Is this the year we see a true goalie rotation in the Stanley Cup playoffs?

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Is this the year we see a true goalie rotation in the Stanley Cup playoffs?

Rotating goalies is easy in the regular season. More NHL coaches have adopted the tandem goalie approach, with some teams even alternating starting goalies every other game.

Boston Bruins coach Jim Montgomery has done it with Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman for 25 consecutive games, and would’ve done it for all 82 this season if not for Ullmark’s injury in January. The Carolina Hurricanes adopted a similar rotation down the stretch and haven’t started the same goalie in consecutive games in their last 25, swapping between Frederik Andersen and Pyotr Kochetkov for most of that time.

Rotating goalies in the playoffs, though? That’s a bit more difficult.

No coach has dared to try it yet, but could this be the season in which we see a true goalie rotation in the playoffs? We’ve seen teams use multiple goalies throughout a playoff run plenty of times. It’s happened even more often in recent years, but those goalie swaps were almost always a result of injury or poor performance, not a planned rotation.

The last two Stanley Cup champions used multiple goalies during their runs, both due to injuries. The Vegas Golden Knights began last year’s run with Laurent Brossoit in net, switching to Adin Hill for the remainder of the postseason when Brossoit was injured midway through the second round. The Colorado Avalanche started Pavel Francouz in two different stints in 2022, including for the entire conference finals round while Darcy Kuemper was hurt.

Washington began its 2018 playoff run with Philipp Grubauer in net, but quickly switched to Braden Holtby after two losses to open the postseason. Holtby backstopped the Capitals the rest of the way to the title.

That’s not what we’re talking about here, though. Will a coach make the bold decision to predetermine a goalie rotation in the playoffs, even if only for a round? There’s a reason no one has done it to this point. There’s safety in sticking with what has always been done. No one will blame a coach for choosing a singular starter in net. It’s what’s expected.

The ridicule that could follow trying something new — and failing — surely would be harsher, but is it worth the risk? There are reasons to believe it is, but it requires a very specific situation.

“You have to know your goaltenders and you have to know your team if you’re going to do that,” Golden Knights coach Bruce Cassidy said. “You really have to have confidence that both guys can handle it mentally, and the team can handle it. What is the team thinking if a guy plays well (then you go to the other goalie) and you say, ‘Well, that was the plan all along.’ They’re like, ‘I don’t care about your plan.’”

Vegas has alternated Hill and Logan Thompson this season, though not as strictly as the rotation in Boston or Carolina. Cassidy believes a rotation in the playoffs is a different animal.

“You have to have everybody on board, I believe, with your decision,” he said. “During the (regular) season that’s not the case. Coaches make the call. I think in the playoffs, you have to say, ‘Hey guys. This is why we’re doing this. It’s going to help us in the long run. Let’s not worry about that. Just play and do your job.’”

Why stray from conventional wisdom to rotate the goalies? Some benefits are obvious, but there are some less-blatant perks that could be the difference in the playoffs.

First, the goalies who play in a rotation during the regular season have grown accustomed to it. Suddenly changing that routine during the most important part of the year doesn’t make sense. Ullmark, for example, has played consecutive games only once all season (giving up 12 total goals on Nov. 25 and 27). He’s had three or more days of rest prior to 31 of his 39 starts this season. He’s played with one day of rest only twice.

It’s a similar situation for Carolina’s Andersen, who has not played a single game all season with only one day of rest. To then ask them to play every other night for the entirety of the playoffs, and perform at their best, is unrealistic.

Another benefit to a goalie rotation is ensuring a fresh netminder following the inevitable overtime marathon that comes with nearly every deep playoff run. With the rise in offense across the league, there’s an argument that goaltending is as difficult as it’s ever been. The extra milliseconds it takes to recover from a shot, or explode across the crease, can be the difference between saves and goals.

“I’ve always said it’s a position of perfection, and it’s never been more so than now because of the way the game is allowed to be played, plus the overall crazy talent of the players who get to play it this way,” said former San Jose Sharks goalie consultant Adam Francilia, who now works with several NHL goalies as a goaltending biomechanics expert.

Francilia believes a goalie may not just get a boost in the following game but in the marathon overtime game itself.

“If the goalie knows he’s not playing the next game, it can change his mindset,” he explained. “Think about it. If you know it’s a late night at work and you have to work the next day, you feel tired. If it’s Friday, you feel great.”

Goalies aren’t consciously saving themselves for the next game, especially in the playoffs, but the peace of mind that comes with knowing you’ll have extra days off could give a slight edge to an exhausted goalie in the midst of an overtime thriller.

“The mental and emotional aspect to it can’t be overlooked. Especially in goaltending, it’s so powerful,” Francilia said. “If you know that going in you’re like, ‘Man I can go five overtimes,’ because you know you have tomorrow off and (the opposing goalie) is playing the next game.”

The most difficult aspect of setting a goalie rotation and sticking to it is when the elimination games arrive. If one goalie stands on his head to keep his team alive in Game 6 and force a Game 7, it takes guts to stick with the rotation and play the other goalie. A coach would need to remove emotion from the equation and stick with a system that has worked, but it won’t be easy at the time of year when emotions are at their peak.

Veering from the set rotation based on performance creates what amounts to a position battle in the midst of the playoffs, adding extra stress to a position that carries enough already.

“To feel like you’re still battling for starts in the playoffs, and you could lose your spot, that doesn’t work,” Francilia said. “But to have a twosome where we’re alternating games, even if you get a shutout … The playoffs are a marathon. I’m very intrigued by it.

“Is it a fit for every team? No. Is it even a fit for every team that has a shared tandem? I don’t think it’s a blanket thing. There are some teams that fit it nicely.”

The Bruins are the most obvious candidates, not only because they’ve executed the rotation brilliantly all season, but by all accounts, the relationship between Ullmark and Swayman — both professionally and personally — couldn’t be better.

“Both of them want the net,” Montgomery said. “But I think if you look at the success we’ve had the last two years, they’d be fine with it. Because they’re great teammates. The core of the decision’s a lot easier when there’s no animosity between two guys and they support each other so well.”

Montgomery clearly sees the benefits of a rotation. Not only have the Bruins done it for most of the last two seasons, but he also won the 1993 NCAA championship as a player at the University of Maine while the team rotated Mike Dunham and Garth Snow in net all the way through the title game.

“They don’t get overtaxed,” Montgomery said of the rotation. “They know that when they’re going, the team has incredible confidence in both of them. The rotation gives us confidence. We know we’re going to have stellar goaltending every night.”

Still, last season, when push came to shove, Montgomery started Ullmark for the first six games of the playoffs, only turning to Swayman in Game 7 after back-to-back losses. He still seems undecided on what to do this postseason, at least outwardly, adding, “It’s never been done before, so if we end up doing that, it’s uncharted waters.”

It helps that Ullmark and Swayman have been evenly matched this season in the crease. Their save percentages are nearly identical (.915 to .916), and their goals saved above expected are incredibly close (22.79 for Swayman and 21.62 for Ullmark). Ullmark, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, has been better down the stretch, so he likely is the 1A in the postseason, but both have been excellent playing in every other game.

Another great opportunity for a true rotation is in Carolina, where Andersen and Kochetkov have alternated starts for the last two months. Kochetkov had an excellent rookie season, starting a team-high 40 games with a .911 save percentage and 7.27 GSAx. However, since returning from his blood clot issue in March, Andersen has been sensational. Since then, he leads the NHL with a .951 save percentage and 14.6 GSAx.

Considering his recent heater and his playoff pedigree, Andersen is the obvious choice to enter the postseason as the starter, but no team has used multiple goalies in the playoffs as often as the Hurricanes in recent history. Carolina has used at least two goalies in each of the last five postseasons. None of those have been a set rotation, but maybe this is the year coach Rod Brind’Amour makes the leap.

There are a couple of other situations around the league that could potentially fit for a goalie rotation. The Islanders are in an interesting spot, having started veteran Semyon Varlamov in seven of the last 10 games. Will New York stick with him, turn back to last year’s Vezina runner-up Ilya Sorokin, or rotate the two?

For now, the concept feels pioneering, but it only takes one team to use it with success to change that perception. Like most pro sports, the NHL is a copycat league. If Ullmark and Swayman alternate starts and postgame hug their way to the Stanley Cup, the rest of the league will be rethinking the way they deploy their goalies.

(Photo of Boston’s Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman: Katherine Gawlik / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)