Quality goaltending is the main ingredient in every Stanley Cup-winning formula, and without it, teams are at a distinct disadvantage in the NHL playoffs.
Just how important is having a "hot goalie" going into and during the playoffs? For starters, not having one has the potential to ruin a supremely talented team's chances of winning the Stanley Cup.
For example, the Pittsburgh Penguins went into the first round of last year's playoffs with the rival Philadelphia Flyers as one of the top favorites to reach the final.
Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, its season ended in six games because No. 1 goalie Marc-Andre Fleury gave up 26 goals in the series. Even though the Penguins had more talent than nearly every team in the playoffs and scored a ton of goals, their lack of reliable, quality goaltending prevented them from making a championship run.
Through the first four games of this year's first-round series with the New York Islanders, Fleury has allowed 14 goals in four games. The Islanders tied the series at 2-2 ahead of an important Game 5, when Fleury will be benched in favor of backup Tomas Vokoun (per the team's Twitter account).
While a struggling goaltender can result in a No. 1 seed failing to reach the Stanley Cup Final, a hot goaltender has the ability to carry a good-but-not-great team, or even an average one, past the second round.
One of the best examples of this was last year, when Jonathan Quick helped the Los Angeles Kings become the first No. 8 seed to ever win the Stanley Cup. They did it by beating the top three seeds in the Western Conference.
Quick took a Kings team that woefully underachieved during the regular season and ranked 29th in scoring to the summit of professional hockey. His playoff run last year was the perfect example of why a hot goaltender that plays well consistently is so valuable in the playoffs.
If you look at recent Stanley Cup champions, specifically in the years after the 2004-05 lockout, you will notice that having a goalie playing at a high level on a consistent basis is one common denominator among these title-winning teams.
|Reg. Season Stats||Playoff Stats|
|Year||Goalie (Team)||W/L March & April||GAA||SV%||-||W-L||GAA||SV%|
|2005-06||Cam Ward (CAR)||3-3-0||4.16||.866||-||15-8||2.14||.920|
|2006-07||J.S. Giguere (ANA)||7-2-1||2.44||.916||-||13-4||1.97||.922|
|2007-08||Chris Osgood (DET)||4-3-1||1.88||.904||-||14-4||1.55||.930|
|2009-10||Antti Niemi (CHI)||9-3-3||2.36||.911||-||16-6||2.63||.910|
|2010-11||Tim Thomas (BOS)||7-3-3||2.17||.934||-||16-9||1.98||.940|
|2011-12||Jonathan Quick (LAL)||10-3-2||2.22||.910||-||16-4||1.41||.946|
Following the 2004-05 lockout when the NHL underwent a couple changes to increase scoring (such as the elimination of the red line, cracking down on obstruction, etc.), goaltenders have become even more important because speed and offensive skill are bigger parts of the game than they were from 1990 through 2004.
Any goalie who gives his team a high level of performance (typically better than his regular-season play) on a consistent basis can be described as a "hot" netminder. These players not only finish the regular season strongly, they also raise their games to a whole new level when the postseason commences.
As the chart above shows, five of the seven goalies that led their teams to a championship since the 2004-05 work stoppage improved their GAA and save percentage in the postseason. These guys all finished the regular season with records at or above .500 and then played their best hockey, consistently, when it mattered most.
But these goalies didn't just play great hockey at the most important time of the year. Their success also helped them earn a great amount of confidence, which is key in staying mentally strong.
Since the pressure is so high in the playoffs, having a hot goalie who instills confidence in himself and his teammates gives a team a huge advantage over its opponents.
What is the most important part of a championship team?
The two exceptions were the Penguins with Fleury in 2008-09 and the Blackhawks with Niemi in 2009-10. In those years, both teams had amazing depth with four quality lines and three solid defensive pairings. There were also veterans with Stanley Cup experience on their rosters.
These situations are a bit unique because we rarely see teams that are this well built from top to bottom in the salary-cap era. Too many areas of a team need to be nearly perfect to win a Stanley Cup without good goaltending.
The easiest way to determine that having a hot goaltender in the playoffs isn't overrated is to look at all the Stanley Cup champions in the last 20 years. Only one goaltender since 1993 has won the Stanley Cup with a playoff save percentage below .910 and a GAA higher than 2.20. Since 2001, five goaltenders have won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP—the most of any position in that span.
An elite, Vezina Trophy-caliber goaltender isn't required to win the Stanley Cup, but having a hot netminder who plays very well on a consistent basis is something that every team with championship dreams needs. Mediocre goaltending rarely results in playoff success.