The Detroit Red Wings are back in the playoffs. That's old news. Time to get down to brass tacks, and we'll start with a bit of a murky position for Detroit as they get set to face the Tampa Bay Lightning.
MikeMorrisSantaRosa has a solid fanpost up concluding his regular season series on Jimmy Howard vs. the Top 10 goalie machine. The title gives away Mike's opinion on the whole situation, and it's compelling given the data we're dealing with. We have a Jimmy Howard that started the season off strong and looked to regain the form he had in the two seasons prior to last, the kind who helped Detroit take eliminate Anaheim in seven games and take Chicago to seven games in 2013.
We also have a Petr Mrazek on our hands whose performance this season certainly helped create the Red Wings' currently goalie controversy. If Mrazek weren't playing starter-quality minutes, we'd be talking about hoping Detroit's offense could bail out the goaltending.
The first thing we can safely say about this whole situation is that the question of who starts against Tampa Bay is one between Howard and Mrazek. Barring an injury and assuming he's ready to go if need be, Jonas Gustavsson won't be a factor in this season's playoffs.
As has already been mentioned. Mike provides a compelling argument that Mrazek should be the Game 1 starter on Thursday. As with most things involving decisions we the fans don't make but like to share our opinions on, it gets a bit more complicated than that.
We know what kind of season Howard's had. We know what kind of season Mrazek's had. We know that head coach Mike Babcock won't be announcing the Game 1 starter until Monday despite already having made that decision, apparently. We know that Babcock is making this decision under the influence because Howard's performance against Montreal this week drove him to the bottle. And we also know that he made a point of emphasis over the idea that Mrazek starting against Carolina didn't mean he would be the Game 1 starter, lest anyone think that the playoff goalie would like some reps in game action before everyone takes a few days off before the playoffs start.
If I'm a betting man, based on the information we know now, I would almost certainly put my money on Babcock announcing Mrazek as the starter on Monday for Game 1. The short-term data indicates that Mrazek is the better option based on the "What have you done for me lately?" principle, but one intangible makes the decision less clear-cut: experience.
Mrazek to this point of his NHL career has played over 2,000 minutes in the Detroit crease. Howard has nearly 10 times as much time in his career. Even accepting that the predictability of goaltending is about as reliable as picking lottery numbers, we can still say with a reasonable degree of confidence that Howard over his career is an inconsistent goaltender who can tend to the extremes. Mrazek's 40 appearances combined in his career leaves plenty of room for doubt about the sustainability of his good performances so far.
The other aspect of the experience card deals with the animal about to be unlocked from its cage known as the NHL playoffs. Howard has over 2,700 minutes of playoff ice time spanning five postseasons, including three series wins, albeit all in the first round. Mrazek has zero. That fact in and of itself is not an argument against starting Mrazek on Thursday. Every aspiring NHL starter will have to have his playoff debut at some point. The only question that goose egg in Mrazek's playoff stat line creates is "Does this kid's NHL playoff debut need to happen now?"
Detroit's system has focused on limiting opponent's chances as much as possible, and it's resulted in quite a low-event style of hockey when executed well. Even when the Red Wings were winning games regularly in the first half of the season, the goaltending took care of what few chances made it on net, and Detroit cashed in on their opportunities. Power play success contributed much as well. If goaltending falters in the playoffs, the damage is twofold: The Red Wings likely won't benefit from the power play as much because the NHL adopts an unpublished playoff version of the rulebook once the regular season ends, and the resulting non-calls will create an environment hostile to offensive chances at even strength, so the offense won't be able to bail out bad goaltending.
In other words, goaltending has the largest potential to influence how far Detroit goes in the playoffs. At this point, Babcock is hoping the voodoo that is goaltending turns in the Red Wings' favor. Are we finally at the point where the clamor for youth that's been going on for a few seasons now extends to the crease? Or is now not the right time to throw Mrazek against Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and the rest of the Lightning's ilk?