Last night, the New Jersey Devils got to face who will likely be the #2 goaltender for Winnipeg this season: Al Montoya. And he shut them out in a 3-0 loss. A common lament I've heard at games in advance of last night's game comes to mind. The notion that the Devils make backups look superior like they are Vezina winners, Dominik Hasek, a wall, and so forth. I can sympathize with the frustration. Especially after last night's game. I'd argue that's more on the Devils not forcing Montoya enough to be great as opposed to Montoya being great, but a 100% save percentage is still a 100% save percentage. The sight that the goaltender who does not regularly start for the opposition stopping everything in sight is a hard one to take. It's hard to forget, which I think fuels that notion that some degree. But let's consider it further anyway.
When I say backup, it's more accurate to call them non-regular starters. There are a myriad of reasons why the Devils would see these sorts of goalies. The notion of the backup itself has changed in recent seasons. Several teams now operate with a #1 and #1A option, splitting time more evenly. Injuries have caused some goalies to play more than they otherwise would. Poor performance could force a coach to start someone else just to "send a message" or "hope for a different result." The schedule could dictate who they see, be it a team just splitting goalies on a back-to-back set or playing someone based on whether the Devils are the stronger or weaker matchup. Whatever the reason, the Devils - like most teams - will see someone in net that may not get the majority of starts in net for the season.
I decided to go back four seasons of game-by-game data from NHL.com. I noted who the starting goalie was and determined their save percentage for each game. I cross-referenced the opposition goalies and noted whether they were the #1 for their team in that season based on how many starts the goalie has received. In each season, the #1 goalie designation would certainly be arguable for a few teams due to injury, usage, and performance. I did the best that I could. I did not sort out data based on back-ups coming into games in relief so this isn't a complete analysis. However, it's enough to put this notion to bed.
|2009-10 vs. Not #1s
|2009-10 vs. #1s
|2010-11 vs. Not #1s
|2010-11 vs. #1s
|2011-12 vs. Not #1s
|2011-12 vs. #1s
|2013 vs. Not #1s
|2013 vs. #1s
The last time the #1 goalies did worse than their #1 goalies against the Devils was back in the 2009-10 season. Keep in mind that the Not #1s from that season included goalies were or would eventually be #1s later in the list like Tuukka Rask, Mike Smith, Jean-Sebastien Gigurere, Ondrej Pavelec, and Antti Niemi. Still, from that season onward, the Devils found more success against the non-regular starters. Even in the 2010-11 season when all opposition goaltenders collectively put up a 92.7% save percentage against New Jersey.
Yes, the Devils have had their nights where the #2 (or #3) has stunned the Devils with saves everywhere. From last season, one can recall Jonas Enroth doing it all until the last shot he faced (he hurt himself on the play) and Ben Bishop stopping 32 of 34 in a territorially-lopsided game. TBut as those stand out, one forgets that the 2013 Devils put plenty past Dan Ellis (played as much as Cam Ward but wouldn't have if Ward didn't get hurt) and handed sub-90% nights to Anders Lindback, Tomas Vokoun, Mathieu Garon, and Anton Khudobin too. Then again, they went 2-1-1 in those four so perhaps they weren't so memorable. Two seasons ago, Al Montoya did well on November 25 (1-0 win) and on November 26 (2-3 loss) with only three goals allowed on 49 shots. But in their final meeting in 2011-12, the Devils put three past him out of 20 shots on April 3 in a 3-1 win. Last night, he got them all. Next time, who knows?
The main point is that one never truly knows what you're going to get from an unfamiliar goalie. Even established and experienced goalies can have slumps of erratic play or streaks of excellence. So someone who doesn't start regularly is even more of a wildcard. Sure, we can look at the what goalie has or has not done in the past to see whether we should be worried. But on any given night, a goalie can get hot. Even so, in the larger picture of a whole season, most of the non-regular starters - the backups, if you will - are not regularly starting for a reason. It shouldn't be a surprise that they would have a worse save percentage when they start against New Jersey than the regulars.
So regardless of Montoya's shut out last night, I don't think non-#1 goalies will give the 2013-14 Devils much trouble over the whole season like the 2009-10 team did. The last three seasons suggest otherwise in spite of the Devils putting up so low shooting percentages. You don't even have to go far to find a counter example within this season. Jason LaBarbera, the Oilers' #2 goalie for now, certainly didn't play like that last Monday. I understand where that line of thinking comes from, but the numbers do not fully support it.