Who’s No. 1? Crease battles galore for playoff-bound teams

We're getting down to the wire of the NHL season and the Flyers, Red wings and Avalanche needed wins Monday.

Hockey teams simply don’t win the Stanley Cup with goaltenders who share the load.

Since the playoff tournament was expanded to four best-of-seven series in 1987, only a handful of championship teams have raised the Cup without a single goalie winning all 16 games. Only once has a ring-bearing backup pitched in for more than three wins (Pittsburgh’s Frank Pietrangleo had four wins en route to the 1991 Cup).

That Scott Darling pinch-hit for Corey Crawford and secured three victories early in the Blackhawks championship run last spring was a rarity.

Yet here we are, just a couple weeks out from the start of the playoffs, and a chunk of playoff hopefuls — including legitimate threats Anaheim, San Jose, Dallas and St. Louis — do not have a clear-cut Game 1 starter for the post-season.

Let’s take a look at seven battles for the playoff crease and have our best guess on which netminders get the shot to win and stay in.

Frederik Andersen vs. John Gibson

Let’s begin with the tightest and most compelling crease battle. Will the Anaheim Ducks roll with the man who brought them within one win of the Stanley Cup Final last spring or their 2016 All-Star Game representative?

Andersen, 26, has more experience but is a good bet to be traded this off-season. Anaheim has committed to Gibson, 22, for the next three seasons. He’s the goaltender of the future.

Statistically, this is a tight race. Andersen (21-9-7, .920, 2.29, 2 SO) has more wins and a better save percentage, but Gibson (18-11-3, .918, 2.09, 4 SO) has a better GAA and twice as many shutouts.

When both have been healthy, head coach Bruce Boudreau has toggled between the two; this isn’t simply a win-and-you’re-in relationship.

“We’ve told them every step of the way what’s going on. There’s no surprises there,” Boudreau said before the Ducks wrapped-up their road trip.

So, who gets the playoff start?

“I don’t know what we’re doing yet,” Boudreau said. “We’ll have a discussion once we get back home. See what direction we’re going and we’ll go from there.”

Considering Andersen has won 10 of his last 12, we think he gets the Game 1 nod, but the leash will be short.

Best bet: Andersen

Kari Lehtonen vs. Antti Niemi
The Dallas Stars have employed a pure tandem approach all season long. Rare in this day and age, but it’s worked.

Lehtonen (slightly better save percentage) and Niemi (a few more starts) have turned in similar results, coexisting nicely. Niemi snuffed out a five-game losing slumped in a 5-2 victory over San Jose Saturday, while Lehtonen (who has seniority in Big D) has bounced back nicely from an ugly stretch in late February to become the more consistent option down the stretch.

While the goaltending-by-committee approach has led Dallas to the top of the Central, expect coach Lindy Ruff to pick a hot hand and stick with it, comforted with the knowledge he can switch to another warmed-up veteran if need be. Either way, the Stars will be looking to win their playoff games 4-3, not 2-1.

Best bet: Lehtonen

Jimmy Howard vs. Petr Mrazek

We’ve delved into this battle in detail before, and to be honest, we don’t like the Red Wings chances of making the wild card, partly because they haven’t received superior goaltending during their playoff push.

Mrazek, whom GM Ken Holland called Detroit’s No. 1 as recently as two weeks ago, has lost three of his last four decisions, surrendering a minimum of three goals in each of his last four appearances. Howard came up with a necessary win Monday, but that was the first time in four outings that his save percentage wasn’t .885 or worse.

If the Wings qualify, give the edge to Mrazek, who started the 2015 post-season and has proven the more consistent of the duo since.

Best bet: Mrazek

Jean-Francois Berube vs. Thomas Greiss

When Jaroslav Halak was sidelined for at least six weeks on March 9, the hopes of a much-needed Isles playoff run shifted to 30-year-old backup Thomas Greiss. And he’s dropped the ball, so far.

Greiss (19-11-4, .924, 2.40, 1 SO) has one W to go with his five L’s since Halak’s injury, while 24-year-old call-up Berube (3-1-1, .927, 2.30) — a fourth-round L.A. Kings pick working his way up from the ECHL — has made a case to seize the start in Game 1.

Best bet: Berube

Steve Mason vs. Michal Neuvirth

Neuvirth was shining for Philadelphia and would’ve been the Game 1 bet before a lower-body injury cost him the remainder of the regular season. With eight wins in his last dozen starts, Mason has answered the bell in Neuvirth’s absence, so expect the Flyers to favour the healthy option even if Neuvirth gets cleared in time for the first round.

Best bet: Mason

Martin Jones vs. James Reimer
They call it a good problem to have. Martin Jones (36-21-4, .919, 2.25, 5 SO) had been the San Jose Sharks clear-cut No. 1 all season but wasn’t getting suitable support from backup Alex Stalock. So GM Doug Wilson rented James Reimer from Toronto, and he’s gone 3-2 with two shutouts and a .920 in his five starts as a Shark. (He also has more playoff experience than the younger Jones.)

Eyebrows raised when head coach Peter DeBoer didn’t commit to Jones as the playoff starter a few days ago, saying San Jose is comfortable with both options — perhaps a move to light a fire under Jones.

Best bet: Jones

Jake Allen vs. Brian Elliott
Jake Allen’s six shutouts place him second overall, but it’s the veteran Elliott who will take a three-game shutout streak into Tuesday’s game versus Colorado.

The tandem spells each other off nicely, but one of them must prove playoff-worthy. Elliott was anointed the Blues starter in 2013, and they lost in Round 1. Ryan Miller was rented to start in 2014, and he was ousted just as quick. Allen was given the reins in 2015 — same result.

We’re betting Ken Hitchcock circles back to the older hand here. He’s in the zone.

Best bet: Elliott