The Ducks rookie has been outstanding in his first two NHL starts, while starter Jonas Hiller has been ice-cold lately. So who starts the playoffs for Anaheim?
With a 5-2 win over the rival San Jose Sharks last night, Anaheim tied a franchise record for home wins (28, with one game to play) and set team-bests for points in a season (112) and goals scored (257). The Ducks clinched the Pacific Division, giving them the luxury of not playing another California team in the first round of the playoffs: San Jose and Los Angeles now have to beat each other to a pulp for four-to-seven games before even thinking about an extended post-season run.
So the Ducks have that going for them. But there’s one little fly in the ointment and it comes in net. Simply put, rookie John Gibson has been outstanding in his first two NHL starts, while starter Jonas Hiller has been ice-cold lately. Gibson notched a shutout in his debut over Vancouver, then stopped 36 against San Jose, one of the most potent teams in the NHL. The Ducks have two games remaining in the regular season; a back-to-back weekender with Los Angeles on Saturday and Colorado Sunday afternoon. Most likely, Gibson and Hiller split those games.
And as small as the sample size is on Gibson, he has an incredible track record despite his age: MVP of the 2013 world juniors, where he led Team USA to gold; then a bronze medal at the world championships that same year, where he wrested the crease away from Ben Bishop. In both tourneys his save percentage was .951 or better.
But the Ducks can’t really go with Gibson over Hiller, can they? This is a team with serious Stanley Cup aspirations and even Patrick Roy had played a full season with Montreal before leading the Habs to glory in 1986. Hiller himself hasn’t exactly been a dog in the post-season either; last year’s first-round loss to Detroit was more about a lack of goal-scoring.
On the other hand, Anaheim’s first-round opponent (most likely Minnesota or Dallas) would have absolutely no book on Gibson and that can really throw a team off. The playoffs are often about riding a hot goaltender and Gibson has already proven himself to be a pressure performer at the age of 20.
Coach Bruce Boudreau admitted to reporters last night that he wasn’t sure what he was going to do at this point and it’s certainly not an easy situation. Keep Hiller on the bench with a ball cap on for too long and you risk losing your incumbent No. 1 netminder, an Olympian whose only crime was going cold at a time when a rookie got hot. How would Hiller respond to that lack of confidence shown in his ability to rebound? Then what happens if Gibson’s magic wears off after a few playoff games? The Ducks have a good enough team to get past the first round, but they’ll need a tip-top goalie to thwart either L.A. or San Jose in the second.
Some would say having too many good goaltenders is a great problem to have, but make no mistake; it’s still a problem.