GLENDALE, Ariz. — Following his 33-save performance in a 2-1 win over Phoenix on March 21, Vancouver goalie Cory Schneider was asked if he was finally in a groove.
“I don’t know,” Schneider said with a grin. “Ask me tomorrow.”
It’s been a tough road for last season’s top Western Conference goalies. In 2011-12, Schneider, St. Louis’ Brian Elliott, Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick, Phoenix’s Mike Smith, Detroit’s Jimmy Howard and Dallas’ Kari Lehtonen all finished among the league’s top 10 in goals against average and save percentage, while Nashville’s Pekka Rinne was seventh in save percentage.
This season, only Schneider ranked among the league’s top 10 in either category (ninth in goals against average and fifth in save percentage) entering Wednesday’s games.
The reasons for the unsuccessful sequels are as diverse as the men behind those masks, but the lockout and the condensed schedule that it created are at the core of everyone’s analysis.
“When the lockout started, we thought it might actually benefit us if it was a short one because we could recover a little bit from that playoff run,” said Kings goalie coach Bill Ranford, whose star pupil, Quick, had offseason back surgery. “But once it dragged on, it was one of those scenarios where you go that long without playing structured hockey it probably can affect your game.”
Quick said the back surgery wasn’t an issue from a health-standpoint when the lockout finally ended. “I felt great at the start of the season,” he said.
“He was actually healthier than he was in the playoffs,” Ranford added. “But he went probably five full months without seeing a puck because of the back surgery so your whole routine in the summer and what you do to get prepared — the lack of the exhibition starts, reading plays, reading releases — all of that stuff for goalies was gone because there was no window of opportunity this year.”
Some players organized team workouts during the lockout, but Smith said he tried to stay away from the Coyotes’ workouts because he felt it did him more harm than good.
“Those practices can get pretty ragged and they tend to benefit shooters,” Smith said. “Without any coaches on the ice, you worry you’ll start developing some bad habits.”
Unfortunately for Smith and others, the condensed schedule has created an eerily similar scenario. With so many games each week, coaches have decided to cut down on practice time to give their players more rest and keep them fresh. But there’s a downside.
“If you’re a team like ours that’s relying on a No. 1 goalie and playing him quite often, you suffer from the fact that you don’t have a lot of days to work on details,” Coyotes goalie coach Sean Burke said. “It’s like taking care of your car. Over time, there’s a lot of little things you’ve got to do, but you can’t do them unless you have the time to do them.
“When you have a bad game in a normal schedule, you say ‘we’ll take these couple days off to work and throw the backup in,’ but in this type of year, you don’t have that luxury so you just move on to the next game. But that doesn’t mean you’ve rectified the problem. You’ve just got to hope that you find your game in the game and that’s not an easy thing to do.”
For Smith, it simply hasn’t happened. Entering the final year of his contract with Phoenix, Smith’s save percentage has dropped from .930 last season to .901 this year while his goals against average has ballooned from 2.21 to 2.83.
“That’s a significant difference,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. “There have been other issues as well with our team this season, but our shots against are down and the scoring chances we’re allowing are down. I think if you asked Mike, he’d like to have that save percentage a little bit higher.”
Smith’s drop-off is the biggest reason the Coyotes are flirting with missing the playoffs one season after reaching the Western Conference final. But on an individual level, no player has fallen further than Elliott, who led the league in goals against average last season and save percentage.
The Blues gave Elliott a two-year, $3.6 million extension after that performance – a move that is likely turning stomachs in the executive suites this season because he is ranked 46th in goals against average (3.65) and 47th (dead last) in save percentage (.851).
Elliott hasn’t started a game since March 3 when he allowed four goals on 27 shots in a loss to Dallas, but St. Louis is fortunate that it had rookie Jake Allen to turn to when Jaroslav Halak also struggled. Smith hasn’t been as fortunate. Despite his struggles, the Coyotes continued to start him before a whiplash injury sidelined him this week. The club has shown virtually no faith in backup Jason LaBarbera, which makes you wonder why the club didn’t address the need for a backup before the season started.
“Especially this season,” Ranford said. “You look around the league. There’s a lot of teams doing it right now. Teams want to win and go far by riding their top guy, but you have to make sure you have the energy to go a long way in the playoffs and that’s a challenge this season.”
Several of the West’s top teams recognized that from the get-go. Chicago has played backup Ray Emery in 15 games while starter Corey Crawford has logged 20. Anaheim’s Viktor Fasth has played 16 games while starter Jonas Hiller has played 18. Schneider and Roberto Luongo have nearly split duties in Vancouver and the emergence of Jonathan Bernier helped ease Quick’s slow start.
Bernier was third in goals against average (1.94) and tied for fourth in save percentage (.923) through 10 games.
“I had a little bit of a slow start but Jonathan’s been great,” Quick said. “That helped us stay in the race and I think we’re playing pretty good hockey right now.”
How long it lasts is anybody’s guess in what are unprecedented circumstances for all but a handful of the NHL’s goalies.
“Goalies go through ebbs and flows, but right now, because of this schedule, those are being magnified both ways,” said Schneider, who is 5-0 with a .962 save percentage and two shutouts in his last five starts. “If you go into a slump it’s that much harder to get out of it because there just aren’t as many games to play. On the flip side, if you’re on a hot streak it looks that much better.
“You just hope, if you’re on a roll, that it carries right into the playoffs.”