Hockey historians, experts and pundits all agree that the most important part of a hockey team is its goaltender. A team follows its goaltender onto the ice and they are often thought of as the team’s second leader after the team captain.
The goaltender is a team's last line of defense and is usually the reason why a team does or does not make the playoffs.
Elite goaltenders perform night in and night out without complaint. Goaltenders often take losses the hardest out of all the players on a team. However, in the case of these individuals, losing is a feeling that these men are not really familiar with.
The season is at the halfway point, so it is a great time to take a look at the early favorites to win the Vezina Trophy.
Elliot is having a great season and is putting up amazing numbers. However, St. Louis has not decided on a starter as Ken Hitchcock has rotated Elliot and Jaroslav Halak between the pipes. Halak was the player St. Louis traded for, so they want to keep his confidence up. Elliot is on pace to put up some good numbers, but 28 wins won't cut it.
Quick and the Los Angeles Kings have not had the greatest start. Quick may have six shutouts, but he is also 18-10-6. With Quick projected to win only 36 games, his performance will be overshadowed by elite netminders like Thomas, Lundqvist, Rinne and Howard.
Marc Andre Fleury
The Pittsburgh Penguins finished the 2010-11 season by setting a franchise record in points and wins without Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal for most of the season?
Fleury's superb goaltending led the Penguins through the regular season. This season, the Penguins and Fleury are without Crosby. I am confident he can put up decent numbers, but the Penguins have been overshadowed by the Rangers as the favorite to win the Atlantic Division this season.
Fleury always has a shot, but he is going to have to cut down on his goals against per game in order to make a serious run at the Vezina.
Pekka Rinne was a Vezina finalist last season for the Nashville Predators. His prowess in net earned him a lengthy and very lucrative contract extension that will keep him in Nashville for the foreseeable future.
Rinne is a young workhorse with an amazing glove hand. Rinne is also a goaltender with great speed and lateral movement. He gives up more goals than the other goaltenders on this list, but Nashville doesn't have the most well-rounded defense.
Rinne already has secured 19 victories. He is on pace to win 39 games and record six shutouts. Rinne plays a lot of games, so he has a lot of opportunities to improve his overall goals against average and save percentage.
If Rinne gets hot, he could make a run at the Vezina Trophy.
Prediction: finishes third or fourth in voting
Jimmy Howard is a player that is often excluded from lists like this. It is mind-boggling because he has developed into one of the league's top backstops.
Howard has already won 24 games and is on pace to win 50 games overall. That would be an amazing achievement but realistically, Howard should win about 43 to 45 games. If Howard can keep pace, he will be a prime Vezina candidate.
The only thing that goes against Howard is he has already played in a lot of games. Detroit will likely look to rest him down the stretch and that could impact his stats. Regardless, the athletic Howard is always a showstopper for a very dominate Detroit Red Wings franchise.
Prediction: finishes second or third in voting
The reigning Vezina Trophy and Conn Smythe Award winner is having another amazing season. Despite being a 37-year-old veteran, Thomas shows the reflexes and skills on a man on the back side of 20.
Thomas is a huge reason why the Boston Bruins are leading their division and are second overall in the Eastern Conference.
So far this season, Thomas has posted a record of 17-6-0 with four shutouts and a goals-against average of 1.90. Those numbers are very impressive and staggering when you think about it. Thomas is currently on pace to win 20 more games and finish with at least four more shutouts.
If Thomas can propel his Bruins into a high playoff seed with his superb play, he may have to make more room on his shelf for another Vezina Trophy.
Prediction: too close to call
It doesn't matter what the score on the scoreboard is at any point in the game—if Lundqvist is in net, the Rangers have a great chance to win. He has been dubbed King Henrik and he is continuing to live up to that nickname
Lundqvist has been lights out as of late, as he has posted a 6-0-0 record in his last six appearances and has allowed only seven goals during that span.
Lundqvist and his record of 18-7-4, with three shutouts and a goals-against average of 1.89, has propelled the Rangers into a first-place spot in the Eastern Conference. He probably would have more wins, but backup Marty Biron, 8-2-0, has taken more starts in order to lighten Lundqvist's workload.
It is expected that Lundqvist will win at least 20 more games and will end the year with six shutouts. If he can keep up the pace and lead the Rangers to a high playoff seed, Lundqvist will pose a huge threat to Tim Thomas and the Vezina Trophy.
Prediction: too close to call
Tom Urtz, Jr. is an NHL featured columnist. For NHL news, updates and alerts about players: