BOSTON — Keith Kinkaid has fallen into the goaltending abyss.
Unless you have a specific recollection of New Jersey sending the 29-year-old to Columbus amid an avalanche of moves on trade deadline day, you’ve probably lost track of his whereabouts. There is still no official Blue Jackets entry among Kinkaid’s career stats at NHL.com or hockeydb and, in all likelihood, there probably never will be.
But it hasn’t kept Kinkaid from playing a measurable role in the team’s run to the second round — one that can be held up as evidence of the changing attitude and approach that’s started to take hold across the league.
For the time being, Kinkaid is an extremely overqualified practice goalie. His acquisition provided Columbus with injury insurance, but it also created a scenario where No. 1 man Sergei Bobrovsky could be spelled off for extra rest down the stretch and into these playoffs.
“[Kinkaid’s] been so good, such a great pro in this situation,” said Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella. “He hasn’t played a lick here since he’s been traded, but he just goes about his business in practice. That’s important.
“If we didn’t have him here during the playoffs we’d probably bring another guy in anyway because I think it’s that important.”
This is the new normal in the NHL.
Where once Martin Brodeur and Miikka Kiprusoff were celebrated for routinely playing 70-plus games per season, teams are now putting their top puck-stoppers on a pitch count. Six of the eight teams still standing in Round 2 didn’t even have a goaltender appear in 50 regular-season games.
Bobrovsky is one of the exceptions, but his 62 games were still a slight decrease from the previous two seasons. He played 355 fewer minutes overall this year and saw 237 fewer shots and has had the wear and tear between games reduced even further since Kinkaid’s arrival on Feb. 25.
The Russian got four games off entirely during the final month of the season while Kinkaid backed up Joonas Korpisalo and isn’t taking the ice at all on off days during the ongoing series with Boston.
“It’s such a unique position, the amount of pressure that’s on the goalie,” said Tortorella. “We’re letting Bob run on his schedule. How he feels most comfortable getting prepared for the next game.”
Given that Bobrovsky and Boston counterpart Tuukka Rask have been the stars of a series that sits at 2-2 heading into Saturday’s Game 5 at TD Garden, the approach makes a lot of sense.
Every extra ounce of energy counts. There’s no reason to risk the mental preparation of your starter by forcing him to stand in for shots from teammates on the practice days. That’s what Kinkaid and Korpisalo are for.
One of the main reasons the Bruins signed Jaroslav Halak in free agency last summer was to ease Rask’s workload. The veteran played just 46 games as a result — his fewest appearances since the 2013 lockout season — and has spoken of feeling fresher during his best playoff run in years. He’s even slightly outduelled Bobrovsky in save percentage .942-.934 throughout this series.
“I felt pretty good all year,” said Rask. “It’s all about feeling confident, preparing yourself the right way and trusting your teammates.”
“We limited his workload this year, and you wonder how it’s going to affect the playoffs,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said after the Game 7 win over Toronto in Round 1. “I think tonight hopefully he got some residual effect from that where he was fresh the last couple of games, playing every second night.
“It pays off and hopefully even more going forward.”
That’s the hope for every team still left fighting for the Stanley Cup.
You rarely see anyone emerge a champion from the most gruelling playoffs in North American sport without a strong performance from its goalie(s). In the case of the Blue Jackets, they basically leave all of the key decisions about maximizing performance in the hands of Bobrovsky and goalie coach Manny Legace.
“It’s a running conversation. Manny comes to me, we talk about it,” said Tortorella. “I don’t want to get in the way there. I think you need to respect the preparation of that position, so that’s how we go about it.”
The results speak for themselves.
Regular-season appearances in 2018-19 by goaltenders among the eight remaining NHL teams:
Boston: Rask (46), Halak (40).
Carolina: Mrazek (40), McElhinney (33), Darling (8), Nedeljkovic (1).
Colorado: Varlamov (49), Grubauer (37), Francouz (2).
Columbus: Bobrovsky (62), Korpisalo (27).
Dallas: Bishop (46), Khudobin (41), Bow (2).
N.Y. Islanders: Lehner (46), Greiss (43), Gibson (2).
San Jose: Jones (62), Dell (25).
St. Louis: Allen (46), Binnington (32), Johnson (10).