By Allan Muir
The NHL announced on Wednesday morning that Henrik Lundqvist, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Antti Niemi are the three finalists for the Vezina Trophy, awarded “to the goalkeeper adjudged to be the best at his position,” as voted on by the league’s 30 general managers.
It stacks up as an historic group. For the first time, all three finalists are from Europe. But the history isn’t likely to end there.
Six months ago, there wasn’t a pundit, fan or insider who would have predicted Bobrovsky as a finalist, let alone the presumptive favorite. Cast out by the Flyers, he was brought in to Columbus to compete for the starting job with incumbent Steve Mason. But after a slow start — he won just three of his first 12 games — Bobrovsky found his rhythm, carrying the Blue Jackets on an unlikely quest for the playoffs that fell just short on the season’s final night.
It wasn’t just about the numbers with Bobrovsky, although they look pretty good: 2.00 GAA and .932 save percentage. It was his caliber of play behind a defense that ranked 28th in the league only a year earlier. Although the team improved in front of him, there were more nights than not when he was the reason the Blue Jackets pocketed the points.
Unless the GMs completely blow this one, Bobrovsky will be the first winner from a non-playoff team since 1982, and the first Russian-born goalie ever to win the award.
Niemi quietly put together the best season of his career for the Sharks, posting a 2.16 GAA and .924 save percentage. He led the NHL in wins (24), starts (43), minutes-played (2,581) and, vitally, shootout wins. The Sharks earned eight extra points in the skills competition with Niemi between the pipes, a critical factor for a team that finished just two points ahead of ninth-place Columbus. He might suffer from a conservative style that doesn’t lend itself to memorable highlight-reel moments, but Niemi was as good as anyone when it came to stopping pucks.
A five-time finalist, Lundqvist put up a strong defense of his 2012 Vezina win, tying Niemi for the league lead in starts and wins, and finishing the season with a flourish, allowing two goals or fewer in 16 of his final 20 starts. He went 13-5-2 with a 1.77 GAA and .935 save percentage over that stretch as he willed the Rangers into sixth spot in the East.
There are arguments to be made for the candidacies of Boston’s Tuukka Rask, whose numbers (2.00 and .929) were virtually identical to those of Bobrovsky, and Ottawa’s Craig Anderson, who led the league in both GAA (1.69) and save percentage (.941) but only played 24 games. Ultimately, though, they were all fighting for second place. This award is going home with Bobrovsky.