One of the oldest notions in sports is that a hot goalie is akin to a master thief, able to steal a series like some genius safecracker of Victorian times. Detective novels ought to be written about how these gentleman purloiners make off with another team’s fortunes over the course of two weeks’ worth of nights.
But how true is all of this? Can you really have a rubbish team and take out another squad almost exclusively on the basis of who you have in net and what he has going for him? Can such a team win the Stanley Cup?
Regarding the latter question, in a word, no; the Cup requires too much, and while a hot goalie—or, better yet, a hot Hall of Fame goalie—does much of the work of the run to glory, many other parts are needed as well. You could, as they say, look it up.
But you could also look up something that’s perhaps more fun: those times when goalies who normally weren’t All-World anything, let alone postseason All-Stars, had the run of their lives, turning superior oppositions into pumpkins before, alas, our netminding friends themselves reverted to gourd form. Or, at least, something far removed from their one-time vernal virtuosity.
As we all wonder which keepers might be making like bandits this spring, let’s take a look back at five who provided sterling examples for those to follow.
5. Mario Gosselin, Quebec Nordiques, 1985 playoffs
Gosselin, nicknamed “The Goose,” was one tiny bird at 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds. That left a whole lot of net for shooters to select from, which Gosselin, over a checkered career, attempted to overcome with agility and reflexes and a glove hand that could cover a couple feet in a thrilling blur of a second.
He made an All-Star Game roster in 1986—despite a GAA near 4.00 and a .500 record—in part because of what he had done the year before in the playoffs after a regular season in which he went 19-11-3 with a 3.34 GAA. Okay, you’re going to want to look away from that .877 save percentage, but Gosselin was one of those guys who would be impenetrable on Tuesday, the kind of goalie you wanted to imitate the next day when you played street hockey, but the same netminder who would then sieve-it-up and let in eight with four softies.
Ironically, this made him an ideal candidate to have some electrifying playoff moments—for a brief period of time, of course. And that’s just what Gosselin did in the spring of 1985, when he backstopped Quebec past Buffalo three games to two in the first round, then was central to dispensing with the hated Canadiens in a combative seven-game series in which he had three OT wins. He got another in the first round of the next series against the Flyers, who ultimately ended the Nordiques’—and Gosselin's—run. But those Flyers were damn good, a team that would have had a couple Cups were it not for a certain mid-1980s dynasty in Edmonton. Plus, it’s fun to say, “Getting a goose from Gosselin!” and “the Goose can’t be cooked.” Until, naturally, he was.
4. Richard Brodeur, Vancouver Canucks, 1982 playoffs
For a while, the only thing, really, that Canucks had was their shocking playoff run in 1982 all the way to the Cup Final, where they met the lumber of the league, the New York Islanders, squarely in their collective jaw and were felled in four. Now, that was a strange time in the Campbell Conference, because the Kings, who were pretty terrible, had upset the Oilers, making matters something of a free-for-all.
Stepping into the breech was Canucks goalie Richard Brodeur, who was even smaller than Gosselin. But he, too, had a snappy nickname—King Richard, of course. Mutton and mead for all! Those ’82 playoffs were the King’s banquet table. Brodeur played parts of nine NHL seasons. Discounting the two in which he played six or fewer games, this was the only one when he finished over .500. There were no All-Star Games and little fanfare, monarch-based handle notwithstanding.
But man, did Brodeur get hot that spring. It’s one thing that he went 11-6; it’s another that his GAA was 2.70. At the time, that was shockingly miniscule. With Brodeur pulling up a throne seat in net, the Canucks only lost two games in winning their conference. And what’s more, this was one of those rare times in hockey history where finishing second was more than enough in and of itself. No one was going to beat that Islanders team, but the Canucks had their all-timer of a storybook.
3. Jean-Sebastian Giguere, Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, 2003 playoffs
Admit it: don’t you remember Giguere as as great goalie, probably one who copped some regular season hardware? Probably one of the best goalies in the league for a while? That, curiously, would be inaccurate. He finished fourth in Vezina voting once, and had a third place postseason All-Star selection, but the reason why we think of Giguere like we do is because of his postseason success—and, ironically, his postseason success in the year when he got his team to the Finals and lost, rather than the year the Ducks took the Cup.
In the 2003 playoffs, Giguere was insane, posting a .945 save percentage and 1.62 GAA. Granted, this was a time when grinders ruled, everybody trapped and teams tried to work some strange alchemy where it was possible to win 0-0, but your eyeballs tell you when a goalie is the hockey version of the Human Torch, flames all but coming off of him. Those Ducks were a pretty solid team, but there’s a reason why Giguere won the Conn Smythe on a losing team, and that’s because if the entire worthiness of your career was boiled down to a month long sample, the man who inspired people to say daft things like “getting Giggy with it,” would be a top ten goalie of all-time. Alas, careers, and lives, don’t work that way. But playoff magic does.
2. Jaroslav Halak, Montreal Canadiens, 2010 playoffs
When we talk about Alexander Ovechkin’s playoff failings, which become more laughable or pitiable by the year, depending upon how you feel about the player, we do him a disservice when we don’t add a caveat for the year the Caps faced Halak and the Habs. Halak is a dependable NHL goalie—very solid, not exceptional, a journeyman with a couple of top ten Vezina finishes. But he went otherworldly in the 2010 playoffs, and to understand what planets he ventured to, you almost had to have seen him.
The stats won’t rock your world—a 9-9 record, with a 2.55 GAA—but that just underscores that a hot playoff goalie, the kind of goalie who gets in the head of everyone else on the opposing team, is like porn: you know what’s going on when you see it. That Canadiens squad was so pedestrian. They struggled to score, while the Caps, their first round opponent, did not. Nor did their second round foe, the Penguins. It took seven games each series to do it, but the Canadiens were twice victorious. Want to guestimate how much this had to do with Halak? Saying he was ninety-five percent of the reason might be understating his dominance. If a player ever could have won the Conn Smythe without getting out of his conference, it was Halak this year.
1. Steve Penney, Montreal Canadiens, 1984 playoffs
The Canadiens are good at this whole “unlikely goalie being awesome in the playoffs” thing: The league didn’t know that Ken Dryden would turn out to be Ken Dryden when he did it in 1971, nor that Patrick Roy was conceivably the best goalie ever when he started down that campaign trail in ’86. In between there was Steve Penney, whose name still resounds like the footsteps of a monster in a nightmare for Bruins fans.
Penney actually played in eighteen regular season games for that 1985-86 Canadiens squad. His career lasted parts of five seasons. In the last two, he played in a total of fifteen games. He was out of the league by 26. In his rookie season of 1983-84, he played four games during the season. But there he was between the pipes for the opening round against the B’s. The Canadiens finished four games under .500; the Bruins were twenty-four games over. Penny, though, was impenetrable. He gave up two goals in the three-game sweep. After the Canadiens took out the Nordiques in six, they won the first two games against the Islanders, with the first being a Penney shutout. This was well beyond reasonable, no matter how topsy-turvy the hockey gods wanted to make matters. The Isles were on their Drive for Five, the Canadiens featured a lot of leftovers from the 1970s—hell, a very diminished Guy Lafleur led them in scoring with 70 points in the 1980s, when 70 points was within the purview of a third liner.
The clock didn’t so much as strike midnight on Penny’s playoff run—for there was glory in taking the Isles to six, before bowing out—as his entire career. He was decent the next year, but that would be all the gods wrote. Apparently they sometimes prefer a single glorious moment over a stretch of more consistent ones. But hey, who doesn’t sometimes?