The early part of the 2013-14 NHL season has seen some intriguing battles for playing time in nets across the league. In some cases, such as in Toronto, the competition for the starting job has been expected all summer, but elsewhere, it's simply been the result of an established starter faltering and a backup making the most of the opportunity.
Which goalies have managed to take the upper hand early in these contests for starts? Read on to see our picks for the early leads in the most heated battles.
Last season, the Ducks saw a pitched battle for playing time between incumbent starter Jonas Hiller and European free-agent signing Viktor Fasth. Hiller started 25 games while Fasth started 23; Fasth's .921 save percentage put him ahead of Hiller's .913 number by a comfortable margin.
It was Hiller who started in the playoffs, however, and this year, it is Hiller who has been red hot early with a 3-0-0 record and a .959 save percentage. Fasth's own numbers (1-1-0, .826 save percentage) haven't been nearly as impressive over 2013-14's first few games.
The early edge: Jonas Hiller
It's probably fair to say that neither of the Flames' primary candidates for the starting job have really taken a firm hold of it.
Joey MacDonald and Karri Ramo have matching .897 save percentages early in the season. The difference is that MacDonald has played four games, putting up a 3-0-1 record, while Ramo has just a single overtime loss under his belt. Head coach Bob Hartley clearly prefers MacDonald so far.
The early edge: Joey MacDonald
Tim Thomas played the Panthers' first two games of the year, putting in a strong performance in a win over Dallas but then getting lit up against St. Louis and ultimately being pulled in favour of youngster Jacob Markstrom. Thomas would start the next game against Philadelphia as well, allowing two goals on five shots before leaving with a groin injury.
The first time Markstrom subbed in for Thomas, he did no better than the veteran, allowing four goals on six shots. The second time around, he stopped all 25 he faced. Since then, the results have been uneven: six goals allowed in a loss to Tampa Bay, 36 saves in a win over Pittsburgh and an .897 save percentage in another loss, which came against Los Angeles.
Markstrom's numbers are better than those posted by Thomas, but given Thomas' history and the short-term nature of the track record, it's far too early to say the veteran has lost the job.
The early edge: Tim Thomas
Minnesota wasn't one of the teams tagged early on as having a potential goalie fight, but there's one going on there now.
Niklas Backstrom, the team's reliable primary netminder for the past seven seasons, is off to a shaky start. He's lost twice in overtime with sub-.900 save percentage performances and was pulled after allowing two goals in five shots in his third outing.
That's where Josh Harding comes in. Once considered a top up-and-comer in net, Harding has had some mediocre seasons in the backup role over the last few years, and in the fall of 2012, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He replaced Backstrom in that third game, turning aside 19 of the 20 shots he faced, and in three starts since has held the opposition to a single tally in each.
The early edge: Josh Harding
Cory Schneider was supposed to be done with fighting for playing time after he finally wrested the starting job in Vancouver out of the hands of Roberto Luongo. Instead, the realities of the cap world forced the Canucks to send Schneider to New Jersey, where he's assured the job in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, he has to compete with 41-year-old legend Martin Brodeur.
The fact that both goalies are winless does not change the reality that Schneider has outplayed the aged Brodeur. With Brodeur in net, the Devils are averaging three goals per game; with Schneider in net, they've been shut out two of three tries.
The early edge: Cory Schneider
The brightest light in Philadelphia early on is perhaps also the most unexpected.
Steve Mason wrought untold damage on the Columbus Blue Jackets before joining the Flyers. He got his career off to a hot start, winning the Calder Trophy as a rookie before collapsing and dragging the rest of the team with him over the three following seasons as a starter.
Eleven games into his Flyers career, Mason has duplicated only the "hot start" portion of his time with Columbus. He won four of the seven games he started last year for Philly, posting a .944 save percentage in the process. This year, he has the Flyers' only win and a .935 save percentage. He's also shoved aside his competition for the job, free-agent addition Ray Emery (0-2-0, .873 save percentage).
The early edge: Steve Mason
The possibilities for intrigue in the St. Louis net after a three-way battle for playing time in 2012-13 were myriad. Instead, the result has been almost anticlimactic, with Jaroslav Halak taking the starting job out of the gate and refusing to relinquish it. Halak has played four games, recorded four wins, one shutout and a .934 save percentage in the process.
As for the other contenders? Brian Elliott has been stapled to the bench and has yet to play a game. Jake Allen was demoted to the AHL, where he's been excellent over two games, posting a .973 save percentage.
The early edge: Jaroslav Halak
It's been simple early in Tampa Bay. When Ben Bishop starts, the team wins; when Anders Lindback starts, it loses.
What the goalies have in common is their background. Both are massive (Bishop and Lindback are listed, respectively, at 6'7", 214 pounds and 6'6", 210 pounds), both are in their mid-20s and both had been impressive in brief cameos before being scooped up by Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman.
The difference between the two lies in what each has done for Tampa Bay. Lindback struggled last season (10-10-1, .902 save percentage) in a year where he was expected to take the starting job; he's also struggled this season, allowing eight goals on 51 shots over two appearances. Bishop looked good after coming over at the 2013 trade deadline (3-4-1, .917 save percentage), and he has yet to allow more than two goals in a game this season.
The early edge: Ben Bishop
The offseason's most anticipated goaltending battle was in Toronto, where competent incumbent James Reimer was to compete with highly touted newcomer Jonathan Bernier for playing time.
To date, it's been a one-sided competition.
Bernier stands 4-1-0 on the season, and anything even close to the .946 save percentage he has managed so far would place him among the upper echelon of NHL goalies. Understandably, the coaches have continued to give him time in net, which has meant that Reimer—with one good and one bad game under his belt—has had little opportunity to show what he can do.
The early edge: Jonathan Bernier