Blashill Uses Harry Sinden Model (for now) Between Red Wings’ Pipes

It’s an old line, first mined in the world of football.

“If you have two quarterbacks, then you don’t have one.”

It’s derisive and dismissive.

How can a football coach have two quarterbacks, when only one can play at a time?

Must mean that said coach has no quarterback at all—because he can’t rely on a designated starter.

Some would have you believe the same is true in hockey.

“If you have two goalies, then you don’t have one.”

Horsepucky!

Tell that to the Boston Bruins powerhouse teams of the late-1960s, early-1970s.

Starting in 1968-69 and extending for four seasons, the Bruins divvied up the goaltending duties in a virtual 50/50 fashion.

Eddie Johnston and Gerry Cheevers took turns in net for Boston, literally.

It didn’t matter if one of them posted a shutout; the next game, the other guy would be between the pipes.

The 50/50 model was the brainchild of coach Harry Sinden, who worked that system for two seasons before successor Tom Johnson carried on the tradition after Sinden moved into the general manager’s chair prior to the 1970-71 campaign.

Cheevers Johnston masks

The goalie masks of Boston’s Eddie Johnston (top) and Gerry Cheevers.

During those four seasons of goalie equality, Cheevers appeared in 174 games, Johnston in 137. Not exactly 50/50, but neither netminder played more than a few games in a row while Sinden and Johnson rotated the tandem.

The Bruins’ goalie duo was somewhat innovative in those days.

The Bruins, an Original Six team, were like any other team from practically the inception of the NHL, in that one goalie played virtually all the games while the second—they were called “spares” in those days—only appeared when the first-string guy was knocked senseless.

Goalies would get traded, but they were traded for each other, often times, to keep everything neat and proper.

I’ll give you my number one guy if you give me yours!

The Red Wings, in the 1950s, had, at various times in the decade, Terry Sawchuk, Harry Lumley and Glenn Hall. All were firmly established number one guys. It would take an act of God for spares such as Hank Bassen to find themselves in net.

But along came Sinden and his system wasn’t so much genius as it was born out of necessity and logic.

The Bruins were an awful team for much of the 1950s and that tradition of futility carried over into the 1960s as well. And the Bruins lost with just one goalie, because that was the norm in the NHL.

Johnston, for example, played in all 70 of the Bruins’ games in 1963-64—and he won just 18 of those.

But then the Bruins claimed Cheevers from Toronto in the intra-league draft in 1965, and Sinden found that he had two quality goalies.

What to do?

Play both of them! Not at the same time, of course—though the Bruins could have done so and still not won too many games.

Cheevers, a few years younger than Johnston, arrived in Boston in ’65 and soon Coach Sinden had the two of them rotating in net.

No doubt that Boston’s two-headed goaltending monster was derided by league fans and observers.

But something funny happened on the way to ignominy.

The Bruins, thanks to a dynamic, pioneering defenseman they drafted named Bobby Orr, and a terrific trade that netted them Phil Esposito, started to win hockey games.

The Bruins became a league power by the end of the 1960s, and they did so with goalies Gerry Cheevers and Eddie Johnston each playing pretty much every other night.

The 50/50 model even carried over into the playoffs, though not right away.

In 1970, Cheevers appeared in 13 playoff games, going 12-1. Johnston only played once. The Bruins won the Stanley Cup.

But in 1972, Johnson restored the 50/50 model for the post-season, and again the Bruins won the Cup—with Johnston going 6-1 and Cheevers, 6-2. They literally were rotated by Johnson on a nightly basis.

The Dynamic Goalie Duo split in the summer of 1972 when Cheevers fled the Bruins for the fool’s gold of the World Hockey Association (Cleveland Crusaders). Cheevers returned to the Bruins in 1976, but by then Johnston had also moved on, to St. Louis.

I invoke Boston’s trailblazing goalie strategy because, early on, it appears that the Red Wings of today are taking a page from the old school Bruins’ playbook.

Last month, new coach Jeff Blashill arrived at Traverse City for his first training camp at the Red Wings’ helm. Right away he was socked in the kisser with a dilemma.

Jimmy Howard, or Petr Mrazek?

Which goalie would Blashill tab as his no. 1 guy between the pipes?

Mrazek and Howard

Mrazek (left) and Howard have split the duties 50/50 so far this season

Would it be the veteran Howard, whose injury troubles and poor play down the stretch last season conspired to cough up the starting job to Mrazek for the playoffs, or would it be Mrazek, the confident, almost sassy youngster whose future looked to be brighter than snow reflected on a sunny winter’s day?

Blashill, a former goalie himself, played it close to the chest protector during camp.

The best guy would get the job, he declared as camp began.

Trouble was, neither guy was the best guy, because both guys played pretty darn good in the exhibition season.

So Blashill, no fool he, showed his hockey brilliance.

He went into the regular season with no clear cut no. 1 goalie, so he decided that Howard and Mrazek would rotate.

And it wasn’t because of the old football postulate; Howard and Mrazek could each start on a lot of NHL teams, and not just on the bad ones.

Through eight games of this young season, each Red Wings goalie has started four times. Their save percentages are virtually the same (Mrazek .925; Howard .924).

The  Red Wings schedule has been Blashill’s friend; his team has played three back-to-back sets of games already, which lends itself well to giving each goalie a night off in those scenarios.

But Blashill will likely keep rotating Howard and Mrazek even when the schedule loosens up.

It works out well, because Mrazek, 23, is way too good to be playing in the minor leagues, and Howard is getting a little long in the tooth (32 in March), so not playing 60-plus games this season should keep him fresh all season.

As for the playoffs, Blashill will worry about those when it’s time.

It’s refreshing, actually, to see an NHL coach—especially a rookie one—embrace a two-goalie system, which teams have been abandoning over the past decade or so as the league again has become enamored with the old school model of an established number one netminder who plays at least 60 games.

The Red Wings have two goalies, but it’s not because they don’t have one.

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Round 1, Game 1 Enotes

According to the rules, there is no skills competition in the post-season. Yet for the Red Wings in Game 1 of their playoff series against the Boston Bruins, a skills competition broke out with three minutes to play in the third period.

Maybe you’ll see a better stick move at center ice than what you saw with Pavel Datsyuk tonight, which resulted in the only goal of a 1-0 Red Wings victory.

Maybe you’ll see a better one, yes sir. Maybe you’ll see a hamster driving a car and pork chops fall from the sky, too.

Datsyuk’s ridiculous behind-the-back drag of the puck to himself at center ice, sliding the disc between his own legs, led to a wrist shot that beat Bruins goalie Tuuka Rask from just beyond the face-off circle. The mind-numbing play came with 3:01 left in the third period and the Red Wings lead the series, 1-0.

Even Datsyuk had never made a move like he did tonight, that I ever recall. It would be inconceivable to think that we’d have seen it before and forgotten it.

It’s already the play of the 2014 playoffs. Datsyuk sewed it up. We’re one game into round one and you won’t see a better hockey play between now and June.

It was as if Datsyuk, skating full bore through the neutral zone, suddenly remembered that he didn’t have the puck. So he did something about it.

I swear Datsyuk’s stick grew about six inches in length as he reached behind him and used the stick’s blade to scoop the puck and slide it between his legs in time for him to stick handle into the Boston zone. Then it was a matter of allowing traffic to clear as no. 13 drifted to his left, ever patient, and wristed a shot that eluded the masterful goalie Rask, who may have been surprised that Datsyuk had the puck to begin with.

Next came the longest three minutes of the Red Wings season thus far.

Boston pulled Rask with about 1:20 left, but never got a serious scoring chance.

The Bruins’ best chance at a goal occurred moments before Datsyuk’s brilliance, when a deflection at the goal mouth was rejected by Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard.

BOX SCORE

Lost in the shadow of Datsyuk’s magical play was the fact that the Red Wings played the perfect road game for a no. 8 playoff seed in Game 1. They were hard on the puck, didn’t commit many turnovers and didn’t have to kill too many penalties.

It is just one game of what promises to be a six or seven-game series. And Boston is likely going to win a game in Detroit. But as far as giving credence to the notion that the Red Wings will be, as coach Mike Babcock said this week, a “tough out,” this game did that.

When you see what Datsyuk did tonight, it is even more amazing that the Red Wings managed to slip into the playoffs minus Datsyuk since the Olympic break, essentially.

Advantage, Detroit. Game 2 is Sunday.

BOTTOM LINE: Whether the Red Wings survive this series or not, Datsyuk provided the fans with an unforgettable playoff moment.

THE WINGED WHEELER SAYS: This was no flukey victory, despite the fact that it took a super-human play to score the winning goal. Had the Red Wings lost in overtime it would have been crushing. But now, the Bruins have to bring their A-Game on Sunday. The Red Wings showed that they are no. 8 seed in name only. The almost nightly grind to make the playoffs since the Olympics paid off in a big way in Game 1, as the Red Wings brought the same urgency that carried over from the final quarter of the regular season.

Game 26: Red Wings-Boston Enotes

The Red Wings, on this night before Thanksgiving, are thankful for the law of averages.

On a night when they were once again without Pavel Datsyuk due to concussion-like symptoms, the Red Wings steamrolled past the first-place Boston Bruins, 6-1, at JLA.

It was a night where the law of averages finally kicked in.

Just about everyone who scored snapped a goal-less streak of significance.

The Bruins only mustered 17 shots against goalie Jonas Gustavsson, and didn’t score until less than three minutes were remaining in the game.

Justin Abdelkader, Gustav Nyquist, Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall, Drew Miller and Tomas Tatar were the goal scorers. All but Zetterberg and Nyquist needed a calendar to find their last goal scored.

The Red Wings swarmed the Boston zone, and even though the final SOG total of 28 was hardly Earth-shattering, the shots were often of the scoring quality variety. On many of the goals, the Bruins were out of position and goalie Tuukka Rask was left hung out to dry.

Gustavsson, despite not being tested all that much, was solid in net, as he started for the second straight game as coach Mike Babcock gave struggling Jimmy Howard a “breather.”

Gustavsson (6-0-1) remained undefeated this season.

His counterpart, Rask, had his worst game of the season, by far—but hardly any of the goals were really his fault. Rask’s teammates played like a team thinking more about turkey and dressing than picking up two points.

The Red Wings (12-7-7) have a modest two-game winning streak, something for which to be thankful, the way things have been going. And don’t look now, but that’s two wins in their past three games at home.

Hey, it’s a start.

BOX SCORE

BOTTOM LINE: For one night anyway, the Red Wings looked like the team that used to dominate opponents at JLA.

THE WINGED WHEELER SAYS: It is interesting that the Red Wings played like this in front of Gustavsson. This may be a coincidence, but when Howard has been in net, the entire team looks more tentative. Plus, it’s hard to ignore the goal tending numbers, specifically Gustavsson’s undefeated record.

Spotlight on the Opponent: Tuukka Rask

What: Boston at Detroit
When: Wednesday, November 27, 7:30pm (TV: FSD; NBCSN; TSN2)

Tuukka Rask

He might be the best goalie in the NHL today. Certainly, few play with more confidence and swagger than he does on a nightly basis.

He’s Tuukka Rask, and I’m proud of him—because half of my heritage is Finnish.

Rask, 26, is the man between the pipes for the Boston Bruins and he’s playing some great hockey.

He was born in Savonlinna, Finland in March 1987 and was drafted 21st overall in the 2005 Entry Draft by…the Toronto Maple Leafs.

So how did Rask end up tending net for the rival Bruins?

Well, the Maple Leafs earned their derisive nickname, the Maple Laughs, when you hear the story.

Rask was traded to Boston, without having played a game for the Leafs, for goalie Andrew Raycroft, who was a Calder Trophy (Rookie of the Year) winner for the Bruins in 2003-04. The Leafs felt that Rask was expendable because Justin Pogge, they thought, was their goalie of the future.

Three things here: 1) Pogge ended up playing just seven games for Toronto, and they were seven brutal games; 2) Raycroft flamed out and was awful for Toronto; 3) the Bruins were going to release Raycroft anyway, so if Toronto had been more patient, they could have had him without surrendering Rask.

Well, add a fourth thing: Rask has turned into a great goalie, and in the same division as the Leafs.

Rask’s numbers tell most of the story (from hockey-reference.com):

Season GP W L T/O SV% GAA SO
2007-08 4 2 1 1 0.886 3.26 0
2008-09 1 1 0 0 1 0 1
2009-10 45 22 12 5 0.931 1.97 5
2010-11 29 11 14 2 0.918 2.67 2
2011-12 23 11 8 3 0.929 2.05 3
2012-13 36 19 10 5 0.929 2 5
2013-14 20 13 5 2 0.943 1.69 2
Career 158 79 50 18 0.929 2.09 18

This year, as you can see, is Rask’s best, so far. That dazzling .943 save percentage explains the stingy 1.69 GAA.

Rask led the Bruins to the Cup Finals last season, posting a sweet .940 save percentage and a 1.88 GAA, including three post-season shutouts—one of them in the Finals against Chicago.

Rask faltered slightly in the Finals, giving up 17 goals in six games, but six were in one game, and Game 1 went into three overtimes. Games 2 and 4 went into single overtime.

Rask backed up Tim Thomas during the Bruins’ path to claiming the  Stanley Cup in 2011.

All of this impressive work was rewarded, when the Bruins signed Rask to an eight-year, $56 million contract in July. With that deal, Rask became the highest paid player in Bruins history.

Rask is a fun goalie to watch. He conjures up memories of Patrick Roy: cocky, demonstrative and genuinely surprised when he skates off the ice as the losing goalie. His bursts of foul temper make for fun viewing as well.

No one are bigger fans of Rask’s than his teammates.

“He’s played so many games with such a heavy workload and he seems to be focused every game,” said veteran d-man Dennis Seidenberg the other day. “He’s backing us up, saving us games and winning games for us. It’s nice to have a guy like him in the back.”

Shawn Thornton added, “(Rask)’s been unbelievable for us. He’s stolen games for us. We’re all a big fan of his in here and I don’t think that’s a secret.”

Well, of course they’re fans. Rask might be the man who is the difference maker between other teams winning the Stanley Cup next spring, or the Bruins doing it.