Despite what high school coaches in New Jersey might think, you can’t start two goalies at once in hockey. As much as the Detroit Red Wings would like to roll out both Petr Mrazek and Jimmy Howard at the same time, it is apparently against the rules of this fine game. Head coach Jeff Blashill has comfortably operated within a platoon system this season, but he’s eventually going to have to settle on one of his two netminders.
As 2015 comes to a close, it looks as if it’s time to give Mrazek a No. 1 goalie’s workload to see how he responds. The goalie marry-go-round has been effective enough to keep the Red Wings afloat in the Atlantic Division, but the teams around them have managed to do the same. Detroit went into the NHL’s winter break sitting in fourth in the Atlantic, trailing the top-seeded Montreal Canadiens by just two points.
Things are tight in the Atlantic, and the Wild Card race isn’t providing much more breathing room for the Red Wings either. They posses the first Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference, but five teams are within six points of Detroit. There isn’t any room for error, and Howard has dropped his last four starts.
It’s fair to point out that the 31-year-old has at least managed to secure a “loser point” in three of those losses, but consider what the standings would look like with three extra points from victories tacked on. If Howard doesn’t drop four straight, the Red Wings would be sitting atop the Atlantic Division, looking down on the likes of the Boston Bruins and upstart Florida Panthers.
Howard has also made a lot of saves over his last four outings, facing more than 35 shots against en route to the 0-1-3 stretch. Sometimes a team needs a goalie to make the save though, and Howard hasn’t won a game since Dec. 3 against the Arizona Coyotes. That’s too long and the race for a postseason golden ticket is too tight.
Meanwhile, Mrazek is 5-2-3 in his last 10 starts and is the better, safer option at this point.
The Red Wings are in a rare position here. They have a 23-year-old goalie who has shown flashes of brilliance at the NHL level. Most goalies Mrazek’s age are still hammering out their games in the minors, not competing with an incumbent — and well compensated — starting goalie.
During the offseason, it was well-known that Howard was going to have to play his way into starts. He’d been replaced as the starter for Detroit’s first-round playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Mrazek was solid across seven games. And those starts came from Mike Babcock, who always had the tendency to lean on veterans instead of calling on youth.
Howard has managed to hold up his part of the melody this season, but the time as come for him to play second fiddle. That’s not to say that he isn’t still able to pick up starts here and there, and Mrazek shouldn’t have an endless leash should he begin to struggle. It’s simply time for Blashill to pick his No. 1 netminder, and there’s no question about who that should be heading into 2016. Not after what happened to Howard on Dec. 22 against the New Jersey Devils.
Howard gave up three goals on six shots — the goals came on back-to-back-to-back shots — and was pulled in favor of Mrazek. It’s true that this is the first time that Howard has been pulled for a poor performance in 2015-16, but it’s an opportunity for Blashill to start leaning in another direction.
He should give Mrazek the start on Saturday against the Nashville Predators and continue to give him the nod moving forward. Blashill can’t alternate goalies come playoff time, and he won’t be able to flip-flop when games start to mean more down the stretch.
Given the shape of the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference in general, that time will approach quicker than it has in the past. If the Red Wings have a four-game cushion for the last Wild Card spot with six games left, who is Blashill going to call on? He needs to know the answer to that question now. It can’t be a matter of calling on the hot hand at the time.
We’ve seen numerous outstanding teams stumble through their last five or six games of the season, only to continue to lose in the playoffs. What is important right now is that Howard is the cold hand, and Mrazek is the younger, cheaper and potentially elite option that has spent too much time on the bench this season.
It’s time to recognize that it is Mrazek who gives the Red Wings the best chance to win. With the playoffs on the line and a potential divisional crown in play, that’s all that should matter to Blashill and Co.