As the NHL 2009-10 season marches toward its final weeks before the most exciting playoffs in sports begins, it becomes readily important for teams to score goals and get the lead early.
But it also is crucial that their goaltenders step up, lead their team through the pressure, and make the difference between being upset in the first round or finishing strong all the way through the Stanley Cup Finals.
However, when there's 16 teams that will eventually make the playoffs and still 27 of the 30 NHL squads within 10 points in the standings away from their conference's playoff cut-off line, not every goalie can make this difference and lead his team to glory.
Out of the mess, only the best of the best are solid enough to handle the pressure of playoff hockey.
And so we've come up with six netminders to watch heading toward the NHL postseason this March and April.
Some may be poised to take control of their teams' hopes for a league title, while others need to "up" their game, or perhaps become the next Cam Ward and come out of nowhere to take control in net.
If there's one team that's been driven most by its goaltender this season, it's the Phoenix Coyotes with Ilya Bryzgalov.
And if there's one team that needs its goaltender to remain solid, it's the Phoenix Coyotes.
So far this year, Bryzgalov has a .920 save percentage (ninth in the NHL), a 2.31 goals-against average (GAA; sixth in the NHL), and 35 of the Coyotes' 40 wins. Phoenix has been relying on him all season, and he's been standing up to the challenge.
But with an inexperienced, young team like the Coyotes who have been majorly overachieving this year, it will realistically be the crushing blow if Bryzgalov slips. The entire team's chances at a conference title rely on him, and with a slip-up seeming eerily likely, the NHL needs to turn its eyes toward Bryzgalov.
After his remarkable playoff run with Calgary in 2003-04, 33-year-old Miikka Kiprusoff has continued be a force in net but has never been able to advance far into the playoffs with Calgary.
Now with Calgary back on the bubble, it looks like another first-round elimination at the hands of the Sharks or Hawks may be likely, but the play of Kiprusoff is going to be the key factor down the stretch in Alberta.
He's near career highs with his .923 save percentage and 2.22 GAA, but those have only been enough so far to earn just 29 wins in 58 starts.
The Flames mixed it up quite a lot earlier in 2010, and now they've acquired a jumble of unfamiliar players right in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race.
Someone is going to need to really take control and help the Flames steady themselves in the top eight...and that player needs to be Kiprusoff.
I have a feeling you've heard of Ryan Miller.
And, for the Buffalo Sabres' sake, I hope you hear a lot more about him.
As of now, the Sabres sit in third place in the Eastern Conference, but Miller and their interesting group of defensemen, led by standout rookie Tyler Myers (plus-7), make Buffalo not only a tough defense but also one that opponents need to look more than twice at.
Miller, who led Team USA in the 2010 Winter Olympics to a silver medal, has very impressive statistics so far (a 33-15-7 record, a .931 save percentage, and a 2.15 GAA) and is among the leaders in several annual league awards.
His excellence has helped the Sabres surprise opponents so far, but it's also attracted the pressure. Any playoff slip-up, and Buffalo might be doomed.
Like several other up-and-coming teams in the West, the Kings started the year surprisingly strong, and they haven't slowed down considerably since.
One of the main reasons for the Kings' strong play has been 24-year-old goaltender Jonathan Quick, who has very impressive numbers in 2009-10 for this young but productive squad.
In just his third NHL season, Quick leads the NHL in wins (37 at the moment) and in goals allowed (only 149). He also has a decent .909 save percentage, a respectable 2.49 GAA, and three additional shutouts. He's become Los Angeles' young netminding counterpart to 22-year-old, 70-point scorer Anze Kopitar.
However, if the Quick end of the Kings' youthful rotation begins to break down in his first true NHL playoffs experience, Los Angeles may be headed down the pipe. One thing is certain: All hockey eyes along the West Coast need to be tuned in to Jonathan Quick.
With his team coming home from a record-breaking 14-game road trip, 30-year-old goaltending superstar Roberto Luongo still needs to maintain his focus.
The road trip, Olympic gold medal, and the pressure of spring hockey with a Cup contender may still be on his mind, but the goalie's going to have to come up big to take his Canucks all the way.
Since 2000, Luongo hasn't recorded a season with a save percentage below .915, but he's barely keeping that streak alive now, currently sporting a .916 average. Luongo also checks in with a 2.46 GAA, 34 wins, and four shutouts (tied for sixth in the league).
However, with his Canucks on top of the division for now, but being heavily chased by a handful of solid candidates, Luongo needs to continue to support the back end of this team to let them keep up with Western dynasties San Jose and Chicago.
Bryzgalov, Kiprusoff, and Quick might be taking a lot of the attention in the West, but Luongo also currently carries the hard-to-handle weight of a hungry city's title hopes on his shoulders.
I'm not sure if you could call the Carolina Hurricanes a team that people "need to watch heading toward the playoffs," but Justin Peters, in his four NHL games, has already established himself as a young goalie that seems surprisingly similar to Cam Ward circa 2006.
In four starts, Peters has generated three wins, a .943 save percentage, and an incredible 1.76 GAA.
It's probably unlikely that the 'Canes are postseason-bound in 2010, but Peters would be a shoo-in for this list if he were a member of, say, the Ottawa Senators.
Just keep an eye out for No. 60 in Carolina.