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Colby Cosh: Why no one ever deploys the backup goalie in marathon overtime play

Like some of you, I tuned into last night’s NHL playoff game between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Tampa Bay Lightning when (and only when) it began to wander into epic territory. This would have been early in the third overtime period, which means I got to take in most of a hockey game anyhow. Brayden Point’s winning goal for the Bolts was scored on a knuckler from the top of the circle 10 minutes and 27 seconds into the fifth overtime period.

This make it the fourth-longest NHL game ever — i.e., something to which fans are privy once or twice in a generation. It fell about a minute and a half short of setting the postwar record, which still belongs to a May 2000 first-rounder between Philly and Pittsburgh. The two NHL playoff games that went into a sixth overtime period happened in the 1930s.

This one will probably be remembered for the performance of the losing goaltender, which is characteristic of such ordeals. Columbus goalie Joonas Korpisalo, having kept the inferior team in the game for five and a half hours, would have rather had the win, but is the new owner of the absolute record for saves in an NHL game (85). Jackets defenceman Seth Jones also logged the highest individual ice time, 65:06, that has been recorded in the two decades during which the stat has been officially tracked.

The Jackets couldn’t really do without Jones, and the game remained competitive and credible till the end, with some slackening in the last halves of the OT periods. This is arguably proof of the astonishing steps forward that the conditioning of NHL athletes has taken in the past 10 or 20 years. But there’s something funny about it.

This is an age in which statistical research has shown pretty convincingly that goalie performance falls off in the second of back-to-back games. NHL coaches are now all aware of this fact and, to varying degrees, plan for it. In long overtimes, however, the tradition is for the backup goalie to stay welded to the bench, fresh as a daisy, unless the starter is seriously compromised by injury. Korpisalo played back-to-back games without much of a break on Tuesday night, and half of a third.

Long overtimes are so rare that it would be impossible to prove that this is the wrong strategy. It just doesn’t make much logical sense. You hire a backup goalie to play 20 or 30 of your regular-season games, and then suddenly, in the playoffs, he becomes a leper? This is surely the NHL coach’s (natural) fear of breaking with accepted practice and immediately being made to look like a blunderer. If you tried giving your starter a 10-minute break in the last half of a fifth or sixth period, and he immediately gave up a dodgy goal, they’d blame you.

And not in a polite, “Well, it was reasonable to try it,” way. “Imbecile!” they would cry. “Everybody knows that in a long OT, no matter what, you stick with the guy who’s lost 15 pounds in fluid and needs a crane to get up from a pad save.” Meanwhile, if the tactic worked, it’s most likely nobody would notice.

What might change this is that fatigue in an athlete is now possible to measure objectively in relatively non-invasive ways. You could check someone’s blood-lactate level between periods — maybe even during a TV timeout — with a lancet to the earlobe and a handheld meter. Everybody knows that a goalie is tired after four or five periods of hockey, but quantification is confidence-building, and it makes experimentation possible. If you could pinpoint the moment at which your goalie is likely to start talking to the ghost of Gump Worsley, you might feel more comfortable getting him the hell out of there. I’ll say this much: if someone ever has the guts to try making more aggressive use of backups in long OTs, and it becomes accepted practice, Korpisalo’s new save record may last quite a while.

National Post
Twitter.com/colbycosh

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