Berube is banking on a sharp Emery

The Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist will face Flyers backup Ray Emery in Game One Thursday night at Madison Square Garden. (Bruce Bennett photos/Getty Images)
The Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist will face Flyers backup Ray Emery in Game One Thursday night at Madison Square Garden. (Bruce Bennett photos/Getty Images)
Posted: April 18, 2014

Craig Berube did not have a plan with respect to his two goaltenders, Steve Mason and Ray Emery, as much as he had a philosophy. It is good that he did.

Emery appeared in two games for the Flyers in February and two in March. Thursday night's playoff opener against the Rangers, when he starts in place of Mason, will be Emery's fifth game already in April, and the month will be just 17 days old. Part of this escalation was because in March, Emery suffered a lower-body injury (not to be confused with the mysterious "upper-body injury" that will keep Mason out of the lineup). But most of it was because Berube wanted to strike a reasonable balance between his two goaltenders' workloads.

The Devils' Martin Brodeur played 73 games in 2002-03 and 72 games in 1999-2000. Over the last quarter-century, he is the only goaltender to have appeared in at least 70 regular-season games for a team that won the Stanley Cup. He is the last of his kind.

Berube recognized this.

"Goalies don't play 70 games anymore," he said Wednesday. "This 70-75-game stuff, that's a lot of games. I think it's important to use both goalies and keep them sharp and fresh. That's the thinking. That's the main goal."

So Mason appeared in 61 games this season and Emery in 28, and because Berube divvied up the playing time so equitably, the Flyers still have a chance to withstand Mason's loss. That is all they have, and that is all they can ask for.

Understand: Mason's absence matters. He is the starter and Emery the backup, on merit. After a training-camp competition, Mason won the job and never looked back. For the Flyers to win this series, they always had to count on their goaltender's outplaying the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist, and that was a fool's proposition even before Mason went down.

Emery is 31, six months younger than Lundqvist. He backed up Corey Crawford last year on the Chicago Blackhawks, collecting a Stanley Cup ring without appearing in a playoff game, and he was excellent for most of the 2007 postseason, when he backstopped the Ottawa Senators to the franchise's only Finals. But he has not been a full-time starter in the NHL since then, and with Mason out of the lineup, the gap between the goalies in this series is greater.

It's easy to point to Lundqvist's 30-37 career postseason record as some sort of indictment, some reason to believe his greatness is hollow. Yet to watch the Rangers' last five playoff series was to see Lundqvist outplay the opposing goaltender in four of them. (The exception was Brodeur in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals.) His playoff performance has improved over time, and one of the reasons is that he has played less during the regular season.

From 2006 through 2011, Lundqvist averaged 70.6 regular-season appearances. His postseason save percentage over that span was .915. Early in the 2011-12 season, John Tortorella, the Rangers' coach at the time, made a concerted effort to use backup Martin Biron more frequently. Lundqvist played just 62 games that season - and won the Vezina Trophy - then played 43 in the subsequent lockout-shortened year. He faced more shots over those two postseasons than he did in his previous four, and still his save percentage shot up to .934. The extra rest made Lundqvist a better goaltender.

Tortorella's successor, Alain Vigneault, followed that template; Lundqvist appeared in 63 games this season. So it's reasonable to think that, against the Flyers, he will play at a level similar to that of his most recent postseasons. What we're looking at in this series - assuming Mason's injury keeps him out of both Games 1 and 2, if not more - are two sides of the same goaltending coin. The Rangers are counting on Lundqvist's being fresh. The Flyers are hoping that Emery played enough during the regular season, especially toward its end, to stay as sharp as possible.

"I take everything as a learning experience," said Emery, who has spent 10 seasons in the NHL. "You learn from success. You learn from failures, as well. I've had a lot of both."

That history is helpful. Like Berube's smart handling of his goaltenders this season, it gives the Flyers a chance in this series. Nothing more than that, though. The teams' rosters of forwards and defensemen are equal. The goaltenders are not. Rangers in six.


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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