Backup goalies are backups for a reason. Though the backup might not be the guy that gives his team a best chance to win night in and night out, being ready when called upon can make a huge difference in a team's overall record. This season, several backups have been thrust into the spotlight and have answered by playing some of their best hockey.
The best goaltender in the NHL so far this season is one that started the year as a No. 2. Minnesota's Josh Harding has been a faithful backup to Niklas Backstrom for the last six season. When Backstrom went down with another injury, Harding hopped into the starter's role and has been incredible with a stunning .946 save percentage and 1.25 goals-against average in 17 appearances. He's also one win away from matching his career best of 13 set in 34 appearances in 2011-12.
Though Harding is the prime example, other backups have really stepped up this season.
Jean-Sebastien Giguere for the Avalanche, Ottawa's Robin Lehner, Montreal's Peter Budaj, Frederik Andersen for the Ducks, Cam Talbot for the Rangers, San Jose's Alex Stalock and Curtis McElhinney of the Blue Jackets have all stepped in admirably when called upon, some more often than others.
There's also the No. 2 goalies that see more appearances than the average backup as part of a tandem as opposed to the traditional starter/backup rotation like James Reimer and Brian Elliott. Both have been strong, particularly Reimer who has actually put up better numbers than Jonathan Bernier in four fewer appearances.
Nothing can take the place of a good starting goaltender, but combining a starter's dependability with strong play from the No. 2 can make a real difference in the standings.
Where would the Minnesota Wild be without Harding at this point? He has stolen games for a team that is middle of the pack when it comes to goal scoring.
The Los Angeles Kings have long maintained a good backup goalie. Jonathan Bernier, now in Toronto was a more-than-adequate understudy to Jonathan Quick and had he been on a lot of other teams he would have likely been a No. 1. Now the Kings are lucky to have received Ben Scrivens in return from trading Bernier to the Maple Leafs.
With Quick possibly out for an extended period of time with a groin strain, Scrivens has really taken the ball and run with it. He has won each of his three starts since Quick went down, including back-to-back shutouts against the Devils and Rangers. In eight appearances this season, Scrivens has a .955 save percentage and 1.24 goals-against average.
The 27-year-old is only in his third NHL season, but he got some good preparation last season when he had to start 17 games, many of which due to injury to Leafs then-starter James Reimer. He performed admirably with a .915 save percentage in 20 appearances. Though it's tough to know how well he'll handle the grind against Western Conference opponents, Scrivens has proven he can help the Kings win.
Meanwhile, unproven rookie Cam Talbot has been a revelation for the New York Rangers. Spelling the struggling Henrik Lundqvist five times this season, Talbot has a 4-1-0 record to go along with a .943 save percentage and 1.58 and has been a big part of the Rangers turning around their season. Getting Lundqvist rest and a chance to recharge while giving the team as good a chance to win increases Talbot's value exponentially.
The thing about backups is that you never know exactly what you're going to get. The goaltending position can be so fickle it seems, with players getting hot for long stretches and going cold for long stretches as well.
The Chicago Blackhawks were expecting the aged Nikolai Khabibulin to spell Corey Crawford every four starts or so, but the 40-year-old netminder couldn't stop a thing and now he's hurt. That's forced Crawford to make 19 appearances in 21 games already this season, twice coming off the bench to relieve Khabibulin.
Now the Blackhawks will have to hope Antti Raanta, signed as a free agent out of Finland in the offseason, will be able to give Crawford a few breathers without costing the team. Crawford has been fine between the pipes, but he's never played in more than 60 games in a season at any level. The wear and tear should be a real concern.
Last year, Crawford had Ray Emery to carry some of the burden, with the latter playing some incredible hockey going 17-1-3 in 21 appearances with a .922 save percentage. Emery also saw bigger minutes when Crawford was hurt.
This year, Emery hasn't been much help to Steve Mason with the Flyers, going 2-3-1 and putting up a paltry .898 save percentage. Granted, he had a much better team in front of him last year in Chicago, but Mason has held up fairly well with the same group. It's difficult to put Emery out there as the Flyers attempt to claw back into the playoff picture.
The Nashville Predators are also barely treading water with Pekka Rinne now down for an undetermined amount of time with a hip injury. They gambled on the unproven Carter Hutton who had one NHL appearance to his name to be the primary backup. Unfortunately, it didn't work out the way the similarly unproven Talbot has so far for the Rangers. Hutton has a 4-3-1 record over 10 appearances and an .891 save percentage. That's not going to get the job done.
For some teams, having that dependable backup has made a world of difference, but there will always be that little bit of doubt that starters don't deal with as much. There's also the question of how a team plays in front of its backup as opposed to the No. 1 guy.
For instance, the Rangers probably have more faith in the proven excellence of Henrik Lundqvist and might take a few more chances up the ice knowing that they have a safety net between the pipes. They might take less of those chances when Talbot is back there.
Sometimes they don't have that luxury, like in Minnesota right now. The Wild have committed to playing a riskier style to improve offense. They couldn't play any differently with Harding in net, really. Luckily for them, it's paying off.
Another interesting thing about backup goalies is how much variety there is at the position. It's not unlike backup quarterbacks in football in terms of the different types of players that occupy the position.
There are the has-been starters like Giguere, Budaj and Khabibulin. Then you've got starters in waiting like Lehner, Cory Scheider for the Devils and Jacob Markstrom in Florida. There are also the ever-present journeyman backups like Jason LaBarbera in Edmonton (who was just waived), Dan Ellis with the Stars and Chad Johnson in Boston. Then there are the young guys who are still getting their feet wet like Hutton, Scrivens and Talbot.
It's such a smorgasbord of weird, which is why it's near impossible to know what to expect out of such a group. Even with that unpredictability though, the backup goaltender position can be so vastly important.
Guys like Scrivens and Harding are irreplaceable at this point. They're providing their team an opportunity to win every night out, all at a discount price. As a result, their teams haven't dropped off in the absence of starting goaltenders.
At the very least, backups can give starters a break, but this year we've seen so many deliver the very best possible outcome for their teams on a fairly regular basis. The status of the backup may be inglorious, but the teams that have a good one sure are glad they have them, especially this season.