By Jason Chen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
There are less than 30 games to go for each team in the season and the playoff race is still wide open. Coaches’ decisions become more critical, and a big part of their game plan is picking which goalie to start. Here’s the rundown on who’s hot and who’s not.
Jordan Binnington, Blues
Jake Allen hasn’t played since Jan. 17, and in a truly bizarre sequence of events, all 17 Western Conference teams are still in the playoff race. For the Blues, they have Binnington to thank. The forgotten 25-year-old prospect has won five consecutive games — four on the road — and it includes a 32-save shutout against the Lightning and a tight one-goal win against the Predators. Like the Blackhawks, just a month ago it seemed as if the entire Blues season was lost.
Now, that’s not so clear … however, don’t forget how the Blues jettisoned Paul Stastny last year, harpooning their own chances at a playoff spot. Nevertheless, to stay in the playoff race they’ll have to go with whoever’s playing best, and clearly that’s Binnington. It’s about a push as it is about an audition for next year’s job.
Ben Bishop, Stars
He’s been the Stars MVP this season, and there’s not much debate. Anton Khudobin deserves some credit as a top-notch backup, but in a season mired by poor on-ice performances and distracting off-ice drama, Bishop has been the brightest star, putting together one of the best seasons of his career.
He’s won four consecutive starts and his save percentage has never dipped below .918 in any month. Even though he was cast aside by four teams, it’s clearly not a fluke — among goalies with at least 30 appearances, Bishop ranks seventh in even-strength save percentage (.925) and fifth in power-play save percentage (.897); a big reason why the Stars’ penalty kill is sixth. The 6-foot-7 Bishop has been the Stars’ most sturdy presence, though ill health has robbed him of a potential Vezina-worthy season.
Carter Hart, Flyers
Top three things Flyers fans are thankful for this season: Dave Hakstol getting fired, Gritty, and Carter Hart. The 20-year-old was a two-time CHL Goaltender of the Year and being groomed as the goalie of the future in the AHL, but not only has he arrived sooner than expected, he’s dominated the competition.
With a 6-2 win against the Ducks (yes, I know, but still commendable) on Saturday, Hart now has eight wins in a row, and not only has he re-ignited the team’s playoff hopes, he’s energized an entire fanbase that has seen almost every big-name goalie treat the Flyers like a retirement plan. Hart’s staying with the Flyers for the rest of the season after being told to find a permanent before Saturday’s game.
Jacob Markstrom, Canucks
Markstrom’s emergence as a No. 1 goalie and Thatcher Demko’s stalled development after three goalie coaches in three seasons could have the Canucks re-thinking their future. Markstrom delivered another solid performance Saturday night, facing 47 shots and stopped all three attempts in a shootout win against the rival Flames, moving the Canucks into a tie for the second wild-cart spot with the Blues.
He’s now 13-6-3 since December, but here’s the problem: the Canucks’ defensive depth is awfully thin, their backup Michael DiPietro is an emergency call-up from major junior, and their schedule gets pretty tough with five back-to-backs and little rest. With 26 games remaining, Markstorm is going to exceed or at least match last year’s career-high 60 appearances.
Anders Nilsson, Senators
On the surface, Nilsson’s numbers with the Sens are eye-popping: .937 save percentage and 2.21 GAA on 334 shots, including a 45-save shutout. The wet blanket: Nilsson does this every season, where he plays inexplicably well in certain situations but always goes back to showing everyone why he’s barely a backup. Last season, he went 3-1-0/.943/1.89 in October before finishing with 7-14-4/.901/3.44 overall. In the season before that he had a bizarre split of 7-1-1/.938/2.21 at home and 3-9-3/.911/3.00 on the road.
There’s no pressure on Nilsson to win and the Sens have played much better as the perpetual underdog, but it’s just a reminder that the big Swede’s numbers are likely an illusion and before long will cede the crease to Craig Anderson again.
Tuukka Rask, Bruins
It was a close call, but Rask extended his winning streak to three games in February after an overtime win against the Kings and has now gone 8-0-2 in 2019. The last five seasons, Rask’s save percentage is .918, which ranks 11th among goalies with at least 100 appearances, tied with Braden Holtby and Frederik Andersen, and ahead of Matt Murray and Henrik Lundqvist.
It’s too bad he gets such a bad rap, and while it’s true he allows the most boneheaded goals sometimes, he’s also been under-appreciated ever since he took over for Tim Thomas. With the Bruins getting healthy, expect more wins to roll in and Rask will get the bulk of the starts if Jaroslav Halak continues to struggle.
John Gibson, Ducks
Here are the raw numbers, courtesy Natural Stat Trick:
Corsi %: 46.98, 29th
Fenwick %: 46.13, 30th
Shots For %: 46.00, 30th
High-danger scoring chances: 427, 27th
Save %: 92.34, 7th
At some point, a goalie’s gotta wonder why he puts in so much effort when he’s constantly left out to dry on defense and gets close to zero goal support. The Ducks have lost 19 of their last 21 games but perhaps the lowest point was the first game after the All-Star break against the Jets. Gibson tried to pull himself but ended up getting stuck with six goals on 14 shots in less than a period of play, clearly disagreeing with his coach’s decisions.
He missed Saturday’s start due to injury and there’s no reason to rush him back in a lost season. The savviest fantasy owners have already dumped Gibson, guessing that his pace was unsustainable, especially playing behind one of the worst Ducks teams in history.
Carter Hutton, Sabres
At one point during the Sabres’ winning streak, Hutton did look like he could be a legitimate No. 1. That was a tease, because in reality he’s still a 33-year-old journeyman, and losses in 11 of his past 14 appearances have paved the way for Linus Ullmark to steal the job. The best-case scenario is obviously for Hutton to win back the No. 1 job, but what is more likely to happen is that the Sabres go with whomever has the hottest hand. Since Ullmark is playing better and has more upside he’s probably going to get more starts.
Semyon Varlamov, Avalanche
At this rate, Varlamov and the Avs are going to part ways this summer. Philipp Grubauer was signed as insurance but he’s been barely playable, so that means the Avs are begrudgingly forced to start Varlamov. Their schedule is going to be pretty tough, too, with the Bruins and Leafs coming up, and then the Jets and Knights at least a couple times. If Varlamov was inconsistent it’d be somewhat manageable, but his save percentage has steadily gone downhill, going from .950 in October to .905 in November to .888 in January and now .881 in February.