There was quite a bit of hand-wringing on Twitter over Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock’s decision to start enigmatic backup goaltender Jonas Gustavsson in the second leg of pivotal back-to-back games this week. Jimmy Howard had played very well of late, and many fans wanted to ride the hot hand. Although the Red Wings secured the point necessary to clinch a 23rd consecutive playoff appearance, Gustavsson did not play very well at all. And although it might be tempting to argue that the Red Wings’ advancing to the playoffs proves that Babcock made the right decision, such an argument is made with the benefit of hindsight. Gustavsson looked uncomfortable for much of a game the Wings largely controlled, and nearly cost them the contest by letting a puck slip through him in the crease, resulting in an easy tap-in by the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Jussi Jokinen. Despite this, I still contend that the correct decision was made.
A few weeks ago Babcock told a referee whose ability he was particularly displeased with to “do [his] job.” He often talks about his team and its players in a similarly blunt fashion. Babcock’s deployment of his goalies in the six-week stretch leading up to the Pittsburgh game reflected this attitude acutely. The Red Wings were “supposed” to beat the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday. Taking nothing for granted, he started Howard and fielded his strongest lineup possible in order to maximize the potential of gaining two very attainable points. The next night, in a game with a lower probability of getting a regulation win, he started Gustavsson. Why did he do that? Because if the team hadn’t gotten a point in Pittsburgh, they would still have had an opportunity to clinch a playoff berth against a very beatable Carolina Hurricanes team. Having a rested Jimmy Howard would have given the Wings the best chance to win, and to clinch a playoff spot in what would have been an even more crucial matchup. The game log over the past few months shows a similar pattern of goalie usage, for the most part: Howard starting the leg of back-to-backs against teams the Red Wings are “supposed” to beat. Even if you disagree with this strategy, there is ample evidence it’s the way Babcock operates. I was not at all surprised that Gustavsson got the nod, and frankly I was hoping he would because I thought it meshed with Babcock’s philosophy, especially of late. I’m not a blind disciple of the Church of Babcock, but I tend to trust the all-time winningest coach in Detroit Red Wings history far more often than not. Gustavsson didn’t dazzle, but the team got the result it was looking for and we can all watch tonight’s game a little less frantically.