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 just 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 the each Western Conference clubs goaltending shapes up. Click here for our Eastern breakdown.
Chicago Blackhawks -- It's been an up and down season for the team (big losing streaks followed by winning streaks) and its netminders. In net, there's probably been too many downs to make the fans or the brass very comfortable. No team will go into playoffs having allowed more goals, but Corey Crawford has raised his game in the last month, going 7-1-1 with a 1.96 goals-against average and .914 save percentage, stats that have put everyone a little more at ease. A good showing in the first round last year against the Canucks provided him with some valuable experience. Ray Emery backs up Crawford, and while he's has been good in that role, and battled admirably, he's had his struggles, too, as he showed (especially with rebounds) on Sunday night against the Wild. Still, Emery has postseason experience as recently as last season for the Ducks and has a big run to the Cup final with Ottawa in 2007 on his resume.
Colorado Avalanche -- Their hopes of making the postseason are slim, but they've pinned them -- and whatever chance they'd get if they make it -- on Semyon Varlamov. After a rocky start, he solidified his hold on the Number 1 spot over J.S. Giguere in the second half and has posted back-to-back months with goals-against averages under 2.00 in February and March. He has Stanley Cup experience from his days with the Capitals and also some playoff time while playing in the Russian Elite League for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. He's also been Russia's netminder at the World Junior Championships and Mens' World Championships. Jiggy, of course, had one of the great goaltending performances in Stanley Cup history in 2003, when he won the Conn Smythe Trophy with the losing Mighty Ducks, but he hasn't played regularly since February.
Dallas Stars -- Quite simply, Kari Lehtonen has been the key to their season from the outset. He not only has put up very good numbers (his .923 save percentage ranks fifth best among NHL goalies who have played at least 40 games; his 2.31 GAA is sixth among that 40-plus group), he's also made the big saves when needed. That's something that can't be quantified. When he's on his game, the Stars always have a chance. His NHL playoff experience is limited (just two games for the Thrashers in 2007), and while there's no real substitute for Stanley Cup hockey, he's had a good deal of professional postseason experience in the AHL and Europe, as well as representing Finland at the World Junior Championships and the Men's World Championships. Rookie Richard Bachman backs him up and his playoff experience has been limited at all levels.
Detroit Red Wings -- Injuries have plagued their goaltending during the last couple of months. Jimmy Howard was putting together a very strong season when he was sidelined by a broken finger. Then developed groin problems. He's played only 10 of the team's 27 games since early February, but he came back this past weekend and looked to be finding his groove again. Backup Joey MacDonald is fighting a bad back, so Ty Conklin has returned from the AHL and gotten mixed results. Howard's top-notch play will be needed for the banged-up Wings to advance, especially if they can't secure home ice advantage in the first round.
Los Angeles Kings -- On a team that struggles to score, Jonathan Quick has kept the Kings in a lot of games and the playoff hunt, as his 1.92 goals-against average and nine shutouts -- both stats tied for tops in the league -- attest. He can only be an asset in playoff hockey when tight games are the rule. Sometimes unfairly excluded when the top goalies in the league are mentioned, Quick has been stellar for the last month, winning nine of 12 decisions, and rather consistent all season. He's backstopped L.A. in the playoffs in each of the last two years, but he's still looking for his first series win. Talented backup Jonathan Bernier has had no Stanley Cup experience, but plenty of playoff games in minor pro and junior as well as international play.
Nashville Predators -- Some believe that big Pekka Rinne is the best goalie in the NHL, and when he's at his best, it's tough to argue with that assessment. His league-best 42 wins speak to his workhorse character, but he's also played more minutes during the season than any playoff goalie and has allowed five goals twice and four twice in his last 10 games. So he'll have to dispel lingering doubts about whether he's wearing down from overwork and can hold up this spring. He backstopped the Preds to their only series win in franchise history last season. Behind him is Anders Lindback, who is even bigger than Rinne, but no threat to dislodge him from the Number 1 spot.
Phoenix Coyotes -- Finally getting a chance to play regularly after years as a backup or splitting duties with another netminder, Mike Smith has been the Coyotes' MVP this season during another year of uncertainty and limited offense in Glendale. Smith got better as the season progressed, with an 11-0 record in February and three shutouts in March, including two straight. As far as the Coyotes will go this spring is as far as Smith can take them. His Stanley Cup experience is limited, however, to the three games he played for the Lightning last spring. Jason LaBarbera, the career backup, has never been in a Stanley Cup game.
San Jose Sharks -- Never the most consistent of goalies, Antti Niemi nevertheless knows what it takes to win the Stanley Cup, having done so with the Blackhawks two seasons ago. He's had a decent season and turned up his game in the last couple of weeks as the Sharks made a push for the playoffs. With two deep playoff runs in the past two seasons, there's little doubt he'll be the guy in net if the Sharks make it. Backup Thomas Greiss has two periods of Stanley Cup play from a couple of years ago, and some big game experience as a minor pro in the playoffs as well as from being the German national team's Olympic goalie.
St. Louis Blues -- On track to perhaps set records for a goaltending tandem, Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott have been beneficiaries of Ken Hitchcock's coaching wizardry with the Blues, facing the fewest shots of any team in the league. But they still have to stop them, and that they have, allowing the fewest goals in the league and combining for the most shutouts (15). Hitchcock's quandary will be which one to make his playoff starter -- or perhaps he'll do the unorthodox thing and rotate them. That usually doesn't work, but it can and since they've done it all year, perhaps that's the direction he'll take. Halak, of course, was the Canadiens' playoff hero in 2010, and that might give him an edge. He's also had lots of international experience for Slovakia. Elliott played his only four postseason games for Ottawa that same spring and has never had other big game experience as a pro but did backstop the Wisconsin Badgers to the NCAA championship in 2006.
Vancouver Canucks -- With Roberto Luongo, perhaps the most-maligned good goaltender in the game, ensconced as Number 1, and Cory Schneider, the game's best backup right behind him, the Canucks' only worry will be how long to stick with Luongo if he falters. Last spring, Schneider played in five games (no complete games) on the way to the Cup final, but because the Canucks' management and fans almost require another deep run, there's a sense that Luongo might have a shorter leash from coach Alain Vigneault this year. Schneider could get some starts if things go wrong. But Luongo can also get hot and carry a team when he's on. Few teams have the luxury of two strong netminders and the Luongo or Schneider choice is a good problem for Vigneault to have.