Offense may stir the most excitement in hockey, but the surest way to win the Stanley Cup is with a dominant goaltender stopping the puck at every turn. The 2011-12 NHL season has given us some tremendous performances from netminders, many of whom have lifted their squads out of potential mediocrity and into the postseason.
And now that they've done that much, it's time for these three goalies to really ratchet up their play in pursuit of the most coveted prize in sports.
Which goaltender is most important to his team?
Goals haven't exactly been difficult to come by for the New York Rangers—they ranked 11th in scoring during the regular season—though they certainly wouldn't be sitting pretty atop the Eastern Conference without the Herculean efforts of Henrik Lundqvist in goal. The Vezina Trophy hopeful won 39 of his 62 starts while allowing the fourth-fewest goals per game (1.97) and saving 93 percent of shots flung his way.
Now, the Rangers should be able to top the surprising Ottawa Senators in the first round of the playoffs, but scoring their first series win since 2008 wouldn't be enough to satiate hockey appetites in the Big Apple. With the high-powered Pittsburgh Penguins likely awaiting the Rangers in the Conference Semifinals, it'll be up to King Henrik to slow down (if not stop) Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin with more than just his good looks.
The Los Angeles Kings have improved considerably in the goal-scoring department down the stretch, though their fate still rests on the pads of Jonathan Quick. The All-Star netminder led the league in shutouts while finishing fifth in save percentage and second in goals against average.
That stellar showing allowed the Kings to keep their heads above water in the Western Conference, despite scoring the second-fewest goals in the NHL this season.
However, Quick faltered a bit in back-to-back games against the San Jose Sharks to close out the campaign, dropping LA from the three seed as champions of the Pacific Division to the eight seed by Saturday night.
As such, the Kings will need Quick to redeem himself in the first round against the big, bad Vancouver Canucks, who scored their second consecutive Presidents' Trophy and appear to be even better than last year's Stanley Cup runners-up.
The only guy with a better goals-against average than Quick? Brian Elliott, who rose to prominence this season as Jaroslav Halak's platoon mate with the surprising St. Louis Blues by way of a 1.56 GAA and a .940 save percentage (also the best in hockey).
On the flip side, St. Louis' offense isn't exactly of the high-octane variety, leaving Elliott in a somewhat precarious position protecting small leads or preserving ties more often than not.
A position made even more precarious by the Blues' first-round opponent—the Sharks, who ranked second in the NHL in shots per game.
That being said, it will be up to Elliott (and Halak) to keep San Jose at bay while the Blues scrounge for scoring opportunities against the decidedly-less-stingy Antti Niemi on the other end of the ice.