NHL Coaches Embrace Change in Historic Year for Goalie Switching

Pat Pickens
Last Updated: May 16, 2023

The old hockey adage goes: If you have two goalies, you really have none.

But in the 2023 playoffs, you could amend that to the following: If you have two goalies, you have a chance to win the Stanley Cup.

With sharp momentum swings, condensed schedules, and less of an emphasis on No. 1 goalies around the league, it has never been more important for NHL coaches to toggle between goaltenders.

Through two rounds, 28 different goalies have seen action, 23 have gotten at least one start, and there have been 20 in-game goalie changes, the most through two playoff rounds in 33 years. This is the continuation of a trend where at least 28 netminders have seen action before the Conference Finals in four of the past six postseasons.

But the in-game switches have made these playoffs so unique. This is only the third playoff year to feature 20-plus in-game goalie switches through two playoff rounds, along with 1984 and 1990, according to NHL stats. NHL stats does not account for the reason behind the mid-game goalie switches, but the majority of moves have been performance-related and not due to injury.

“The goalie has the most pressure of any player on the ice," Devils coach Lindy Ruff told The Game Day Hockey. “You look at all the goalies around the league, you watch hockey, you watch goalies coming in and going out, goalies getting hurt. You need more than one goalie."

Three of the remaining four teams have had multiple goalies start games. Both the Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers started their playoff runs with a different netminder than the one they intend to use for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final on Thursday.

Panthers backup Alex Lyon went 6-1-1 in Florida’s final eight games, helping it clinch a playoff berth. Panthers coach Paul Maurice rode the hot hand in Game 1 of the first round against the Boston Bruins before incumbent Sergei Bobrovsky replaced him for good in Game 2.

The Hurricanes have used all three of their goaltenders as a combination of ineffectiveness and sickness warranted the moves. Antti Raanta, who started 13 of Carolina’s 14 playoff games in 2022, played the first five games before heading to the bench with an illness. Veteran Frederik Andersen has started the six games since, though he was pulled for third-stringer Pyotr Kochetkov in Game 3 of Carolina’s second-round series against New Jersey.

“Goalies get all the attention," Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “It’s probably overdone when we win, and it just gets heaped on when you lose. I think that’s part of the job."

The Vegas Golden Knights have battled goaltending injuries all season long and were again forced to turn to Adin Hill during their second-round series against Edmonton after Laurent Brossoit sustained a lower-body injury early in Game 3. The Golden Knights had five different starting goalies feature during the regular season, including 2012 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Quick, who expects to backup Hill during the Western Conference Final.

Only Jake Oettinger of the Dallas Stars opened each of his team’s games through two rounds. Oettinger, widely considered one of the NHL’s best goalies, has still been replaced in the postseason, with Scott Wedgewood subbing in for him twice during the Stars’ seven-game series win over Seattle.

When a coach decides to make an in-game switch in the playoffs, it is typically to shift the momentum or give a young goalie a break before the next game. A goalie change can be a wake-up call to a flat team, and most coaches and players don’t blame the netminder when the change is made.

“We didn’t give him any help," Stars coach Peter DeBoer told The Athletic after pulling Oettinger in Game 6 of the Dallas-Seattle series. “This is a grind. At that point [in Game 6], we’re looking for a spark for the team, looking down the road to make sure [Oettinger’s] got energy [and we’ve] got the fresher goalie for Game 7. All of those things come into play."

That move paid off since the well-rested Oettinger stopped 22 of the 23 shots he faced in Dallas’ 2-1 Game 7 victory.

But there can be detrimental consequences to toggling too much. Ruff made the switch from regular-season starter Vitek Vaněček to rookie Akira Schmid ahead of Game 3 of New Jersey’s first-round series against the Rangers, and Schmid won four of the Devils’ next five games.

But Schmid was also pulled in Game 6 against the Rangers and then again in the first two games of New Jersey’s five-game series loss to Carolina. By the time Schmid returned to the crease, when he replaced Vaněček with New Jersey trailing 5-1 in Game 4, the move was too late for the Devils to salvage their season.

“If you want to criticize me for that decision, you’re more than welcome to," Ruff said. “That’s my decision."

Based on the way things have gone so far during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, there will be plenty more tough goalie decisions for coaches to make over the next month, with even bigger consequences.


Pat Pickens

Pat Pickens is a seasoned sportswriter who has covered the NHL since 2013 for various websites, including The New York Times, NHL.com, Sportsnet.ca, USA Today, the Associated Press and many others. His debut book, titled "The Whalers" about the history of the NHL's Hartford Whalers, was released in October 2021.

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