To win a Stanley Cup, a team must possess impeccable quality throughout all parts of their team.
But no matter how much offensive firepower and defensive impenetrability a club boasts, they aren't going to be able to walk away with the prize without a world-class goaltender.
After all, goalie is unquestionably the most important position on the ice.
When you really think about it, there are only three men in each arena that single-handedly control one-half of the scoreboard. One of those is the scorekeeper; the other two, however, are those valiantly defending their respective creases and holding the weight of their teams' hopes on their shoulders.
With the 2012 NHL Playoffs packed full of both flawless netminders and high-stakes series, the value of the ultimate goalie will be more evident than ever this spring.
As all eight closely-matched series fly towards the finish line, even the slightest goaltending edge could very likely decide who moves on and who goes home.
How do all 16 postseason goaltending units stack up against each other when the pressure is on? We'll rank each and every team, based on their overall netminding strength, experience and track record, in the coming slides.
The Flyers' dynamic scoring attack might be more than enough to make up for it, but Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren's all-in move to acquire Ilya Bryzgalov last summer has turned out to be a very questionable decision.
Bryzgalov's .909 save percentage ranked 33rd out of 45 full- or part-time starters during the regular season—a mediocre mark worth not nearly as much as what the Flyers' paid for.
Furthermore, 'Bryz' has come out reeling in the postseason, allowing eight goals on 56 shots against (a .857 save percentage) during the series' opening games despite picking up two victories on the scoreboard.
Meanwhile, backup Sergei Bobrovsky has loads of talent, too, but equally average results. The 23-year-old Russian's .899 save percentage was one of only four save percentages below .900 among those aforementioned 45 goalies, and his 3.02 GAA didn't drop any jaws, either.
As epitomized in the first two games of the Flyers-Penguins series, though, Philadelphia can still make a deep playoff run without fully stellar netminding.
Amid Chicago's stacked roster, a minor weakness at goalie can easily be overcome.
Nevertheless, Corey Crawford is definitely not bound for a career of stardom.
The 27-year-old late bloomer has played 57 games each of the past two regular seasons and posted almost identical records both times (33-18-10 and 30-17-7), but his statistics dropped severely from '10-'11 to this past campaign, and it was up to the Hawks' offense to pick up the slack.
Crawford's save percentage declined from .917 to .903 and his GAA skyrocketed from 2.30 to 2.72, a worsening that failed to bite him in the regular season but could be a lot more problematic in the postseason.
While No. 2 option Ray Emery can be an extremely viable starter at times, Chicago needs a big improvement from their backstop this April.
Craig Anderson's 2011-2012 campaign wasn't bad at all, but the 30-year-old's chronic inconsistency and lack of playoff experience makes us a little queasy about his chances against the Rangers.
The 63 games that Anderson played this year—of which he won 33—was the second-highest single-season total of his career (and also only the second time he's been an outright starter). His .914 save percentage and 2.84 GAA were also enough to get it done for the surprising Senators.
Anderson's 2-5 career playoff record is worrisome, conversely, and young backup Ben Bishop would be a deer-in-the-headlights replacement. Ottawa's chances of slowing down the Blueshirts' well-rounded attack seem close to nil at the moment.
35-year-old Jose Theodore hasn't exactly had a Hall of Fame career, but he's managed at least a couple of spectacular individual seasons—and 2011-2012 should certainly go down as one of the better ones.
Regardless of his well-below-.500 record, Thoedore's individual numbers were quite strong: .917 save percentage, 2.46 GAA, three shutouts. Longtime backup Scott Clemmenson was a nice fill-in, as well, with a stat line just slightly worse.
However, Theodore's playoff accord is absolutely horrible—just 19 wins in 52 appearances—and his reliability is always dubious. Led by Theodore, the Panthers deserve to be in the playoffs, but they probably won't make it much further.
Jimmy Howard, without a doubt, gets the job done in Detroit.
But we wonder if he's really good enough to win a Stanley Cup.
Howard was tied for 10th in the regular season with a .920 save percentage, and, thanks to Detroit's surprisingly stellar defense, sixth in GAA with a 2.13 average.
He was a bit up-and-down in overtimes and shootouts, however, and doesn't have nearly as much experience as many of the elite goalies the Wings will face in these playoffs.
As with a number of other goaltenders on this list, Howard won't knock your socks off on a nightly basis, but his team is undoubtedly skilled enough to avoid having too much pressure fall on his shoulders.
It's hard to see such an impressive duo fall to the 11th rank, but that's just the nature of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Nevertheless, Roberto Luongo gets too much hate for his level of play, and secondary option Cory Schneider isn't just a future star, either—he's a great current player, too.
The two of them helped Vancouver post the league's eighth-lowest team GAA at 2.76 during the regular season, thanks to Luongo and Schneider's respective save percentages of .919 and .937.
With Luongo struggling so far, however, and the heavily-favored Canucks now down 2-0 to the Kings heading to L.A., the strength of this tandem could be severely tested over the next week as Vancouver attempts to rally back.
With his 41-29 career postseason record, two Eastern Conference titles and one Stanley Cup ring, we would have said that Marc-Andre Fleury was debatably the most comfortable postseason goalie in this field.
With his 42-win, 3,986-minute '11-'12 campaign that included a remarkable GAA of 2.32, we would have said that Marc-Andre Fleury knows how to handle a heavy workload and still deliver consistently.
With at least one win in either Games 1 or 2 of their first round series—games in which Fleury and the Pens led 3-0 and 2-0, respectively—we would have said that Marc-Andre Fleury was well on his way to steering another emotional, well-matched series in Pittsburgh's favor.
But they didn't win those games.
Instead, Fleury gave up 11 goals on 56 shots (equating to a woeful .804 save percentage and 5.45 GAA) over a three-day period to put the Penguins in a colossal hole heading to Philadelphia.
And his goalie power-ranking position paid the price.
Veteran goalie Tomas Vokoun, the Caps' big addition for this season, keeps getting injured.
Much younger netminder Michal Neuvirth, laden with potential but incredibly unreliable as a starter, keeps getting injured and just isn't that good even when healthy.
So 22-year-old prospect Braden Holtby, with only 22 NHL games under his belt and a career playoff record of 0-1, has been thrown into the fire...and, amazingly, delivered.
Through well over seven periods of play during the series' first two games, Holtby has held the opposing Bruins to just two goals on 74 shots—equal to a .974 save percentage and stunning 0.83 GAA. The remaining games of this series may, or may not, tell a different story, but Holtby looks like the sensation of the postseason so far.
Call us behind the times, but we're just not yet fully sold on the fairy-tale story of Mike Smith.
Smith's numbers for the past six months have definitely been through the roof—there's simply no denying that fact.
The 30-year-old Ontario native is impeccable in every category, with a 38-18-10 record (fourth in the NHL), .930 save percentage (third), 2.21 GAA (seventh), 1,922 saves (third) and eight shutouts (third).
But let's face it; before this season, Mike Smith's NHL "career" could be better labeled a "disaster."
Six consecutive campaigns in Dallas and Tampa Bay brought many nights of painful puck-handling mistakes and miserable save attempts, but not a single starting job for more than a month or so.
Before his arrival in Phoenix, Smith had won only 67 of his 162 career appearances and looked destined to live out his 30s buried as a minimum-wage backup behind some elite netminder.
So, indeed, Mike Smith has put together an amazingly impressive season in the desert and helped the 'Yotes find themselves in strong position come playoff time.
The playoffs, however, are an entirely different beast.
Martin Brodeur is arguably the most complete package ever to have played in the NHL, and he stills manages to be a game-changer even today.
The 39-year-old future Hall of Famer boasts 1,372 games of experience (191 in the playoffs), three Stanley Cup championships, 142 career shutouts (23 in the playoffs) and a career playoff GAA of a whopping 2.01.
Brodeur kept piling up the praises this year, also, going 31-21-4 with a fine 2.41 GAA.
Fellow veteran goalie and Devils teammate Johan Hedburg shouldn't be forgotten, though, for his 17-7-2 accord, .918 save percentage and 2.23 GAA are even better than that of Marty the Great.
These two oldies might be about the most weathered pair around, but they shouldn't be underestimated for a second this spring.
There's arguably nothing better to have under your belt this time of year than a Stanley Cup ring, and that's one attribute that Antti Niemi has going for him as the seventh-seeded Sharks seek to pull off an upset or two.
After winning the Cup in 2010 with Chicago, Niemi finished off his second straight solid campaign with San Jose earlier this month with three straight victories.
The 28-year-old now has a career record (regular- and post-season) of 121-63-20, making him one of the more underrated elite goalies in the NHL today.
We love Niemi's unshakable poise and longstanding endurance, and if he ever does need a rest, Thomas Greiss can also fill in very nicely.
The Sharks are more than a long shot to make a Cup run this time around, yet Antti Niemi certainly has the capabilities to help them pull off a few miracles if need be.
Nashville netminding staple and Vezina Trophy candidate Pekka Rinne has had a rather forgettable start to the 2012 playoffs, giving up five scores on 54 shots (a .907 save percentage) as the Preds and Wings split their first two meetings.
However, you can definitely expect Rinne to come roaring back into the limelight sooner rather than later.
The prime-aged goaltender has never had anything close to a poor season (his career record stands at a noteworthy 147-83-26, including 25 shutouts) and is looking to finish his best campaign yet with his first deep postseason run.
If the Predators' balanced but star-lacking roster can hang tough with Detroit, a Rinne vs. Jimmy Howard matchup would be a tremendous advantage for Nashville and could be the deciding factor in the series.
With stellar season after stellar season, Jonathan Quick has begun to sneak into the elite class of NHL goaltenders.
Quick led the league this past regular season with 10 shutouts, and was near the top of the leaderboard in wins (fifth), save percentage (fifth), and GAA (second), as well.
It was the still-young 26-year-old's third consecutive season with at least 35 wins, no more than 24 losses and over 1,600 saves.
Quick's silent mastery was on full display during the opening matches of the Kings-Canucks series, too, as Quick saved 24 of 26 (92.3 percent) and then 46 of 48 (95.8 percent) to steal both road games for underdog Los Angeles.
Brian Elliot's emergence from the woodwork has been one of hockey's hottest stories of 2012, and for good reason. The former ninth-round pick came out of (literally) nowhere to lead the league in both save percentage (.940) and GAA (1.56).
Let's not forget about the NHL's best postseason overperformer, though—Jaroslav Halak.
After all, Halak started more games than Elliot this season, and put together a mighty eye-opening stat line of his own. Just a few spots down from his teammate in both regards, Halak ranked sixth in the NHL with a .926 save percentage and fourth with a 1.97 GAA.
His unforgettable playoff performance from two years ago is still what keeps opponents fearful of No. 41, however, and it's certainly something to keep in the back of your mind as the postseason rolls on.
The second-seeded Blues might not be nearly as much of an underdog as Halak's 2010 Canadiens were, but these two red-hot netminders could still re-write the history books again if St. Louis is hoisting the Stanley Cup come June.
Tim Thomas' 2011-2012 season might not have rivaled his performance from a year ago, but there's no question that Thomas will be just as impenetrable as always during these playoffs.
The well-loved 38-year-old stopped all 17 shots that came his way during the Bruins-Capitals series opener—but it was just another average shutout for Thomas, who now has six on the season and 37 for his career. Thomas followed up the performance nicely by stopping 37 of 39 in Game 2, too, but eventually took the loss in double overtime.
Nevertheless, given Thomas's regular season record of 35-19-1 and his more-than-respectable stat line of a .920 save percentage and 2.36 GAA, the disjointed Capitals offense—and all of the teams that follow them—is finding scoring goals a much tougher task than usual when Thomas is in the net.
And the league's best backup, Tuukka Rask (11-8-3, .929, 2.05), isn't too bad, either.
Henrik Lundqvist didn't lead the NHL in a single statistical category this year, but yet he was, by far, the Most Valuable Player (in the regular season, at least) on a New York Rangers team that finished first in the East.
Simply because there's just no more well-rounded, reliable goaltender than Lundqvist in the entire National Hockey League.
And moreover, league leader or not, Lundqvist's stats were still fairly incredible. The 30-year-old set career records this season in both save percentage—.930—and GAA—1.97—and also racked up a 39-18-5 accord, with eight shutouts, to help the Rangers jump from the No. 8 to the No. 1 seed in the span of one calendar year.
The most remarkable attribute that Lundqvist possesses, however, is consistency.
The long-time Blueshirt posted a save percentage better than his season average of .930 in a whopping 30 games this season, and then did so again in Game One of the Rangers-Senators series with 30 saves on 32 shots.
Additionally, Lundqvist recorded a save percentage below .840 (equivalent to about 25 saves on 30 shots) only one time this season—and it was the Rangers' meaningless final game.
Lundqvist might not be the flashiest goalie around, but there's no man who can be counted on more than this veteran Swede.