2.75 million. “That was our plan, to give (Rask) less starts,” Cassidy said. “There wasn’t a specific number. We wanted to keep it closer to 52 to 55. Jaro allowed us to rest him a little more. So I would assume it would help him this time of year. I still think he was certainly capable of playing well this time of the year if he had a few more starts. If you had him in the 60s? Then I don’t know.”
Rask had developed a reputation for fading late in seasons, with a career save percentage 10 points lower after the all-star break than before it. Even with a smaller workload this season, the pattern held true, as he slipped to just .903 after the all-star break. Perhaps managing the reps messed with his rhythm at times, but it paid off for Boston in the post-season, when, Game 7 of the Cup final aside, Rask was easily the top netminder in the 16-team field, posting a 2.02 goals-against average and .934 SP. The frequent regular-season breaks gave his body and mind time to recover. “There’s a big difference between playing 45 and 65 games,” Rask said. “You no longer go on those runs where you play 15 games in the regular season. When you do, you don’t get that time and rest you want to. Play 15, take one game off, then you play another 10. It wears on you. This year, that wasn’t the case. Both of us, me and Jaro, were mentally and physically fresh throughout the year and going into the playoffs.”
Based on the trend over the past decade, we shouldn’t have been surprised to see two fresh netminders reach the final. The regular-season games played for the 10 Cup-winning starters before this year: Braden Holtby, 54; Matt Murray, 49; Murray, 44 (AHL/NHL); Corey Crawford, 57; Jonathan Quick, 49; Crawford, 30 (lockout, pro-rates to 51); Quick, 69; Tim Thomas, 57; Antti Niemi, 39; Marc-Andre Fleury, 62. So, only two of the past 11 Cup-winning goalies – and none of the past seven – hit the 60-game mark in the regular season. Are we thus witnessing the start of a league-wide trend? “The condensed schedule is very difficult,” said Blues GM Doug Armstrong. “When you add the all-star break and then the mandatory five-day break, you can get into some long stretches of play. You certainly need a group of 25 players, and that includes two goaltenders, to have a successful season.”
The number of NHL goalies appearing in 60 or more games over the past five seasons: 12, 10, 13, 12, eight. This year’s number really sticks out, but it’s too early to declare the reduced workloads a trend.
At this point, it’s only a select group of wise teams making the change. But we all know the NHL’s reputation as a copycat league, so it’s only a matter of time before the majority of teams start giving their No. 1 stoppers more regular-season siestas.