Pucks and pom-poms: the NHL backup goalie's role

Following a pair of superb starts for the New York Rangers, backup goaltender Martin Biron will be taking off his blocker and trapper and picking up his pom-poms once again.

Following a pair of superb starts for the New York Rangers, backup goaltender Martin Biron will be taking off his blocker and trapper and picking up his pom-poms once again.

Figuratively speaking, of course.

While Rangers' starter Henrik Lundqvist was relegated to sitting on the bench last week, given some time to "work on his game" after a bad performance in Colorado, Biron stepped in and won two straight games.

Despite sitting his starter, coach John Tortorella is adamant the Swede would be back in goal when they face the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday.

"Marty deserves to play another game tonight with the way he has played, but it certainly hasn't changed our thinking with what we have in Lundqvist," Tortorella told the team's official website before Monday's game against the Calgary Flames.

"He's our No. 1 guy and has to be the backbone of this club if we want to get where we want to be."

In other words, any perception that "King Henrik" is being dethroned in New York is greatly exaggerated. Still, it raises the question of what the role and relationship between a backup goaltender and his starter needs to be to achieve both individual and team success.

According to Hockey Night in Canada's Glenn Healy, Biron is fulfilling his duties to both his comrade between the pipes and the rest of his team.

"When it's the regular season, you have one goaltender that plays most of the time, [so] what the backup's role? It's to support the starter, but it's also to put 20 points in the bank," Healy said.

"That's going to get you in the post-season with home ice. It's going to help your team to rest some players down the stretch, because you're not scraping to get in at the last day of the season."

Psychologist, cheerleader roles

Healy played the backup role to Mike Richter when the Rangers won the Cup in 1994, as well in Toronto with Curtis Joseph for three seasons starting in 1998, experiences Healy said defined what a backup and starter need to be to each other.

"It was a phenomenal situation in a sense that [Mike Richter] and I and Curtis Joseph and I — there couldn't have been a better relationship amongst the two pairs. It was as enjoyable as I ever found when I was playing. We supported each other and acted a bit like psychologists at time, cheerleaders at times, but it was great for the team winning and for team-building."

A New York Times article from April 1995 talked about the Rangers having a "favourable problem" with Healy posting stellar performances near the end of the season while Richter got his game back. But is it really that enviable a problem, or could it be a collision of talent that could result in bruised egos?

Healy says it's less a problem for the netminders and the team as it may be for the coach, who sticks his neck out to play a backup.

"I don't think [having two solid goalies] is a detriment in any way," he said. "It gives your team a chance to win any night every night when no matter if it's back-to-back, or you get in at 4 in the morning," he said.

"A little bit of healthy competition is important, [but] for the most part, in a salary cap world, one guy is getting the dough. So, to play your backup … who doesn't get a lot of money, it's a much riskier thing for the coaches to show up the general manager or the owner and sit the other guy."

Biron and Lundqvist have said much the same in interviews before and after Biron's latest start on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden, a 2-1 win over the Flames.

"I don't want to be selfish, it's about the team," said Lundqvist. "Marty played well [in Minnesota], and we won. I think I have to be more consistent so I have time now to work on my game for a couple of days. But yeah, I want to play, and I love to play, that's why I'm here. At the same time, there are two guys here, and I have to earn my minutes."

For Healy, the important thing is that a team's goalie tandem realizes that they need to have each other's back.

"Whether it's emotional, whether you've got pom-poms in your hand and you're cheering him on, whether you're helping him work through a funk, there's only one person on that team that knows what the other guy is thinking," Healy said. "And that's the other goalie."