Unmasked: Goalies being used in record numbers this season

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The latest two were added to the list Thursday.

Veteran Tuukka Rask, who signed a one-year contract Tuesday after returning from offseason hip surgery, made 25 saves in a 3-2 victory for the Boston Bruins against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Rookie Jack Lafontaine made his NHL debut in a relief appearance for the Carolina Hurricanes in a 6-0 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Lafontaine, who signed Monday after he left the University of Minnesota, stopped one of the three shots he faced.

Ninety-eight goalies appeared in at least one game during the 2020-21 NHL season. That number was eclipsed before the 2021-22 season reached its halfway point.

Michael Houser, who signed with the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday, also could play soon.

This increase in opportunities is something Curtis McElhinney craved, especially at the start of his NHL career that began with the Calgary Flames in 2007-08. McElhinney retired after winning the Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning for a second time last season.

“Those old-school goalies never came out of the net,” McElhinney said. “My favorite was when I was playing for the Calgary Flames, and (coach) Mike Keenan gave Mikka Kiprusoff a speech when we landed in Colorado at three in the morning about Glenn Hall playing 502 straight games. It was supposed to be my game in Colorado but, needless to say, ‘Kipper’ went back in and played lights out. That was always the mentality: You never came out of the net.”

Kiprusoff played 76 games in 2007-08 and again the next season. In each of those seasons, 89 goalies appeared in at least one NHL game, mirroring the average (88.9) for the seasons between 2000-01 and 2009-10.

From the 1990-91 season to the 1999-2000 season, an average of 76.6 goalies played at least one game per season; it was 67.1 for the span between the 1980-81 and 1989-90 seasons, when there were fewer teams in the NHL. For the span from the 2009-10 season to the 2019-20 season, an average of 90.9 goalies made at least one appearance.

In each of the past two seasons, the number of goalies making appearances has increased substantially, mainly due to circumstances surround COVID-19 protocols.

Goalie depth charts are being severely tested.

“It’s felt like you’re seeing a new goalie get an opportunity it seemed like every week,” said Charlie Lindgren, a minor-league goalie in the St. Louis Blues organization.

Lindgren, who started the season fourth on the Blues depth chart, got his NHL chance when Jordan Binnington was in COVID-19 protocol in December.

Lindgren, now in the American Hockey League with Springfield, went 5-0-0 with an NHL-best .958 save percentage in his five appearances with the Blues.

“Every time I step on that ice, I feel like it’s a tryout for me,” Lindgren said. “I want to earn the trust of the St. Louis staff and management and for people around the League to say, ‘Hey, this guy can play at this level and play at a high level.’ That’s for sure part of the mindset.”

The 28-year-old played 24 NHL games in six seasons with the Montreal Canadiens before signing a one-year, two-way contract with the Blues as a free agent on July 29, so it’s tempting to make comparisons to Binnington as a late-bloomer.

Binnington was 25 years old and had waited eight years after being drafted by the Blues in 2011 to get his first extended NHL chance in 2019, then led St. Louis to the Stanley Cup.

For a lot of different reasons, including opportunity, some goalies take longer to arrive.

Lindgren stressed opportunity as the biggest factor, but also admitted to having a chip on his shoulder after not getting into any NHL games with the Canadiens last season.

Tactical adjustments have also helped. Lindgren is playing with less backward flow on rush chances, which has improved his positional play and led to less reaching. He’s also changed how he manages sight lines in traffic and is shifting into shots rather than sliding.

“It’s truly been a difference-maker for me. I felt like I didn’t really have that foundation before and now I do,” Lindgren said. “It’s led to a lot more control in my game.”

Lindgren also said he needed a change of scenery, which seems to be the case for Washington Capitals goalie Zach Fucale.

Fucale made his NHL debut with the Capitals on Nov. 11, making 21 saves in a shutout win against the Detroit Red Wings. It came more than eight years after the Montreal Canadiens made him the first goalie selected in the 2013 NHL Draft when they picked him at No. 36.

Fucale, who played more games in the ECHL (116) than the AHL (80) before this season, has moved steadily up the Capitals depth chart since signing as a free agent two seasons ago. The 26-year-old is 1-1-1 with a 1.75 goals-against average and .924 save percentage in four NHL games this season.

These opportunities are coming to younger goalies as well, providing a chance to boost their stock internally that wasn’t as prevalent a few seasons earlier.

Jeremy Swayman, 23, showed he could play for the Bruins when he joined them last season from the University of Maine at the end of the NCAA season. He played 16 games (8-6-2, 2.26 GAA, .918 save percentage) with Boston this season before being sent to the AHL when Rask signed.

Spencer Knight, 20, went straight from Boston College to the Panthers last season, playing in four regular-season games and two playoff games. He is backing up Sergei Bobrovsky in Florida this season.

Buffalo Sabres rookie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, 22, was scheduled to spend this season in the AHL but has made the most of an unexpected NHL opportunity, posting a .917 save percentage in nine games before sustaining an upper-body injury in a 6-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday. He is week to week.

Rookie Daniil Tarasov, 22, has a .937 save percentage in four appearances with the Columbus Blue Jackets this season, which might make it easier for Columbus to part with Joonas Korpisalo, who will be an unrestricted free agent after this season.

The same could be said for Stuart Skinner, who was assigned to the Edmonton Oilers taxi squad on Thursday. The 23-year-old is 4-5-0 with a .916 save percentage in 10 NHL appearances this season.

For each of these goalies, the increased opportunities have led to increased exposure, which is what goalies have always wanted.

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