By Steven Ellis
Expectations for the Montreal Canadiens were rather limited heading into the season after losing some key assets. Naturally, the Habs would have to rely on superstar goaltender Carey Price to once again lead them into the playoffs.
However, the team struggled out of the gate and Price wasn’t getting the job done, losing six of his first seven decisions. Finally, as the calendar flipped to November, the Canadiens started to gain some traction and became one of the hottest teams in the league.
Much of the team’s turnaround was due to goaltending. But don’t thank Price, he’s been out with a “minor” injury for nearly two weeks. Instead, thank rookie netminder Charlie Lindgren. The 23-year-old native of Lakeville, Minn., started four straight games in early November, winning three of them and surrendering a grand total of five goals en route to a 1.24 goals-against average, .964 save percentage and one shutout. Overall, Lindgren has a 6-1-0 record in seven career NHL games over the past three seasons. It’s a small sample size, to be sure. But in that short span, Lindgren has been able to stabilize the crease during some tough times for Montreal.
This isn’t the first time a Canadiens goalie has started off well. Wayne Thomas’ NHL career started with an 8-1-0 record in 1972-73. Two seasons prior to that, Ken Dryden won his first six decisions as a rookie.
Signed out of St. Cloud State in 2016, Lindgren has only played a handful of NHL games in his young career, but his play has given Montreal a chance to get back on track when they desperately needed a boost.
Lindgren’s current stint as Montreal’s starting goalie depends on the health of the two netminders ahead of him on the depth chart – Price appears to be working his way back to active duty, while backup Al Montoya is out indefinitely with a concussion. In the meantime, the Habs have a goalie in Lindgren who can come in and pick up the slack, and it means the team doesn’t need to rush Price back until he’s ready.
How does Lindgren’s short-but-sweet start compare with some of the best starts by NHL rookie goalies over the past 20-plus years? His sample size may not be comparable just yet, but he has a chance to join an exclusive group of strong-starting freshmen goalies:
Patrick Lalime, Pittsburgh Penguins (1996-97): Lalime’s start in the NHL was about as good as you can possibly get. In fact, more than 20 years later, he still owns the record for the best start to an NHL career. In his first 16 games, Lalime went 14–0–2. Lalime would slow down as the season progressed and lost the starting job to Ken Wregget prior to the playoffs. He wouldn’t play in the NHL again until 1999-2000 with the Ottawa Senators. Lalime may be remembered most for his time in Ottawa during his 11-year NHL career, but his stint with Pittsburgh was historic.
Johan Hedberg, Pittsburgh Penguins (2001-02): You may recall Hedberg as being one of the game’s best puckhandling goalies, but the longtime backup also had an incredible start to his NHL career. Hedberg was called upon at the end of the 2001-02 season to give the Penguins a shot at the playoffs, and that’s exactly what he did. Pressed into big-league duty for the first time, the man the fans called ‘Moose’ went 7-1-1 down the stretch, helping the Penguins clinch a playoff spot. His great play extended into the post-season, where he would lead his team all the way to the Eastern Conference final, with the Pens eventually falling to New Jersey. He would never hit that level of sustained excellence again, but he was a serviceable backup capable of playing 30-plus games a season.
Semyon Varlamov, Washington Capitals (2008-09): Varlamov’s NHL career has been a roller-coaster, from the highs of a 41-win season with Colorado in 2013-14 to last year’s injury-induced low point. But as a 20-year-old goalie with the Capitals in 2008-09, Varlamov made a memorable first impression. He went a 4-0-1 when called upon in the regular season, but it was in the playoffs where he really proved himself worthy. After stepping in for an injured Jose Theodore in the first round, Varlamov posted two shutouts and helped the Capitals rally past the New York Rangers before pushing the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins to seven games in Round 2.
Andrew Hammond, Ottawa Senators (2014-15): Nobody could’ve predicted that a seemingly unknown goalie prospect would come in and change the course of the Senators’ season. Hammond was Ottawa’s No. 3 netminder behind Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner, but when injuries claimed the two regulars, ‘The Hamburglar’ was thrust into the spotlight and he delivered with an astounding 20-1-2 record to close out the season. Hammond hasn’t been able to replicate that success, however, spending most of his time in the minors and he was recently dealt to Colorado as part of the Matt Duchene trade.
Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins (2015-16): Are you starting to notice a trend here? The Penguins have had some great performances from some under-the-radar goalies. With an injury to Marc-Andre Fleury and underwhelming play by Jeff Zatkoff paving the way, Murray was called upon near the end of the 2015-16 season. This would be a daunting task for most 21-year-olds who lacked experience, but Murray was up for it and the rest is history. In the final 13 regular season games, Murray went 9-2-1 to earn the starting job for the playoffs. He’d go on to help the Penguins win the Stanley Cup and gained Conn Smythe Trophy consideration after an impressive playoff performance. Unlike the other Penguins goalies on this list, Murray has been a dominant force between the pipes for Pittsburgh ever since, following up his 2016 Cup with a repeat performance last spring.