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From Platooning Goalies To Rest: ECHL Division Finals Off To Exciting Start

From Platooning Goalies To Rest: ECHL Division Finals Off To Exciting Start

The concept of someone winning with a platoon of goaltenders is intriguing. But how is this practice helping shape the 2024 ECHL Kelly Cup Playoffs?

May 7, 2024 by Justin Cohn
From Platooning Goalies To Rest: ECHL Division Finals Off To Exciting Start

If the Kansas City Mavericks or Toledo Walleye win the Kelly Cup – and it’s fair to say they’re the favorites among the eight remaining teams – we could see something unique: A champion platooning goalies.

We are, of course, a long way away from that happening.

The Norfolk Admirals look fantastic. The two-time defending-champion Florida Everblades look even better. The Idaho Steelheads are formidable. Any of those three teams could win the Cup, and it wouldn’t shock me.

Or, Kansas City coach Tad O’Had or Toledo coach Pat Mikesch could at some point decide to stop alternating their goaltenders’ starts – usually what eventually happens in the ECHL postseason.

Still, the concept of someone winning with a netminding platoon is intriguing.

Toledo, which has a 2-0 lead over the Wheeling Nailers in the best-of-seven Central Division Finals (now headed to Wheeling, West Virginia), is riding an unbelievable 20-game winning streak that dates to March 15. 

Since then, with the exception of a three-game stretch in March, Mikesch has alternated starts at goalie between John Lethemon and Jan Bednar, with terrific results.

In the postseason, Lethemon is 3-0 with a 1.56 goals-against average and a .939 save percentage. That includes a 23-save effort in Game 1 against the Nailers, a 2-1 come-from-behind overtime victory capped by a Brandon Hawkins goal. Bednar is 3-0 with a 2.33 GAA and a .926 SP.

In the Mountain Division Finals, Kansas City and Idaho are tied with one win apiece and the series heading to Boise, Idaho. 

The Mavericks, the top seed in the entire ECHL, have gone back and forth between Cale Morris and Jack LaFontaine. Morris is 3-0 with a 1.67 GAA and a .944 SP. LaFontaine is 2-1 with a 2.02 GAA and a .943 SP.

Idaho has ridden two goalies in the playoffs, too, but in a different way – Jake Kielly, who started the first three games against the Allen Americans, is 2-1 with a 3.37 GAA, a .889 SP and one shutout. Bryan Thomson is 3-1 with a 2.54 GAA and a .920 SP since then.

How to handle goaltending starts in the playoffs is a question older than probably anyone reading this article. 

The long-held belief is that a team absolutely must have two reliable goaltenders. At the ECHL level – where injuries, call-ups and often brutal scheduling is the norm – some would argue having three goalies is necessary.

No matter how you cut it, coaches have to weigh things like momentum, rest, history against the opponent – even which goalie the NHL affiliate wants to get experience in the playoffs.

Usually, a hot hand in net ends up being the biggest factor and eventually convinces a coach to stick with one guy exclusively. That hasn’t yet happened in Kansas City or Toledo, but it could.

Looking through the recent history of the ECHL, no team has won it all by platooning goalies as the Mavericks and Walleye have been so far in these playoffs.

The closest recent example came in 2016, when the Americans won the Cup. They used three goalies in the playoffs – Jake Hildebrand, Joel Rumpel and Riley Gill, all of whom saw some time in the Kelly Cup Finals. But Gill played 17 of the 24 playoff games, including the final four against Wheeling for the championship.

Perhaps a better example when it comes to this year’s playoffs came in 2014, when the Alaska Aces won the Cup. They alternated between Gerald Coleman and Olivier Roy until they got to the Kelly Cup Finals. Then, they rode Coleman to a six-game victory over the Cincinnati Cyclones, sticking with him after a 3-1 loss in Game 4, despite him stopping only 13 shots.

When the Reading Royals won the Cup in 2013, it took them two rounds before settling on Gill instead of Mark Owuya. 

When the Everblades won in 2012, John Muse played the first five games, Pat Nagle the next five, then Muse the final eight.

In all those years, you’ll notice that by the end of the postseason the coaches settled on someone when a Cup-deciding series was on the line. It’ll be compelling to see if O’Had or Mikesch do the same – assuming they get that far.

Conversely, will we see other teams make goalie changes?

Wheeling would be a possibility, though I’m not sure they’re there yet. 

Jaxon Castor has been terrific in the postseason, but the Nailers last week got Taylor Gauthier, who was first-team All-ECHL, back from the AHL. He’d been injured and hasn’t played since March 16, and I’m skeptical he’s in form because Garret Sparks backed up Castor in Games 1 and 2 against Toledo. Sparks, who played a couple AHL games this season, is a viable option to start, though.

Adirondack came into the North Division finals with the hottest goalie in the league – Isaac Poulter had three first-round shutouts – but he’s stopped only 83.9% of the shots he’s faced against Norfolk, and maybe Jeremy Brodeur gets the call for Game 3 at Norfolk, Virginia. 

The Admirals’ Yaniv Perets, meanwhile, has stopped 91% of the shots he’s faced in the series, which has seen Norfolk win 7-4 and 5-2 on the road. Goalie Oskari Salminen, however, returned to Norfolk on Monday from Manitoba of the AHL and could be in line for action; he was the Admirals’ starter in the playoff opener before being called up.

In the South Division Finals, Florida’s Cam Johnson, the two-time Playoff MVP, has stopped 92.9% of the Orlando shots he faced in Games 1 and 2, a 5-1 victory and a 6-3 victory. What more can you say about the league’s top big-game goalie?

That brings us to the Orlando’s Evan Fitzpatrick. Against his former team, he’s been shredded, stopping only 80.7% of the shots he faced in 5-1 and 6-3 losses, combined, in Estero, Florida. With Brandon Halverson in the AHL, the Solar Bears are limited on options; Fitzpatrick’s backup has been Francis Boisvert, yet to make his pro debut out of Robert Morris University.

Orlando is the biggest underdog in the playoffs – the Solar Bears upset the division-winning Greenville Swamp Rabbits in the first round – and they’ve been at their best with the chips down. But a lack of depth in net right now could be a problem.

Some other things from the opening weekend of the division finals …

The Rest Of The Story

Norfolk has played only 11 games since March. In the world of the ECHL, that’s a pretty rare scenario. While the rest is valuable for healing injuries, it often costs teams momentum. 

That certainly wasn’t the case for the Admirals in Games 1 and 2, which came on the heels of a six-day layoff. 

Adirondack, meanwhile, had to play Game 1 against Norfolk only two days after dispatching the Maine Mariners in a Game 7, but at least the Thunder got to stay at home in Glens Falls, New York, to prepare.

The Admirals have gotten two goals apiece in the series from Thomas Caron, Mathieu Roy, Austen Keating, Keaton Jameson and Stepan Timofeyev. Carson Golder has one goal and five points. The Admirals have brought a physical presence to the series, and it’s paying off.

Adirondack just isn’t getting much offensively outside of Yushiroh Hirano, Tristan Ashbrook, Ryan Smith and Ryan Wheeler (who six weeks ago was a defenseman) and that has to improve for the division champs to keep playing beyond this series.

Missed Opportunity

Game 1 of the Central Division Finals could go down as the biggest missed opportunity of these playoffs. 

Wheeling outplayed Toledo and had the Walleye on the ropes with a 1-0 lead, before the puck fortuitousness came to Mitchell Lewandowski for a close-range goal 14:40 into the third period in Toledo, Ohio.

In overtime, Hawkins netted a goal from a ridiculous angle, but the setup by Trenton Bliss was maybe even better. I know people who think Bliss is the player who really makes the Walleye churn. I’m beginning to get on board with that idea.

Had Wheeling won Game 1, it would have changed the complexion of this series. Instead, Toledo’s winning streak continued, and it’s hard to imagine the Nailers stealing a Game 6 or 7 in Toledo, if the series even gets back there, which doesn’t seem all that likely right now.

It’s Going To Be A Doozy

Speaking of missed opportunities, Kansas City was on its way to a Game 2 victory with a one-goal lead in the third period, before Idaho’s Keaton Mastrodonato scored. The winner came from a beautiful run in transition with Mark Rassell, Wade Murphy and Ty Pelton-Byce, who scored the winner at 8:37 and tied the series at 1.

Idaho didn’t look so hot in Game 1 but looked terrific in Game 2, and that’s the thing about the Steelheads – when they get everyone on the same page, they’re just formidable. Pelton-Byce leads the league in playoff scoring with four goals and 14 points, three points more than Wheeling’s Jordan Martel.

This series is a heavyweight bout – Idaho had the ECHL’s third-best record during the regular season – and it’s going to get more intense.

Room For Everblades To Grow … Scarily

In the first round, I correctly predicted 7 of 8 series winners. Florida was the team I missed. Maybe I should have known better, maybe I was too wedded to my preseason pick, the Jacksonville Icemen, whom the Everblades defeated in Game 7 on the road.

But I’m now on board with the Everblades, especially after seeing them dismantle Orlando in Games 1 and 2 of the division finals. And there’s reason for Orlando fans to be even more fearful – some of Florida’s best players have been pretty quiet so far.

Despite scoring a whopping 11 goals in the series so far, the Everblades haven’t gotten goals from Bobo Carpenter, Logan Lambdin, Matthew Wedman or Josh Ho-Sang. That’s unlikely to continue, even as the series shifts to Orlando.

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