The playoffs are upon us and along with the anticipation are questions concerning the goaltending around the league. Who is positioned best? Who is freshest? Who has question marks?
Let's begin by ranking the top five goaltenders and go from there:
1.Ryan Miller (Sabres)... best goalie in the game today2.Ilya Bryzgalov (Coyotes)... brilliant season in which he was hot more than not3. Martin Brodeur Devils)...not playing much during Olympics has him rested and ready4. Roberto Luongo (Canucks)... is there such a thing as a ho-hum 40-win season?5. Marc-Andre Fleury (Penguins)... defending champ yet to establish top form
From there, I would rank Washington's Jose Theodore-Semyon Varlamov tandem sixth, followed by San Jose's Evgeni Nabokov (who still has to prove he can deliver on the big stage), rookies Jimmy Howard (Detroit) and Tuukka Rask (Boston, along with Tim Thomas), Nashville's Pekka Rinne and Dan Ellis, Montreal's Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price, Colorado's Craig Anderson, Ottawa's Brian Elliott and Pascal Leclaire, Chicago's Antti Niemi and Cristobal Huet, L.A.'s Jon Quick and Philadelpia's Brian Boucher.
Of the assured starters, only Brodeur and Fleury have led their teams to the Stanley Cup. So has Chris Osgood, but Howard secured Detroit's starting job early on this season. I bring this up because we know experience in delivering is a key ingredient to a team's ability to win it all. But it isn't everything when you consider that three of the last four seasons saw the Stanley Cup-winning team make a goalie change during the playoff run:
Cam Ward took over from Martin Gerber for the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, J-S Giguere of Anaheim, didn't start the first four games of the playoffs in 2007 as he tended to the needs of his newborn son before taking over from backup Bryzgalov in Game 5 of the first round; Osgood replaced Dominik Hasek in round one in 2008, eventually backstopping the Red Wings to victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Only Fleury has gone wire-to-wire since the lockout. He stands among a group of definitive number one netminders that includes Miller, Bryzgalov, Brodeur, Luongo and Nabokov (see notes above). All are veterans who played well over 60 games and poor play or injury to any of them would scuttle their teams' hopes of playoff success. Howard played 63 games, but enters the postseason at this level for the first time. If he should slip, Osgood has a lengthy playoff resume and could step in to possibly stem the tide, although he barely saw any action over the past three months.
In Quick and Anderson, you have two goalies without NHL playoff pedigree, although they did play more than 60 games during the regular campaign. Both were brilliant for much of the season only to falter noticeably since the Olympic break. As such, they enter the postseason tournament as question marks. Backups Erik Ersberg and Peter Budaj have little in the way of playoff experience, so continued pedestrian play by their struggling starters does not bode well for either the Kings or Avalanche.
At the other end of the spectrum you have Rinne in Nashville and Rask in Boston. Both got hot and solidified themselves as the starters heading into the playoffs. Rask is a rookie, yet he led the NHL in goals-against and save percentage. If he should wilt under the bright lights, though, last year's Vezina Trophy-winner (Thomas) is there to pick up the Bruins. It's a positive position and it isn't as if Thomas sat idle all season behind Rask -- as was the case in Detroit with Howard and Osgood. Both guys appeared in over 40 contests. If needed, Thomas will be ready and able.
Rinne's situation is more in line with what went down in Chicago where coach Joel Quenneville was looking for either goalie to claim the starter's role down the stretch. Rinne wrested it away from Ellis, as did Niemi from Huet for the Blackhawks. In both cases, platooning was the norm most of the way, due to inconsistency rather than design. Both Quenneville and his Predators' counterpart, Barry Trotz, hope their goaltenders continue to deliver competently. If either should show signs of weakness, however, the coaches will be quick to make a change. Against that backdrop, with these two teams meeting in the first round, this series is the best bet to see all four goaltenders at some point.
In Ottawa and Montreal, the situations are similar to those in Nashville and Chicago. The Senators traded for Leclaire a year ago hoping he'd be their number one guy. He struggled most of the year and Elliott stepped in and put together a run before the Olympic break that carried the Senators to the playoffs. The Habs continue to wait for Price to elevate to definitive starter status. When they could wait no longer, Halak proved capable after a fine showing in the Olympics and he's played well enough to allow the Canadiens to sneak into the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The difference from the scenario in west is that neither Elliott nor Halak played (red) lights out in the waning games of the season. After posting back-to-back shutouts to begin April, Halak went 0-1-2 while surrendering 11 goals. Elliott, meanwhile, allowed four goals twice and three twice in his last four starts. Further, the guys behind them aren't a sure thing, either, as Halak played every game in April with Price getting just five starts since the Olympics. Leclaire likewise has played only five times since the NHL resumed and he gave up five goals in three of them, including the last game of the season. In other words, the guys starting in Ottawa in Montreal are doing so to some degree by default.
Speaking of playing by default, look at Boucher in Philadelphia. He stepped in no fewer than three times and took over as the starter. The Flyers signed seven 'tenders this season and used five. Each time it kept coming back to Boucher. Ideal? Hardly. The Flyers signed Boucher to back up Ray Emery and play sparingly. Still, give Boucher huge props for showing immense mettle in playing well over the past two weeks and winning the final game of the season in a shootout to allow the Flyers to claim the seventh seed. It is not how you'd draw it up, but Boucher found the inner resolve to make it work.
Which brings us to the Capitals' situation. Theodore hasn't lost in regulation since the middle of January. His elevated play makes him the starter heading into the playoffs again this season. Last year, coach Bruce Boudreau dramatically switched to rookie Varlamov in the first round against the Rangers. Varlamov came in and won that series in seven games. He went seven as well against the Penguins in round two, following that up with an injury-plagued season of inconsistency. Still, I think Theodore wants to rebound from last year's hook, especially since he is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. His motivation is both team and personal.
If Varlamov should again get the call, his motivation is in the chance to flush away a frustrating regular season with a stellar playoff run. Either way, I see the Caps goaltending as a strength and not, as many do, a weakness. True, I'm arriving at that conclusion unconventionally, but you can't discount personal motivation even when winning the Stanley Cup seems like it would be enough.