The phrase "good problem to have" could apply to the Thunder and its two standout goaltenders, but the principals don’t think it’s a problem at all.
Yes, having multiple players for one position means one of them won’t be on the ice at any given time. It also allows for second guessing if one of them starts a game and loses.
The first-place Thunder (40-16-2) has managed, though, with goalies Bryan Hogan and Adam Russo both playing brilliantly lately. Not even a minor issue has arisen so far.
Russo’s play was expected; Hogan has been a pleasant surprise who has surpassed even the highest expectations of him when he was acquired in a January trade. The numbers say he has outplayed Russo, and Wichita coach Kevin McClelland won’t call either the definitive starter because both have earned that title.
"Right now, both goaltenders are playing well," McClelland said. "That’s what you need going into the playoffs. Both guys have to be ready. To accomplish what we want, it’s going to be very long and grueling."
Hogan fell to the backup role in Dayton after an inconsistent first half of his rookie season. The Thunder took a chance on the former University of Michigan goalie with the hope that he could occasionally spell Russo, giving the Thunder veteran rest to prepare him for the postseason.
Since his arrival, Hogan has forced his way into Wichita’s plans. He’s 8-1 as a starter, allowing 1.53 goals per game. Since Hogan was acquired, Russo has gone 7-4 with a shutout and six other starts in which he allowed two or fewer goals.
McClelland’s decision should be easy — go with the hot hand. But since both of them are hot, picking a regular starter could be agonizing. Then again, it would be tough for him to make the wrong call given Hogan’s and Russo’s recent history.
"It’s a tough situation having two goalies that are consistently winning games for you," Russo said. "(McClelland) is going to have to make a decision, and whoever doesn’t play — it could be me — just has to encourage and want to win as a team. The guy that plays has to play to win and the guy that’s backing up has to encourage the team to win."
The current setup of even time could work. Though the playoff schedule hasn’t been announced, a strong possibility is that Wichita will play games on consecutive nights, at least in the opening round.
Playoff hockey is as mentally taxing as it is physically grueling, and giving Russo and Hogan days off that aren’t already built in could help them save psychological energy.
"Playoffs become a marathon," Russo said. "…You’re looking at the possibility of 21 games if it goes to seven each (series). You have to be ready, you have to be in shape. You both have to be raring to go. It’s important to have two super guys like we have, I think."
Russo and Hogan have brought out the best in each other. Russo, who turns 29 next month, is almost six years older than Hogan. A player with international experience, Russo has been helpful in the start of Hogan’s career and in his transition from Dayton to the Thunder.
Hogan’s outstanding play has enhanced the competitive side of Russo. The two get along, and even describing their relationship as a friendly rivalry might be excessive, but Hogan drives Russo and brings out a sense of urgency.
"You always have to battle for that No. 1 spot," Russo said. "I don’t think anyone really has the No. 1 spot on this team right now. I just think that you have to have that competitiveness in your mind all times if you want to become a better goalie.
"If you sit as the No. 1 and think that you’re going to be No. 1 and you’ve got a guy like Bryan that’s pushing you in the butt and you just sit there, obviously he’s going to take over."