Ron Wilson may have trouble picking a starting goaltender for Friday’s game against the New York Rangers.
However, after the Leafs finished last in save percentage last year, having two hot goalies to choose from is definitely not something to complain about.
Toronto’s netminders, Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson, have both been at mid-season form early this season, sparking the Maple Leafs to a surprising 3-0 start.
It appears until one of the goalies blinks, Wilson will be happy to use both as a tandem.
Giguere, the 33-year-old veteran, led the Leafs to their undefeated start in the irst two games.
He looked especially confident in a 3-2 win over Montreal on opening night, making 26 saves, and preserving the victory with a memorable goal-line stand in the final seconds.
Meanwhile, Gustavsson, the 25-year-old Swedish sophomore, looked just as strong protecting Toronto’s third win, 4-3, in Pittsburgh on Wednesday.
“The Monster” made 22 saves, (including a penalty shot on Evgeni Malkin), and was a deciding factor in the victory, with several key stops in the closing minutes as the Penguins pushed for the tie.
Afterwards, Wilson made it clear that platooning his goalies would be a key part of his plans this season.
In his press conference, he told reporters that he had planned on starting Gustavsson in the third game for two weeks, and wanted to avoid the risk of having his backup “sit around too long.”
Since the Maple Leafs acquired Giguere from Anaheim last spring, it has become clear that he is not only the new No. 1, but is expected to mentor and motivate his young counterpart.
Gustavsson has flourished under Giguere’s guidance, and it showed down the stretch last year.
Last March he set a Leafs’ rookie-goaltending record, winning seven straight starts while playing his best hockey as a professional.
He reflected on his role as a backup, still expecting to receive a solid chunk of the playing time after the team’s practice Wednesday.
“You always want to get in there, but the team is winning and Jiggy’s playing great,” Gustavsson told the Toronto Sun.
“He is pushing me now and I tried to push him at the end of last season. I think it’s great for the team. It’s just tough competition. The only thing I can do is go out there and show I’m ready when I get the chance.”
“Platooning” becoming a trend
Toronto is not the only team heading into this season with a solid tandem between the pipes.
The modern NHL game is fast, tough and intense with changes to the rules making high-flying offences more common around the league.
Many teams have resorted to playing quality backups more often during the grueling 82-game schedule, pushing its starter as well as saving him for the playoffs.
This strategy proved successful in Chicago last season, where Antti Niemi and Cristobal Huet split duties en route to the Stanley Cup championship.
It was actually the second straight year the Blackhawks had successfully rolled with a tandem in net as veteran Nikolai Khabibulin partnered well with Huet the previous season.
It’s quite common to see a veteran goalie paired with a youngster, where a lack of stamina is often a trade-off for an ability to pass on experience to the prospect.
Detroit has used Chris Osgood this way to mentor Jimmy Howard into the Red Wings starter over the last two years.
In Boston, the Bruins will be counting on this formula to work again in 2010-11.
They come into the year with both Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas on their roster, each eager to solidify themselves as the No. 1.
Thomas signed a long-term deal after his 2009 Vezina winning season, but saw his job stolen last year as Rask matured quickly alongside him. Rask posted a 1.97 GAA and a .931 save percentage, so look for the two to push each other once again.
A similar situation arose in San Jose, where Niemi, who only played 39 regular-season games last year but landed in the off-season along with the slightly more experienced Antero Nittymaki.
Nittymaki has shown flashes of brilliance over his two-year career, collecting 15 wins as a Flyer in 2008-09, and 21 as a member of the Lightning last season. However, he has never played more than 50 games, so look for the Sharks to have both goalies splitting time to manage their season.
In Atlanta, veteran Chris Mason has been brought in to support another talented young goalie, Ondrej Pavelec. Pavelec, 23, recently collapsed from fainting spells during the Thrashers’ home-opener, making the Mason move looks even smarter.
In New York, 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson is insurance for the often-injured Islanders netminder Rick DiPietro, while 34-year-old Jose Theodore recently signed in Minnesota to support all-star Niklas Backstrom, arguably the Wild’s best player.
Even perennial workhorse Martin Brodeur has a quality-backup for the first time in his career. The Devils brought in veteran Johan Hedberg to backup the future Hall of Famer this season, although it will be interesting to see if Brodeur actually does less his workload.
With scoring on the rise and so many talented scorers emerging across the league, some teams with unproven starters could regret not going with a tandem in goal.
In Montreal, the fate of the Canadiens rests on the shoulders of Carey Price, but Alex Auld is not necessarily ready to jump in his place if he falters.
The same could be said for rookie Michal Neuvirth, who backs up another youngster, Semyon Varlamov, in Washington.
Finally, there is Jaroslav Halak. He signed in St. Louis as a free agent after being the story of the playoffs in Montreal. However, the 25-year-old only played 45 games last year, and 34 the previous year.
If he proves to be a fluke, Ty Conklin will have to step up as backup.