By Stu Hackel
There's been some thinking around hockey in the past few years that teams can win in the playoffs without great goaltending, that merely good performances in net will do the trick if the other 18 players on the team are well coached and all of them execute. The Red Wings -- the most successful NHL team of recent times -- are largely responsible for this thinking because they've won the Stanley Cup with goaltenders who have made the saves when needed but were not among the elite at the position. Detroit GM Ken Holland, himself a former goalie, holds the theory that he's not going to overpay for an elite netminder when he can have a less expensive but competent one. He'd rather spend money on a deep defense and impact forwards. You can't argue with his team's track record.
Then you watch what the Bruins' Tim Thomas did on Monday night in Philadelphia or what the Predators' Pekka Rinne did in Games 1 and 2 in Vancouver, and what the Dwayne Roloson of the Lightning did in Washington -- three goalies stoning three strong teams with strong offensive talent -- and you wonder why anyone would listen to Kenny Holland.
Roloson's .947 save percentage is best among all regular NHL playoff goalies so far and he held the fort as the Bolts stormed back from a 3-1 hole to eliminate the Penguins in the first round. He gave up just four goals on 98 shots in the final three games. That included 36 stops in his 1-0 shutout in Game 7. He's never lost an elimination game in the Stanley Cup playoffs, by the way, winning all six he's been in with a .951 save percentage -- and in Edmonton, they still think that Roli might have led the Oilers to the Stanley Cup in 2006 had he not been injured during Game 1 of the final against the Hurricanes.
Acquired from the Islanders in early January for young defensive prospect Ty Wishart, the 41-year old Roloson shored up an obvious weakness in goal. He had been the Islanders' top player early in the season, but they were (once again) rebuilding with youth. Tampa Bay is certainly happy on their end. Roloson has become one of only three goalies in NHL history to have won at least six games in the playoffs as a 40-year-old. Jacques Plante, 40, won eight in 1969 for the Blues, and at 42 Dominik Hasek won 10 for the Red Wings in 2007. That's some pretty good company.
Lightning defenders have allowed Roloson to see most of the shots directed at him -- and there were 65 over the course of the first two games of the series. He got in the way of all but four, pretty good when you consider the firepower the Caps have. He flicked away this chance by Alex Ovechkin in the last game, displaying a certain nonchalance...
...but he comes off as a bit taciturn in interviews and knows how to wear his game face. “He’s such a competitor, even in practice,” Lightning forward Steven Stamkos told Jeff Z. Klein of The New York Times in his feature about Roloson. “But he’s a great team guy; he always wants to be around the guys, go out for dinner. But when it’s time to be serious, he’s that guy.”
As great as Thomas and Roloson have been -- and they've been great -- the save of the playoffs so far is being credited to Nashville's Rinne, who had an easy time in Game 2 during regulation, but was forced into greatness of his own during 35 minutes of overtime. The Sedin twins are catching some heat in Vancouver for not scoring much since the middle of the series against the Blackhawks, but Rinne had a lot to do with keeping them off the score sheet on Sunday. Early in the first OT period, he made a fine kick save on Henrik, who could have ended the OT right there.
But that was nothing compared to what happened toward the end of the period. Daniel Sedin got a pass from his brother, then found Kevin Bieksa all alone to Rinne's right. Bieksa redirected the pass goalward but Rinne moved with him.
"It almost looked like an aborted cartwheel attempt," wrote David Boclair in Nashville's City Paper. "More like a shortstop than a goaltender," thought Roy MacGregor in The Globe and Mail. However one describes it, the save kept Nashville alive until Matt Halischuk's game-winner (video), ending the longest playoff outing in Nashville's franchise history.
"If the impossible were actually to happen – a team whose top scorer managed barely 50 points in the regular season going all the way to the Stanley Cup Final – they will say it was all about goaltending," wrote MacGregor. "And if the Cup is won, they will talk about The Save."
Then there's Thomas, who made 52 saves -- 46 in a row after allowing the Flyers' second goal -- in Boston's 3-2 overtime victory that gave them a 2-0 lead in that series.
That video really doesn't do complete justice to his virtuoso play. With Philadelphia flying from the drop of the puck, making up for an awful Game 1, they attacked the net with such power that an observer had to be forgiven for thinking every rush would end up with the puck in the net, like their first chance did. It was finished off by James van Riemsdyk.
Young van Riemsdyk, a New Jersey kid who was a product of USA Hockey's National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor before spending two years at the University of New Hampshire, was dazzlingly dominant throughout the game. The cliché that a player was a threat during every shift he was on the ice is often an overstatement, but it wasn't last night with van Riemsdyk. He also scored the Flyers second goal (video) on the power play midway through the period and he kept coming, his 32 shifts and 28 minutes of ice time the most of any forward on either team as coach Peter Laviolette put the whip to him.
But Boston countered with two quick goals not long after falling behind 2-0. And while the Philly fans chanted "JVR! JVR!" and their team continued to barrel down hard toward the net like a fleet of trucks on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Thomas detoured them repeatedly by contorting his body in ways you don't expect from a 37-year-old goalie. Instead of ending up behind him, the puck came to rest under him or he redirected it momentarily out of danger.
The Flyers exploited Boston's defensive shortcomings and fired 22 shots on goal in the third period alone, a good night's work for many goalies. The last one coming as the clock ticked down on regulation and van Riemsdyk pirouetted to rip one right off the faceoff.
“Timmy stole the game for us tonight,’’ said Boston defenseman Dennis Seidenberg, who perhaps has never played better himself. “We gave them too many odd-man rushes and breakaways, but Timmy was really good tonight.’’
"It’s incredible to think the Bruins were trying to peddle the 37-year-old Thomas in the offseason and found no takers," wrote Christopher L. Gasper in The Boston Globe.
Yeah, I know, he was coming off hip surgery and a down season and had a $5 million price tag. But you don’t think there are some Cup contenders out there who are kicking themselves for not bringing Thomas aboard?
"After two games, it’s obvious that he is the single biggest advantage the Bruins have over the Flyers in this series, and you wonder if he were healthy last year whether the Bruins’ epic collapse against Philadelphia ever would have taken place."
Ken Holland may be right, but there are three teams who are pretty happy they have guys who know how to make the stops when they have to.