By Stu Hackel
It’s the oldest adage in the game: You win in the playoffs with great goaltending. But sometimes you win with only good or even average goaltending (as we pointed out a year ago when we looked at how the postseason clubs were fixed at the position on the eve of the annual tournament), but no one can deny how much Tim Thomas meant to the Bruins in their march to the Stanley Cup last season. His winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP marked the 15th time that a goalie has been so honored since the trophy was first presented in 1965.
Suffice to say, it’s hard to go anywhere in the spring if you have a leaky guy standing — or falling — in the crease, so with the playoffs only nine days away, here’s how each Eastern Conference club’s goaltending shapes up. Click here for out Western breakdown
Boston Bruins – The guy who, when he’s on top of his game, is the best goalie in hockey, hasn’t always been on top of his game during the second half of the season. His save percentage dipped under .920 and plunged to .884 in March. That doesn’t mean that Tim Thomas and the B’s are doomed, of course; far from it. He knows what it takes to win the Stanley Cup and that can never be discounted. But perhaps there will be some doubt heading into the first round. Boston’s problem is compounded by the groin injury to Tuukka Rask that has kept him sidelined for a month. Even if he recovers in time for the postseason, the time off could have an impact on his sharpness. Marty Turco is not eligible for postseason play, having signed with the B’s after the cutoff date, so if Rask can’t go, Thomas’s backup would be AHLer Anton Khudobin, who is coming off an injury of his own.
Buffalo Sabres – Their two losses over the weekend dropped them out of the top eight, but they’re still a possible playoff participant, and while he was not at his best in those two games, no team is going to want to face Ryan Miller if the Sabres get in. He’s just gone through a terrific two months (19-4-5 with a 1.88 goals-against average and .938 save percentage since Jan. 24) and appears to have his confidence back. If they do get in, he’ll be a big reason why. Backup Jhonas Enroth has only 17 minutes of Stanley Cup experience and has hardly played at all in the second half.
Florida Panthers – Having done a fine job — better than expected — for the overhauled Panthers, Jose Theodore also has a good deal of playoff experience, as lots of Florida’s veterans do. There could be some concern that he’s not heading into the playoffs at his best, however. Theo’s lost five straight decisions, but two were in shootouts. In fact, his biggest problem seems to come in the skills competition; he’s lost seven this season. Thankfully for him (and the rest of us), there are no shootouts in the postseason. If he gets hot, No Way Jose can carry this team. Backup Scott Clemmensen has only seven minutes of Stanley Cup net time and very little playoff experience at any level of hockey, so unless Theodore’s game disintegrates, expect him to stay planted on the pine.
New Jersey Devils – It’s been a good bounce-back season for this team, and both Marty Brodeur and Johan Hedberg have played important roles. While the Devs don’t rely quite as much on team defense as they did during their Cup years (they keep their shots-against down through puck possession), their goaltenders still have to make timely saves — and for the most part, they have. Even if he’s not quite as consistent as he once was, no active goalie has Marty’s playoff resume or experience and that counts in springtime. Hedberg’s playoff experience is more limited, but if Marty falters, he’s a capable alternative.
New York Rangers – Many observers are touting Henrik Lundqvist for the Vezina Trophy this season with good reason. He’s been the difference for New York on many nights, especially in tight games. But there are indications that he’s faded in recent weeks, such as the soft game-winning goal he surrendered Sunday night against the Bruins. A healthy backup, Marty Biron, has helped keep King Henrik’s workload down this season, but Lundqvist’s stats in March were his worst of the season (2.50 goals-against average, .897 save percentage) and there has to be concern that he’s tiring, even though he’s played his fewest regular season games since his rookie season of 2005-06. Could be he’s still suffering the aftereffects of the flu in mid-March, but maybe not. He’s never had a deep playoff run before (only two series victories in five trips to the postseason), so this will be a big test of Lundqvist’s durability. If he’s needed, Biron has had some playoff experience and would give New York a stronger alternative than many other teams have.
Ottawa Senators – One of the league’s biggest surprise teams benefitted from Craig Anderson’s strong play. He responded well to his recent adversity, when a finger injury kept him out of the lineup for nearly a month. After some shaky moments in his first two games, he’s returned to his usual form, and everyone in Ottawa is breathing a little easier, especially after his 44-save game in Winnipeg last week. The biggest downside here is that Anderson has limited playoff experience at any level, having never won more than two games or played in more than six at any level since junior hockey. Big rookie Ben Bishop, who was excellent as an injury fill-in for Anderson, has a groin problem and his fitness for the playoffs is uncertain. Veteran Alex Auld is the current backup and his career playoff experience is even less than Anderson’s.
Philadelphia Flyers – Everyone knows how awful the playoff netminding has been for the Flyers during the last 25 years, and it looked like Ilya Bryzgalov was going to cure that. After a wildly inconsistent first few months in Philly, Mr. Universe was outstanding in March (10-2-1, 1.43, .947) until he suffered a chip fracture in his foot on the 25th. Now there has to be some worrying in Philly, but the Flyers don’t seem to share it. They expect him to be in goal on Tuesday and must expect that he’ll be back to top form by the playoffs, since coach Peter Laviolette proclaimed Bryz would be his playoff starter despite backup Sergei Bobrovski’s excellent play while defeating the Penguins on Sunday. In fact, “Bob” has never lost a game in Pittsburgh, who almost certainly will be the Flyers’ first round foe. No matter, says Laviolette, Bryzgalov will be the guy. He’s only won one postseason series during his NHL career, back in ’06 as a Mighty Duck, and was the backup the next season when J-S Giguerre was the starter for Cup champion Anaheim.
Pittsburgh Penguins – He may or may not be among the NHL’s goalkeeping elite, but regardless, Marc-Andre Fleury backstopped the Penguins to the 2009 Stanley Cup and to the 2008 Final, so he has loads of playoff experience. That tells you all you need to know about whether the Pens are confident they’ll be OK with their goaltending this spring. They won’t feel that way if Fleury can’t shake his current slump, however. He’s lost three straight, stopped only 79 percent of the shots he’s faced, been pulled once, and allowed 14 goals in those three outings — easily his worst stretch of the season. Brent Johnson backs him up, but it’s been 10 years since he’s played a full playoff game.
Washington Capitals – Getting outshot with regularity, the Caps will need their goaltending to be at its best this spring if they make the playoffs and hope to advance past the second round, which they haven’t done since going to the Cup final in 1998. Tomas Vokoun, who has had very little postseason experience, was — and still might be — the playoff starter, but he’s currently out battling a persistent groin strain. Michal Neuvirth has taken over and was their guy last spring, acquitting himself quite nicely at times. He hadn’t played especially well heading into Saturday’s game against Montreal, but a strong 39-save performance in a key match for the Caps’ playoff hopes had his teammates and coaches raving. If Neuvirth continues, rushing Vokoun back from his injury will be less critical. Rookie Braden Holtby is on the bench. Some thought he might get the playoff call when he was summoned from the AHL, but Holtby showed his inexperience in losing to the Sabres last week, handling the puck poorly and not making enough saves.
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