There’s a sports cliche that says defense wins championships.
In the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs, it might be goaltending.
There are, of course, exceptions to any rule, but in the evolution of hockey, the last line of defense—your netminder—plays the most critical role of any player on the ice. A big stop at the right time can save a game and a series. A bad night can cost you one.
Early in Round 2 of the postseason, it’s as evident as ever that strong netminding will be critical to making it to the final four.
Friday night, Marc-Andre Fleury bookended a solid second period with some sketchy stretches as his Pittsburgh Penguins dropped a 3-2 overtime decision to the New York Rangers on home ice.
He let in a long wrister, just the third shot of the game, to allow the Rangers some early energy in their third game in four nights.
Took break from my Raptors to check Pens-Rangers. Absolutely shocked to see Fleury whiff on long wrist shot. Habit Tony Espo had near end.— David Shoalts (@dshoalts) May 2, 2014
3rd shot of game and Pouliot beats Fleury cleanly from high slot off rush... I'm having flashbacks to last spring.— Arthur Staple (@StapeNewsday) May 2, 2014
In overtime, he was actually scored on twice. The first goal by Derick Brassard went up over his blocker and off his shoulder as he dropped to the ice. Flipping and flopping with the play still alive because the puck came out so quickly, he was scored on again.
"Just big pile of guys," Fleury told Chris Adamski of TribLIVE sports, "and I was trying to find the puck out of it."
He escaped the first round despite his flaws, but will he be as lucky the rest of the way?
Rookie goalie Darcy Kuemper may not be able to play anytime soon after suffering a suspected concussion in Game 7 versus the Colorado Avalanche, leaving the net to the wildly inconsistent Ilya Bryzgalov, via the St. Paul Pioneer Press' Chad Graff.
Kuemper was easily the Minnesota Wild’s best option in their opening round against the Avalanche. Bryzgalov was nowhere near as strong as his counterpart Corey Crawford on Friday night in a 5-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.
In the second period alone, Crawford parried all 17 shots he faced. Bryzgalov could only block two out of three. A great goal by Patrick Kane found plenty of room over Bryzgalov's shoulder on the short side to break a 2-2 tie, and Kane would quickly add a power-play marker to break things wide-open.
The Montreal Canadiens, meanwhile, stole a victory in Boston on Thursday night thanks to Carey Price’s clutch performance. He made 48 saves on the Bruins, allowing the Habs to eke out a 4-3 win in double overtime.
According to Montreal Gazette columnist Pat Hickey, the 5-0 start by Price in these playoffs has finally chased the ghost of Jaroslav Halak out of Montreal following that controversial decision to deal one of the Canadiens’ netminders in the summer of 2010.
A little less than 200 feet away, Tuukka Rask posted an .879 save percentage, stopping 29 of 33 shots at the Bruins' net—only the fourth time in 28 games over the last two playoffs he’s been under 90 percent.
The battle of California could be decided by the play of a red-hot Jonathan Quick after Anaheim Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau sparked a bit of a goaltender controversy at the end of the first round when he twice benched rookie Frederik Andersen in favor of regular-season starter Jonas Hiller. Boudreau has yet to announce who his starter will be Saturday night.
There’s no doubt Quick is on a hot streak, ripping off four wins with the Los Angeles Kings after dropping the first three games of their series with the San Jose Sharks and completely turning things around.
Asked the key to the series, Ducks star Ryan Getzlaf told Los Angeles Times writer Lance Pugmire it was all about the Kings goaltender.
"We've got to find a way to get past Quick," Getzlaf said. "He can steal hockey games."
The last two Stanley Cup champions have offered a great glimpse at what teams need between the pipes to make it to the final these days. Crawford could have been the Conn Smythe Trophy winner a year ago with a .930 save percentage and 1.84 goals-against average to help the Blackhawks escape a tough Western Conference and ultimately get the best of the Boston Bruins.
Three of the four semifinalists last spring were in the top four in save percentage at the end of the playoffs. Crawford, who finished fifth, was bested by Henrik Lundqvist by just two-tenths of a percent.
Over the last 20 years, the list of NHL goaltenders to claim the Stanley Cup reads like an all-star list. It’s no coincidence that legends Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur each won three Cups since the god-awful goaltending of the 1980s and early '90s.
After the stacked Pittsburgh Penguins won back-to-back Cups with the volatile Tom Barrasso in 1991 and '92, only three times has a Stanley Cup-winning goalie posted a save percentage of less than .920.
|Cup-clinching goalies of the last 20 years|
|Mike Vernon||Red Wings||1997||.927||1.76|
|Chris Osgood||Red Wings||1998||.918||2.12|
|Dominik Hasek||Red Wings||2002||.920||1.86|
|Chris Osgood||Red Wings||2008||.930||1.55|
These are exceptions to the trend. Netminders have been buoyed by some stellar offensive performances and star power in the form of guys like Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Paul Coffey, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Gaining an advantage in goal is the reason the St. Louis Blues went after Ryan Miller at the trade deadline this season to try to shore up a position manned by a fully respectable Halak with the hopes Miller would be a game-changer. It’s why the Blackhawks parted with Antti Niemi weeks after the 2010 championship, choosing not to overpay for a good goalie when they could groom another.
Fleury has been the exception before, and it could very well happen again, but the odds aren’t that great unless his game starts heading in that direction.
Typically, that’s what it takes to win in the playoffs.
Steve Macfarlane has been covering the NHL for more than a decade, including seven seasons for the Calgary Sun. You can follow him on Twitter @MacfarlaneHKY.