By Stu Hackel
The Stanley Cup playoffs won’t be here for another two weeks, but it’s a good time to look ahead and see which clubs have problematic goaltending heading into the postseason. Because, after all, you need great goaltending to win in the playoffs — except when you don’t.
Forever, it seems, the “great playoff goaltending” axiom gets trotted out annually. If it’s not the most overused cliché in hockey, that’s only because Conn Smythe’s immortal “If you can’t beat ‘em in the alley, you can’t beat ‘em on the ice” is more primal. But there’s some evidence that this theory needs a bit of refinement.
Exhibit A: Who was the best goalie in last year’s playoffs? It was easily Jaroslav Halak of the Canadiens. But Montreal didn’t win their 25th Stanley Cup. They were dispatched by the Flyers, who had far more uncertain goaltending, in the Conference Championships. In fact, the Blackhawks-Flyers series that followed featured some of the most leaky netminding ever seen in a Cup final.
Exhibit B: No team in the post-dynasty era has won more championships than the Red Wings. But Ken Holland’s organizational philosophy hasn’t been based on acquiring the best goalie that money can buy. Rather, he’s been comfortable and successful with a good-to-very good netminder playing behind a strong, mobile defense corps, and it’s on the blueline where he chooses to spend his (or, more precisely, Mike Illitch’s) money.
Still, advancing in the playoffs can be so dependent on goaltending that TSN’s Bob McKenzie joked last spring that the sport should be renamed “Goalie” when mid-April rolls around. Surrendering a bad goal at a crucial time can deflate a team and cost a series. It’s probably never been more true than now, with overstuffed goalies allowing shooters to see so little of the net, and their techniques so sophisticated and systematic. We expect them to stop pretty much everything. Some of them even do — and if you watched Tim Thomas’s agility while making 35 saves for the Bruins against the Flyers on Sunday while beating them 2-1…
…. you saw a good example.
With that in mind, let’s look at the playoff -bound teams and see who seems solid and where questions still linger:
Flyers: Their goaltending has been a subject of conjecture every year since the end of Ron Hextall’s first tenure in orange. Some of that is myth, some of it reality, but neither Sean Burke, Roman Cechmanek, Robert Esche, Antero Niittymaki nor Marty Biron, to name a few, have been able to return the Cup to Philly. This year, there is hope that rookie Sergei Bobrovski will prevail where others have failed, but until any rookie on any team overcomes playoff pressure, the suspicions will remain. Brian Boucher, whose inconsistency forced coach Peter Laviolette to alternate him with the equally inconsistent Michael Leighton last spring, could also be in there, or out of there.
Capitals: It doesn’t seem as if the Caps know which of their three goalies — Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth or Braden Holtby – will be their guy. Only Varlamov (who hasn’t won in the two games he’s played this month) has playoff experience, but he’s been injured a great deal this season. Coach Bruce Boudreau has shown in the past that he’s not adverse to switching goaltenders mid-series — even mid-game. Of course, that hasn’t worked yet, either.
Bruins: Boston doesn’t have any problems in goal. Thomas is at the top of the league for good reason and backup Tuukka Rask — although prone to public temper tantrums if he feels his defenders miss assignments (not great for team harmony) — has been almost as good.
Penguins: If anyone wants an explanation how they have continued winning despite their mountain of injuries, Marc-Andre Fleury’s play is a good place to start.
He’s been exceptional after a shaky first month, probably the Pens’ MVP, and he’s well-backed by Brent Johnson. The Pens won’t have any troubles here.
Lightning: GM Steve Yzerman traded for Dwayne Roloson in December to stabilize his goaltending and it worked wonderfully– until recently. Roloson’s 41, however, and his defense makes him work pretty hard. It could be that he’s wearing out. He’s won only two of 10 games this month. Mike Smith hasn’t played regularly since December. This situation bears watching.
Canadiens: The Habs are very banged up and don’t score much. In fact, until Tuesday, they weren’t scoring at all. Only Carey Price has saved them from an embarrassing season and he’s as good as it gets in the NHL. Montreal has problems, but as long as Price is right, goaltending isn’t one of them.
Rangers: The plan this season was for Marty Biron to play a good number of games, giving Henrik Lundqvist the kind of rest he didn’t get heading into previous playoffs. Then Biron broke his collarbone in late February and King Henrik has been the lone Ranger in goal ever since. He doesn’t seem to be fading, however, and is among the NHL’s elite in net.
Sabres: Ryan Miller hasn’t had a Ryan Miller kind of season, but he looks like he’s turned the corner during the last five weeks with nine wins, a couple of shutouts, better movement and a sharper focus.
He looks like Ryan Miller again.
UPDATE: Miller was apparently injured on Tuesday night against the Maple Leafs and a scratch for Wednesday’s game against the Rangers. There’s no minimizing what his loss would mean to the Sabres playoff hopes. Coach Lindy Ruff is rumored to have little confidence in Patrick Lalime, who has also been injured, and Jhonas Enroth may be the direction Ruff takes first.
Hurricanes: Should they sneak in, they will have done so because they have Cam Ward, the 2006 Conn Smythe winner, who stopped 38 Caps shots on Tuesday to keep hope alive. As ‘Canes TV announcer John Forsland always reminds viewers, no one says “No” better than Cam Ward.
Canucks: They have depth everywhere, especially in net. Both Roberto Luongo and Corey Schneider have had excellent seasons. Alongside Boston’s Rask, Schneider is perhaps the best backup in the NHL. But Bobby Lu is the main guy, and taking the “C” off his mask last fall has allowed him to focus more on stopping pucks and have the best season of his career.
Red Wings: Jimmy Howard is scheduled to return on Wednesday, after injuring his shoulder on this play:
It wasn’t as bad as initially thought, but Howard has been struggling lately anyway, and it could be that the injury that has kept Chris Osgood out of the lineup prevented Howard from getting the rest he needs. Joey McDonald is currently the backup, but the Wings are going to need Howard at his best to make a deep run. Right now, that’s not a certainty.
Sharks: They’ve returned to the top of the Pacific Division after a shaky first half and, just as he provided for Chicago last year as a rookie, Antti Niemi has been a very good second-half goalie. Despite the fact that his name is on the Stanley Cup, however, Niemi was no standout for the Hawks. At least now he’s familiar with the rigors of the postseason, and experience is half the battle. Regardless, the Sharks will be quite happy if he helps them achieve the same result that Chicago got in June.
Kings: They’re going to need Jonathan Quick or Jonathan Bernier to be at the top of their games without the team’s top two scoring threats, Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams, in the lineup. Quick and Bernier are certainly capable and have a strong defense in front of them. Bernier, who’ll be the back-up, stopped all 32 Oilers shots to blank them on Tuesday. Goaltending is the least of L.A.’s worries.
Coyotes: No worries in Phoenix about Ilya Bryzgalov. His 44-save effort against Dallas on Tuesday was just another night at the office for him. He’s in the top five in many goalie stat categories, the top 10 in all of them. And the Coyotes are giving away Bryzgalov bobbleheads to the first 10,000 fans to enter Jobing.com Arena on Friday, so you know they think a lot of him (and no jokes, please, about whether they’ll draw enough fans to give away all 10,000).
Predators: Hockey’s best kept goaltending secret is in Nashville, where 6-foot-5 Pekka Rinne has put together a Vezina Trophy-caliber season. He’s big, he’s quick, his stats are just behind those of Tim Thomas — and he’s played eight more games than his Boston counterpart.
Rinne’s only deficiency, other than not warning his teammates when an opponent is coming out of the penalty box, might be that he’s an inch shorter than his partner, Anders Lindback, who has played well as a rookie backup. Together, their 13 feet of goaltending give the Predators all they’ll need this spring.
Ducks: Anaheim probably won’t be able to count on Jonas Hiller coming back to full strength in time for the playoffs. He lasted less than 12 minutes against Nashville last week before coach Randy Carlyle pulled him after he surrendered three goals on nine shots. Ray Emery seems to have Carlyle’s confidence at the moment – and he hasn’t lost a game for Anaheim yet. Emery has more baggage than a Louis Vuitton outlet store, but he’s been to the dance before with the Senators. If Hiller doesn’t return, former Lightning and Predators goalie Dan Ellis could be the backup.
Blackhawks: They won the Cup last year with a rookie goalie and they’ll use another one this year: Corey Crawford. Like Niemi, he’ll have the benefit of a well-coached team with some excellent, defensively aware players in front of him. He’s admitted to some nervousness before big games, but hasn’t played an obviously nervous goal. Still, a lot will be on the line in a couple of weeks and Crawford is unproven at this level.
Stars: They still have a slim outside shot, slimmer after losing a post-game skills competition on Tuesday to Phoenix, but have gotten strong goaltending from Kari Lehtonen this season. He’s battled back from injuries suffered during the past few years, working hard on his conditioning and technique. He’s faced a lot of rubber and made the saves. If nothing else, Dallas has found a goalie for the foreseeable future.
Flames: Their chances are flickering, but they would have Miikka Kiprusoff behind them and, as he often does, he’d give them a chance to win almost every night.