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Pens search for a backup goalie will have to begin again in summer

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The Pittsbugh Penguins have been lucky in recent years as far as their fortunes with backup goaltenders. Marc-Andre Fleury has obviously developed into the franchise caliber guy who can play 60-70 games a year and be capable of deep playoff runs, but behind him they've had some luck too.

When Fleury went down with a serious injury in the 2007-08 season, it was Ty Conklin who stepped in, going 18-8-5 down the stretch with a .923 save percentage and 2.51 GAA. Conklin played so well, fans even openly wondered if Fleury should take over in the crease for the playoffs when he returned to health. MAF did, and lead the team to the Stanley Cup finals that season, and there haven't been any questions like that ever since.

When Conklin departed that summer as a free agent the Pens tried Dany Sabourin (a favorite of then coach Michel Therrien) and found him to be ineffective so he was jettisoned for Mathieu Garon, who was not really memorable in a just a handful of appearances.

The Pens then signed Brent Johnson, who appeared in 23 games in 2009-10, posting a slightly better save percentage than Fleury (.906 to .905) in Johnny's first season in Pittsburgh. In early 2010, Johnson was incredible and helped steady the team as Fleury's game struggled mightily.

With the success of Conklin and Johnson, perhaps Pens fans and management got a little spoiled by the performance of backup goaltending. That illusion has been shattered this season, as Johnson's magic in the bottle has seemingly been lost and he's been unable to make it through many of the games he's started. Johnson's been injured (with a murky, unknown, not discussed injury) this past month, so the team called up Brad Thiessen and gave the youngster a chance.

Thiessen, who just turned 26 last week, is in his third pro season, all with the Pens at the minor league level. He went undrafted but blossomed at Northeastern University and was a free agent in demand when he decided to sign with Pittsburgh. In the minors, Thiessen's played incredibly well, earning AHL goalie of the year honors last season with Wilkes-Barre. Frankly, it was about time to see what he could do with a chance at the NHL level to see what the Pens should do this summer when Johnson (and Thiessen's) contracts are up.

Through four games of the audition, you'd have to think Thiessen's stock has fallen in each game. His NHL action started with a fairly routine 3-2 win over Columbus, the worst team in the league, to 24 fairly routine and non-descript shots. Then Thiessen earned a 3-2 win against Toronto, again stopping 22 of 24 shots against a non-playoff caliber team.

So far, not so bad, right? The cracks would start to show against the Winnipeg Jets, another non-playoff team, and Thiessen was dinged on 4 of 24 shots. His defense did leave him out to dry a little in what was a fairly wide-open hockey game, so judging too harshly probably isn't fair. Then the Saturday night debacle where the Ottawa Senators seemingly fired pucks behind Thiessen at will (no thanks to an extremely pedistrian effort by the defense in front of him). Every team has clunkers, and after not losing in regulation in 14 games, perhaps Thiessen was just a victim of bad timing in his start.

Still, after 4 starts, he's surrendered 16 goals and has a save percentage of .849%. Obviously a lot skewered by one bad performance (by him and his team) but that's the tough reality of being a backup goalie: you're gonna get a very small sample size, and it's all going to come down to whether or not you stop the puck when you're called upon.

Thiessen's inability there has to open the question about his future. Johnson practiced for the first time recently, and possibly could be ready for a game before the end of the regular season, if the coach so chose. It will be interesting to see if they go back to the old vet or give the young pro another chance to get some game action.

If the team so chooses, several vet options are scheduled to hit the open market. Some candidates (which may not be a fit depending on the role, money, term length they want)could be: Tomas Vokoun, Alex Auld, Josh Harding or Ray Emery.

That said, Johnson at 35 has some positives in terms of his excellent rapport and friendship with Fleury as well as the familiarity with the team and system. Thiessen, still young and green, could definitely improve as he adapts to NHL level shooters and the speed of the game. Either way, one thing is clear, the Pens will be in the market to sign a backup goalie this summer. And the picture in the past few months based off of Johnson and Thiessen's play has only made things murkier.