For most NHL teams, losing your starting goaltender to an injury in the Stanley Cup playoffs is about as catastrophic as it gets.
Sure, there can and have been stories of backup goalies rising to the occasion after the starter goes down, but most teams find their championship aspirations dashed once they lose their man between the pipes.
That said, there are exceptions to that general rule. And this season, it looks like the St. Louis Blues could turn out to be one of them. The Blues announced Sunday that No. 1 netminder Jordan Binnington would miss the rest of their second-round series against Colorado after suffering a lower-body injury in Game Three Saturday, and while Binnington was at the top of his game when he was injured, St. Louis can still push the Avalanche to their limits, because Binnington’s backup, Ville Husso, is capable of keeping them afloat.
The post-season – the first of Husso’s two-year NHL career – began well enough for the 27-year-old: he started, and won, Game One of the Blues’ first-round showdown against Minnesota, blanking the Wild 4-0 to set the tone for the series. However, Husso struggled in Games Two and Three, posting a 4.51 goals-against average in the two games.
You can understand, then, why St. Louis head coach Craig Berube turned to Binnington in Game Four. Binnington had, by and large, played very well in April – better than Husso, who was there to help his team earlier in the season when Binnington hadn’t been at his best. Berube presented him with the chance to reassert his place in the Blues’ pecking order, and Binnington thrived. He won three in a row to oust the Wild, and he was arguably St. Louis’ best player in their first two games against Colorado. Let’s not pretend this doesn’t significantly hamper the Blues’ odds to win the series.
However, Husso demonstrated earlier this year that he too could play well in St. Louis. He’s had his competitive leaps and swoons, but again, this is a guy who is experiencing the best playoff tournament in the world for the first time. It’s rare to see any rookie playoff goalie step in and dominate consistently, right from the get-go. Far more common is consistency challenges. That is the essence of the battle in the post-season – you bring your best, the other side answers, and now you’re challenged to raise your game again.
That is what faces Husso at the moment. He came into Game 3 some six minutes into the opening period and allowed four Avalanche goals on 23 shots the rest of the night, and he’ll need to be much better than that when the series resumes Monday in St. Louis. But he had a solid enough sample size in the regular season to not completely believe him incapable of beating the Avs three times in the next four games.
Husso also has the added motivation of entering into unrestricted free agency at the end of these playoffs. The salary-cap-strapped Blues have less than $10 million in cap space this summer, and Husso likely has already played his way out of St. Louis’ payroll range. But with every win he puts up from this point on, Husso will be giving himself a notable raise next year.
The Blues did not say Binnington will miss the rest of the year with his lower-body injury, so if Husso does rise to the challenge and pushes St. Louis to the Western Conference Final, it’s possible Binnington will play again. But for now, this is Husso’s team. And this is why having depth in net is so valuable. You never know when catastrophe will come, and having options when it does come gives you a fighting chance of rising to the top.