GLENDALE, Ariz. – Jason LaBarbera was gushing with a long-forgotten feeling Tuesday against the Los Angeles Kings.
“It’s gratifying to get that feeling again,” said LaBarbera, who stopped 39 shots in a 3-1 win at Jobing.com Arena. “It’s been a while since I’ve had that.”
In a condensed season where numerous Western Conference teams have employed a two-goalie approach to keep things fresh, LaBarbera has been a mainstay at the end of the Coyotes bench, waiting and wondering when his next chance would come.
Following a three-game stretch early in the season where he replaced an injured Mike Smith and went 1-2 while allowing nine goals on 87 shots, LaBarbera made just one start over the next 26 games.
Was it the right move?
On the one hand, LaBarbera’s shaky play early this season may have felt like a carryover from last season’s so-so performance, understandably shaking the coaching staff’s confidence in him.
Coyotes goalie coach Sean Burke and coach Dave Tippett have stood fast by the notion that playing Smith regularly gives the team the best chance to win. But Smith’s struggles this season have been well-chronicled, and he has talked openly about the mental challenge of playing so regularly.
Other goalies — Vancouver’s Cory Schneider, Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick and Chicago’s Corey Crawford — have espoused the two-goalie approach in this lockout-shortened season because it has allowed them to stay at the top of their game.
So if the Coyotes didn’t have confidence in LaBarbera, why didn’t they acquire another backup to share the load? And if they didn’t feel it was necessary to give Smith more help, will they rethink that belief at the end of the season if they miss the playoffs?
All of this analysis is easier in hindsight, of course, but after watching LaBarbera shine on Tuesday, it is fair to wonder what would have happened if the staff hadn’t been so quick with the hook on its longtime backup.
“Barbs is a battler,” Tippett said. “He’s in there trying hard. Barbs was really good.”
LaBarbera made his fifth consecutive start on Tuesday with Smith still on injured reserve with what has been reported as whiplash-like symptoms. LaBarbera is 2-1-2 in that stretch and has stopped 170 of 184 shots (92.4 percent).
With the Coyotes needing a win in the worst way to have anything close to a realistic shot at the playoffs – and to give general manager Don Maloney pause before he sells off pieces at the Wednesday trade deadline — LaBarbera was at his best, stopping every shot except one that deflected off defenseman Michael Stone’s chest and into the net.
L.A. had scored 15 goals in its last four games, but given a chance to establish a rhythm by playing several consecutive games, LaBarbera said it was easier to rise to the task.
“It’s way easier,” he said. “It’s tough when you play once a month and you put a lot of pressure on yourself.
“That’s been my role for the last few years. I’ve had ups and downs at it, but it’s kind of been nice the last week and half to get some games and feel good about yourself.
“It kind of makes me feel like I did when I was a little bit younger and I played a lot.”