RALEIGH, N.C. — It used to be easy. The No. 1 goalie played the first game of a back-to-back set, and the backup took the second.
The Lightning stick to that equation most of the time, but they’ve mixed it up a couple of times this season. Other teams are doing the same.
Backup Curtis McElhinney got the start at the Senators on Saturday. Andrei Vasilevskiy minded the net in Sunday’s 3-1 win against the Hurricanes. It was the second time the Lightning flipped the script this season, which has seven sets of back-to-back games.
Coach Jon Cooper said the Lightning’s decisions are more about the rotation and how much each goalie has played than it is about matchups. With four back-to-backs in 21 days between the end of the Christmas break and the end of January, the coaches are paying attention to how they space out the games goalies are assigned.
The division of labor right before Christmas wasn’t based on back-to-backs but used the same logic. McElhinney started against the Capitals on Dec. 21 to manage the break. By giving Vasilevskiy the Dec. 23 game against the Panthers, he went only four days between games instead of five.
“The goalies just like to be told beforehand,” Cooper said. “Other than that, I don’t think they really care what game they’re playing.”
McElhinney expects to find himself in the second game of a back-to-back more often than not. He has been an NHL backup for 12 years. He knows the drill.
“Sometimes it’s interesting how it plays out,” he said. “I find the second game, obviously you’ll have to weather a storm early on, but then you ease your way into it, and it almost becomes an easier game, at times.”
Goalies don’t necessarily do anything different playing in the first game versus the second. Starting the second game, they usually expect to see more off the rush and maybe more quality scoring chances early.
Tired legs usually translate to that early storm from the opponent. Though the Lightning had a 2-0 lead after Sunday’s first period, they had been outshot 13-5. Vasilevskiy came up with some big saves to keep Carolina off the board.
McDonagh misses game
Defenseman Ryan McDonagh did not play Sunday after leaving Saturday’s game in the first period with an upper-body injury.
Cooper did not have an update on him. Asked if the injury looked day-to-day or week-to-week, he said he did not have an answer. After Saturday’s game, Cooper declined to say whether McDonagh had gone through concussion protocol. McDonagh took an inadvertent elbow to the head on the play before he left the game in the first period.
The Lightning have enough defensemen to weather an absence, but McDonagh has been one of their most reliable players on the defensive end.
Medals for prospects
Two Lightning prospects earned medals at the World Junior Championship, which ended Sunday in the Czech Republic.
Forward Nolan Foote, Tampa Bay’s 2019 first-round draft pick, and Canada won the gold-medal game over Russia 4-3 (giving the Lightning’s 11 Canadians bragging rights over their three Russians). Goalie Hugo Alnefelt, a 2019 third-round draft pick, and Sweden won the bronze-medal game over Finland 3-2.
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Foote finished the tournament with five points (three goals) in seven games. Alnefelt allowed 13 goals in six starts and was second in the tournament in save percentage at .924 and tied for second in goals-against average at 2.12. Lightning goalie coach Frantz Jean said he was impressed with Alnefelt’s play.
Throughout the tournament, games were often on in the background during Lightning team meals and while players worked out.
Cooper watched for the team’s prospects, a group that also included wing Maxim Cajkovic of Slovakia, which didn’t make the knockout round. But he also just enjoys the tournament overall. He has never been directly involved with it, but many of his players have. He enjoys how highly players speak of their experiences and how exact their recall is.
Cooper asked Steven Stamkos and Kevin Shattenkirk in the hallway before Saturday’s game about their experiences with Canada and the United States, respectively, and both could recite just how their games went. (Though they’re better memories for Stamkos than for Shattenkirk, who lost in the 2009 quarterfinals in Ottawa’s Scotiabank Place. Stamkos won gold in 2008 in the Czech Republic.)
Follow his lead
No one has played against the Lightning more than Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour.
In his 20-year playing career, Brind’Amour played a whole season’s worth of games against Tampa Bay: 82. No one else, active or retired, has played more, according to hockey-reference.com. Jaromir Jagr is second with 80 games over 24 seasons, and Boston’s Zdeno Chara leads active players with 75 games in his 22 seasons.
Brind’Amour totaled 65 points against the Lightning, tied for fifth most, 28 goals (ninth) and 11 power-play goals (third).
Contact Diana C. Nearhos at email@example.com. Follow @dianacnearhos.