- Craig Custance
In Viktor Fasth, the Ducks have a goalie who is one of just three in the history of the NHL to win his first eight starts. But with Jonas Hiller ready to go after recovering from a lower-body injury suffered on Feb. 8, Bruce Boudreau turned to his workhorse from last season.
Hiller responded by stopping 25 of 27 shots in leading the Ducks to a 3-2 win over the Blue Jackets on Monday night. It was the dreaded first game back home following a long road trip, and the team played like it for the first period, but Hiller kept Anaheim in the game to give the streaking Ducks their fifth consecutive win.
How good have the Ducks been this season?
The Blackhawks still haven't lost a game in regulation, and they're only two points up on Anaheim in the Western Conference.
It's a testament to just how crucial an addition Fasth has been for GM Bob Murray and the Ducks. Last season, when Hiller was working into form, Anaheim struggled. They rode him hard, starting him 73 times with a trio of backups -- Jeff Deslauriers, Dan Ellis and Iiro Tarkki -- getting playing time in between.
Boudreau sounded like he was going to give Hiller every chance to regain that form he had down the stretch last season once he was healthy. If the Columbus game was any indication, it won't take long.
But then what?
How do you sit a guy like Fasth, who is 8-0-0 with a 1.78 goals-against average and .933 save percentage?
Boudreau will know when it's time to return to the first-year standout.
"Feel. There's no real two-week plan or anything," he said when Hiller was closing in on a return. "Let's just wake up every morning and see how it goes and we'll take it from there."
This season, more than usual, there's a huge advantage in having two goalies playing at a high level. Especially in the Western Conference, where travel and a relentless schedule means extra strain on goalies.
The Canucks have benefited from keeping Roberto Luongo around, and he and Cory Schneider have led the Canucks to their usual perch atop the Northwest Division. And we've seen plenty of examples in which poor performances from the second goalie hurt. St. Louis stumbled when Brian Elliott failed to regain his form from last season after Jaroslav Halak was injured. Phoenix struggled early when Mike Smith was out with an injured groin and Calgary has played three goalies in Miikka Kiprusoff's absence, and not one has managed a goals-against average under 3.00. Not surprisingly, the Flames have dropped to the bottom of the Northwest.
"Having that second goalie who can be good -- it's definitely nice if he's playing well, the team is successful," Hiller said Thursday. "I don't feel bad about taking an extra day or whatever and not feeling like I have to rush back and let the team down."
The other short-term advantage is that competition raises the level of play of both goalies. We saw it happen last season in St. Louis, where Ken Hitchcock distributed playing time purely on merit.
"One stumble and the other gets the net," Hitchcock explained to the Vancouver Province's Ben Kuzma this week. "As soon [as] we saw a flaw or if the guy was tired, the other guy got in. And if you're worried about it, at the end of the year you're not going to perform when it matters anyway."
That internal competition has already started in Anaheim. Hiller has been a bit of a slow starter throughout his career, and this season he just doesn't have the usual time to work things out at the usual pace. Now, he's got a guy pushing him for playing time.
That ratchets up the competitive drive a bit.
"Definitely," Hiller said. "I have high expectations of myself anyways. But you start battling more in practice -- you see on the other end, a guy who knows how to stop the puck. We kind of play a similar style, it's nice to look at somebody, how he does certain stuff and learn from that."
Short term, this is a fantastic development. The long-term benefits can be just as good for the Ducks, where two standout goalies give Murray some options.
Fasth signed a one-year deal to leave Sweden and is an unrestricted free agent after this season. Hiller has one season left on his contract that averages $4.5 million per year.
The first thing the Ducks needed to do was identify quickly if Fasth was the real deal. He is.
"Absolutely. Without a doubt," said an NHL goalie coach. "It's not like he's making it up. His composure strikes me as so calm and focused. He doesn't over-challenge. He plays deeper but he gets away with it because he's so quick."
So at some point, they can start talking contract extension with Fasth. Considering the Ducks have the talented John Gibson -- Team USA's gold-medal-winning goalie from the 2013 World Junior Championships -- in the system, they just need a goalie to hold the spot until he's ready. Murray could trade Hiller this summer if Fasth signs an extension. He could trade Fasth this season if it doesn't look like a contract extension will work out. And if he wants to be really bold, he could use Gibson as a chip to add another piece for a Stanley Cup run this season in Anaheim.
Hiller and the Ducks can sign an extension in July, and his agent said it's a little too early to read into what Fasth's success means to Hiller's future in Anaheim.
"At this point, Jonas is happy being there. He's happy for Viktor's success," said Allain Roy of CMG Sports. "It's always a good problem to have for those teams."
• Speaking of successful goalies, there's growing discontent again over the size of equipment being used by goaltenders right now in the NHL. The general managers meet on March 20 in Toronto and will have a lot to cram into a one-day meeting, but concerns over expanding goalie equipment will be raised. "It was brought up last year and will be again," said one NHL GM on Monday.
• Roy represents another goalie caught in a competitive situation. His client Ben Bishop was outstanding on Monday, making 30 saves in a 2-1 shootout win over the Devils. The 6-foot-7 Bishop has a 2.29 goals-against average and .929 save percentage in three starts this season. But with Robin Lehner waiting in the AHL and Craig Anderson playing better than any goalie in the league, Bishop's future will likely be elsewhere.
"Everybody knows he's NHL-ready," Roy said. "It's just a matter of time."
Bishop is a restricted free agent after this season, and there's no motivation for contract talks until the Ottawa goaltending situation is clarified. At some point, there will be a team eager to add a goalie such as Bishop, and Ottawa GM Bryan Murray will be in position to capitalize.
• Toronto got another shutout from Ben Scrivens last night as the Maple Leafs are proving former GM Brian Burke right in his contention that they had two capable goalies in Scrivens and James Reimer. But that won't stop new GM Dave Nonis from shopping around.
He told TSN Radio 1050 in Toronto on Monday that he's in the trade market for a veteran goalie. "Both our goalies are aware of it, it's not that we don't think that we have NHL-caliber goaltenders or goalies with the ability to become very good starting goaltenders," Nonis said. "But if we could add someone to help them along, a veteran that would help them grow, then we would do it."
With Jonas Hiller back, Viktor Fasth's sensational debut and prospect John Gibson waiting in the wings, the Ducks have options in the days ahead. But which one will they pursue?