Remember last spring when the Detroit Red Wings thought they were going to ride the goaltending of future Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek to the Stanley Cup?
Here’s one a little more recent: Remember when the Boston Bruins were a two-goaltender team so fearsome they took down those defending champion Red Wings, plus pretty much every other would-be contender that stood in their way. That was just three months ago.
Well, the ’08 Red Wings were forced by an injury to turn to Chris Osgood after just four postseason games. Having played in 43 regular-season games to Hasek’s 41, Osgood was sharp and ready to go when it came time to carry the Wings to the promised land. Last season’s Red Wings should be a cautionary tale for a Bruins club that has suddenly turned into a goaltending dictatorship rather than a bi-netminder system.
Manny Fernandez has had his struggles since returning from a back injury, just like it took him time to shake off the rust after last winter’s knee surgery. Bruins head coach Claude Julien gently worked in Fernandez throughout October, and even gave Tim Thomas five straight starts during a stretch that carried into early November. But then the bench boss unleashed his 1-2 punch. The result was a Bruins team that surged to the top of the NHL standings and a pair of goaltenders that lost as often as Bernie Madoff told the truth.
Fernandez’s unfortunate back problems forced him into seclusion for the better part of the mid-winter until his return against Philadelphia Feb. 7. Since then, Fernandez has compiled an 0-3-2 record with 18 goals allowed. But those, to me, aren’t the glaring numbers. The biggest problem digits are five starts in five weeks. While I would’ve started Fernandez at least two or more times over the last couple of weeks to get him out of his funk, the Bruins have to unleash him now or they’ll probably lose him forever.
Maybe even more than most goaltenders, Fernandez is the type of player that needs to get into rhythym. He needs to build confidence by playing. Sure, his recent results haven’t been anything to stick up his chin about, but just the mere act of giving him a nod in a big game goes a long way toward boosting his ego. His confidence increases proportionally to the confidence others have in him. Not to mention, the longer he goes on getting just the scraps as far as starts are concerned, he always has that sorry excuse — ‘I’m not playing enough’ — to fall back on.
This is in no way an indictment of Thomas, the odds-on favorite to win the Vezina Trophy this season and then cash at something more than $5 million per season this summer in free agency. Thomas is great; and he’s the man you want to tab the No. 1 when the playoffs open. But everyone agrees Thomas can get tired. And although he’d have to get in line behind numerous teammates when blame for Sunday’s loss in Pittsburgh is handed out, there’s no doubt the Michigan native wasn’t in top form against the Pens — probably hindered by his three-game-in-four-night schedule.
If you want to use last year’s Detroit team as Example A for why the Bruins need Fernandez to get going as a complement to Thomas, then you can use the ’07 Anaheim Ducks and ’06 Carolina Hurricanes as Example B and C. Both seasons, the eventual Cup-winning club needed a second goaltender to chip in. In ’07, Ilya Bryzgalov filled in admirably while J.S. Giguere was attending to a family matter. And in ’06, Cam Ward rose from the doldrums to take back the starting job from Martin Gerber in time to win the Conn Smythe.
That’s right, all three Cup winners since the lockout have needed two goaltenders to get the job done. And while Bryzgalov and Ward didn’t get a proportional number of starts in comparison to their clubs’ No. 1 during the regular season, they obviously received enough playing time to keep them ready. I just don’t see Fernandez’s current dose of playing time suiting him and keeping him in the mix. At this point, it’s more about the mental than the physical with Fernandez. If he thinks the organization doesn’t believe in him, he doesn’t believe in himself. And then how are his teammates supposed to perform in front of him?
The only way to stop the vicious cycle is to put Fernandez in there. I’m talking about a straight rotation, with perhaps a couple of back-to-back situations thrown each guy’s way — like the way things were in the salad days of December. Although it’s going to be a dogfight to the end of the season for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, the Bruins are in a relatively comfortable position as far as playoffs are concerned. If they have to sacrifice a game or two now to reap the rewards when the stakes are highest — and I for one don’t believe that giving Fernandez regular playing time would be a ‘sacrifice’ — then that’s what should be done.
No one’s going to remember how the Bruins did against Los Angeles or Ottawa in March. Everyone’s going to remember what happens after April 12. It would be better to go into the Stanley Cup playoffs with two ready and willing top-caliber goaltenders.