A sizzlingStanley Cup scandal: San Jose goaltender Vesa Toskala has been ingesting asuspicious-looking substance, mustamakkara, which is not a designer steroid buta designer sausage that, through discreet Finnish culinary channels, found itsway to the Sharks' dressing room in Chicago six weeks ago. Unavailable in theU.S., the black sausage is unique to Toskala's hometown of Tampere and is bestserved with lingonberry sauce, or puolukkahillo, as it is known in Finland.Mustamakkara with puolukkahillo is a mouthful--"I still have some in thefridge," the San Jose netminder says--and the combination has helped fuelToskala's 11-2-1 run since late March, including a 2-1 win on Sunday that gavethe Sharks a 4-1 series win over the Nashville Predators in their first-roundmatchup. ¬∂ That the sausage is a lot more seasoned than the goalie, who wasmaking his playoff debut, is not surprising. The tectonic plates beneath thefoundation of playoff hockey, goaltending, have subtly shifted. The offensiveadvantages created by the NHL's new rules interpretations, combined with therecent postseason performances of inexperienced goalies, have made productionmore important than pedigree. Coaches now accept that, within the upper rangeof skilled netminders, a hot goalie without much portfolio (such as Toskala,who nudged aside playoff-hardened Evgeni Nabokov for the Sharks' No. 1 job) isa better bet than a name goaltender such as, say, the Stars' Marty Turco, whoseplayoff record slipped to 8-14 as Dallas was eliminated in five games by theColorado Avalanche.
Nine of the 16starters in the first-round openers had never won a postseason game. Toskala'svictory came against the Predators own playoff rookie, Chris Mason. TheMontreal Canadiens opted for the quietest Frenchman since Marcel Marceau,Cristobal Huet, rather than steady Swiss goalie David Aebischer. The Tampa BayLightning, perhaps to coach John Tortorella's regret, elected to usebarely-tested John Grahame instead of veteran Sean Burke, who was in net lastSaturday for a series-ending Game 5 loss to the Ottawa Senators after the coacheviscerated Grahame for his poor play in the previous two matches. In theEastern Conference, the New Jersey Devils' Martin Brodeur (box, above) beganthe playoffs with more postseason wins (84) than the other 15 goalies inuniform had appearances (79). As Nashville coach Barry Trotz said, "A pucknever knows if a goaltender is experienced or inexperienced." True Zen.Truer now.
"Thedifference is you need the timely saves now," Avalanche coach JoelQuenneville said of the changing nature of playoff goaltending. "You needyour goalie to be good when you're down a goal ... or maybe up a goal late inthe game. You can't expect a goalie to pitch a shutout now in the playoffs.There are too many power plays and too many good [scoring] chances."
With expectationsfalling in lockstep with postseason save percentages, some unproven playoffgoalies seemed capable of emerging as surprise stars the way the Anaheim MightyDucks' Jean-Sébastien Giguere (no previous postseason starts) and the CalgaryFlames' Miikka Kiprusoff (157 minutes of prior playoff experience) did intaking their teams to Game 7 of the finals in 2003 and 2004, respectively. Whoare these new masked men? In addition to the eerily calm Toskala--"Like acomputer that puts itself into standby mode: You hit the button and it's rightback up," Sharks coach Ron Wilson says of the 28-year-old--there is theunassuming, spiritual Cam Ward, who took over from starter Martin Gerber, inGame 3 and carried the Carolina Hurricanes to three straight wins againstMontreal; 23-year-old Ray Emery, the hair-dyin', cockroach-munchin',tattoo-sportin' Ottawa rookie; and 25-year-old Ryan Miller, the lank-haired,matchstick-legged Buffalo rookie butterflyer who deciphers plays quickly.("He's got the Pentium high-speed, not a dishwasher up there," saysSabres goalie coach Jim Corsi.) If nerves have gripped any of them, they stilllook more at ease than Colorado's José Théodore, a former Hart Trophy winnerwith 28 playoff games before this year whose work, despite a sparklingperformance in Game 5, was even less impressive than Turco's.
May 7, 2006
These playoffsare not about reputation but about opportunity. When Ottawa goalie coach RonLow quizzed Emery about his mind-set on the morning of his first postseasongame, the goalie replied, "Hey, Ronnie, everybody has to startsomewhere."
The fact is, allof the playoff neophytes already had played big games on big stages--just notin NHL rinks. Miller might have played the biggest of all: In 2001, before74,554 at Spartan Stadium, the then Michigan State goalie faced Michigan in theNCAA's first outdoor hockey game, attracting more national attention than thisyear's Buffalo-Philadelphia first-round series. Miller grew up in East Lansing,where he was sometimes instructed by Spartans NHLers when they returned in thesummer. "I'm 13, 14, and [Jason Muzzatti is] showing me techniques pros areusing, like how to slide on one knee into the play and bring the butterfly withit," says Miller, who shut out the Flyers 3-0 on Sunday to give the Sabresa 3-2 series lead. His cousins are former NHL forwards Kevin, Kip and KellyMiller, all of whom helped baptize Ryan into big-time hockey. (Kevin, arighthanded shot who scored 150 goals in a 12-year career, liked working on hisslapper coming down the wing, forcing Ryan's glove hand to catch up.) TheStanley Cup playoffs were composed of games, not revelations, for Miller.
Emery took hisbest shots from Tortorella--the Tampa Bay coach called him Ottawa's weak spotafter Game 3--but the goalie survived those as nicely as the cockroach he ateearlier this season to win a $500 dare from Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson.Emery invested his winnings in tattoos that now cover his right arm. That was amore permanent testimony to personal style than his blond dye job. "You'rereally trying to get traded, aren't you?" Low said when Emery showed up atpractice in mid-January with his new-look locks, and then with an image of MikeTyson painted on his goalie mask.
If there wasTampere sausage in Toskala, there was suspicion of a little Canadian hot dog inEmery. The Senators convinced him that he would get noticed simply by stoppingthe puck, causing Emery to dye his hair back to its natural black and to sporta mask with the likeness of former Canadian heavyweight George Chuvalo insteadof Tyson. Since Dominik Hasek went down with his adductor injury during theOlympics, Emery has been consistently good; he stopped 158 of 171 shots ineliminating the 2004 champions. The sublime if enigmatic Hasek still mighthaunt his teammates like Banquo's ghost--Ottawa coach Bryan Murray shooed himoff the ice at practice two days before the first-round series started and thenbanished him from the bench area after Game 1--but Emery has looked poisedenough to handle the responsibility of tending the net for a team builtexpressly to win the Cup this spring. The Senators readied Emery for thepostseason by playing him in 24 of 26 games after the Olympic break, mimickingthe playoff rhythm. As Corsi says, "Because of the nature of the playoffschedule, it's easier for a hot goalie to stay hot."
Adds formergoalie Glenn Healy, an analyst on the Canadian sports network TSN, "In thepostseason you don't play the league, you play a team. If you're dialed in to aparticular team or a particular group of shooters, you can have two weeks ofgreat hockey."
Toskala's 15 daysof fame have begun to stretch into something more meaningful. Early this seasonhe showed no indication that, in his fourth year, he was ready for abreakthrough. After starting 0-4, injuring his groin and doing a stint in theminors, Toskala rejoined the Sharks in December and won 23 of his last 30regular-season starts. He has moved out higher from his crease--because of thewider international ice, some Europeans play so deep in the net they look likeprairie dogs--and he makes himself big on goalmouth scrambles. Now, if he cancontinue to replicate his exemplary work against Nashville (2.01 goals-againstaverage, .927 save percentage), Toskala could be the ultimate mystery guest atthe Stanley Cup banquet.
Another helpingof mustamakkara with puolukkahillo, gar√ßon?
NINE TIMES aplayoff rookie has led his team to the Stanley Cup; it's happened only twicesince World War II. The feat doesn't ensure future success.
|Cecil (Tiny) Thompson, Bruins||1929||5--0||3||0.60|
|Hall of Famer played 12 years; first NHL goalie with an assist|
|Andy Aitkenhead, Rangers||1933||6-1-1||2||1.60|
|Two years later was out of the NHL|
|Normie Smith, Red Wings||1936||6--1||2||1.34|
|Won Vezina Trophy in 1937; retired five seasons later|
|Earl Robertson, Red Wings||1937||3--2||2||1.41|
|Traded before '37--38 season; made playoffs twice more, going 4--5|
|Frank Brimsek, Bruins||1939||8--4||1||1.25|
|Won Cup again in '41; had 40 regular-season shutouts in 10 years|
|Bill Durnan, Canadiens||1944||8--1||1||1.53|
|Named the NHL's best goalie in six of his seven seasons|
|Frank McCool, Maple Leafs||1945||8--5||4||2.23|
|Played just 22 more games; retired due to severe ulcers|
|Ken Dryden, Canadiens||1971||12--8||0||3.00|
|Montreal won the Cup in six of his eight seasons in goal|
|Patrick Roy, Canadiens||1986||15--5||1||1.92|
|Won three more Cups; NHL leader with 551 career wins|
For more from Michael Farber and the latest playoffcoverage go to SI.com/nhl.