Seizing the Moment: 2009-10's Most Unexpected Goalie Success Stories
It's the most important position for a hockey team, especially when you come into a season with serious questions surrounding it.
This season has certainly proven to be the year of the goaltender, both good and bad—and it's increasingly evident that the NHL is blessed with a more plentiful crop of exceptional patrollers between the pipes than we first thought.
The usual suspects have been in the news, of course. Martin Brodeur passed Terry Sawchuck for the all-time shutout record. Ryan Miller put in an out-of-this-world performance at the 2010 Winter Olympics. And Roberto Luongo won Team Canada's starting job before winning the gold medal on his home turf.
Yes, the goalies we always expect to be great have been just that this season. There have also been those who have come out of the shadows, and shocked more than a few people with impressive play that is worthy of some serious recognition.
The situation between the pipes was a concern for many coming into the 2009-10 season.
Several netminder nightmares have been realized. Others have been pleasantly surprised with a progression in their nets that they couldn’t have dreamed of.
More than one job has been stolen by an up-and-coming star, and it’s becoming more and more common to see a once-thought-to-be starter getting pushed aside to make room for the new kid on the block.
Yes, it's the year of the goaltender indeed.
Here are the eight most surprising goalie success stories in the NHL this season.
Antti Niemi: Chicago Blackhawks
He may not have the most difficult task of all the goalies in the NHL. He gets to play behind what is arguably the best team in the league. But Antti Niemi has proven that he can answer all the questions in net for the Chicago Blackhawks
He's started in only 29 games this season, but he has an outstanding 20-5-3 record and is among the best in the league in almost every statistical category.
Sure, you can make the dispute that he's simply riding the coattails of an incredible lineup placed in front of him (and you’d be partly correct), but the 26-year-old still has to stop pucks.
He's been doing that rather efficiently thus far.
His 2.19 GAA is second in the NHL, while the .913 save percentage he boasts isn't half-bad either. The Finnish goalie also cracks the top five in shutouts (six), which is no small feat in the offensively potent Western Conference.
The Hawks' concerns in goal will not be quelled until they are playoff-tested. But if it comes down to Niemi between the pipes come April, you can bet the players wearing red and black will be confident in the man stopping rubber for them.
And in the end, those are the only guys that matter.
Brian Elliott: Ottawa Senators
The Ottawa Senators seemed to finally have their starting goaltender when they acquired Pascal Leclaire from the Columbus Blue Jackets at the end of the season last year.
But if this season has shown us anything with the Sens, it's that their goalie situation is still as confusing as ever since Dominick Hasek left.
After Leclaire went down with his annual lower body injury, the Sens were left with similar annual questions in net.
That was until Brian Elliot stepped up to the task and played well enough to lead the Senators to an almost-certain playoff berth.
In 49 games, he's gone 25-17-3 with a .910 save percentage and 2.52 GAA.
One of the biggest myths in sports is that a player can never lose a job because of injury. If you care to disagree, it would be interesting to hear what Leclaire has to say about the subject. He's been on a short leash since his return this season, and the job has mainly been Elliott's.
And let's not forget he was shipped out of Columbus due to Steve Mason's injury-replacement Calder season last year.
Elliott has five shutouts, including back-to-back doughnuts in early March. He has emerged as the steady puck-stopper the Sens have been searching for.
No word yet on who will get the nod come playoff time. If Elliott's play of late isn't an indication that he deserves the job, though, someone in Ottawa needs to get their glasses cleaned.
Michael Leighton: Philadelphia Flyers
The 2009-10 season started out dreadfully for Michael Leighton as a member of the Carolina Hurricanes.
In his first seven games, he went a feeble 1-4-0 with a .848 save percentage and 4.29 GAA, in what was a terrible start for the team.
But as often the case for goalies, a change of scenery seemed to light a fire under him. Leighton was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers after their starter, Ray Emery, went down with a season-ending injury.
Since he became a member of the Orange Crush, there has been nothing but praise for the 28-year-old journeyman. He may have finally found a permanent place in Philly the second time around.
He's played in 27 games and has a 16-5-2 record behind a team that's considered to be fundamentally underachieving this season. He's also improved his statistics incredibly—he boasts a .918 save percentage and a 2.48 GAA with the Flyers.
Unfortunately, he suffered a high ankle sprain on March 16. It will keep him out of action for eight to 10 weeks and all but ends his season—unless the team makes an unforeseen trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.
He may not have done enough to win a starting position with the team for next season. After a tough start to the year, though, it will be hard for anyone to say Leighton doesn't have what it takes to be a solid goalie in the NHL.
He was practically a savior in the "City of Brotherly Love" before his injury, and there is a good chance Leighton's success won't end with his shortened campaign.
This could be the start of something positive for a man who's never really found his place in the league.
Jonathan Quick: Los Angeles Kings
It's not so much the statistics that stand out this season for Jonathan Quick—though they'd be respectable for any goalie. Rather, it's the sheer number of games he's been able to play—and play well in.
His 39 wins are second in the NHL to only Martin Brodeur, and he's appeared in all but seven of the team's 72 games thus far.
Quick's 2.46 GAA and .910 save percentage rank among the top tier of netminders in the league. Additionally, he has blanked the opposition four times.
After playing in only 44 games last season, Quick knew the load would increase coming into this year. However, something tells me he wasn't expecting to have a permanent groove forming in the crease similar to the one on his fan's couches.
With the team riding his success, the Los Angeles Kings have catapulted themselves up to the fifth spot in the Western Conference with less than three weeks left in the regular season.
You can bet that, come playoff time, the Kings plan on keeping Quick's schedule a busy one. And if they find themselves on a deep playoff run this spring, it will be quite some time until their goalie gets some meaningful rest.
I'm sure he wouldn't have it any other way.
Jimmy Howard: Detroit Red Wings
After appearing in the Stanley Cup Finals for the past two seasons and winning it all in 2008-09, it would be an understatement to say that expectations coming into this season in Detroit were sky-high.
The Red Wings had the majority of the roster returning from the team that took them so deep in the playoffs just months before. A third straight march to the Cup Finals was the only thing fans in Hockeytown had in mind.
Well, that chance at the Finals is still intact—though barely. It would be a stretch though to suggest that many expected the starting goalie heading into the playoffs to be Jimmy Howard.
Yes, the 25-year-old American came into this year hoping for a chance at more playing time. He currently finds himself in the midst of starting 20 games in a row—and counting.
Howard is ranked in the top 10 in both GAA (2.29) and save percentage (.924) and is a legitimate candidate for the Calder Trophy—something that would have received laughs if mentioned just a few months ago.
As the Wings seemingly lost all confidence in an aging Chris Osgood, the opportunity was turned over to the Syracuse, N.Y., native. Howard never looked back.
Though he only had nine games of NHL experience before the season began, he has backstopped the Wings in 54 games this year, going 29-15-10 in those contests.
In what is quickly beginning to look like yet another genius draft pick by the Detroit brass (Howard was selected 64th overall in 2003), the Wings seem confident in riding their young goalie all the way.
Having already exceeded expectations in a city that has made winning a routine, it's now up to Howard to show that his stunning performance in the regular season can be transformed into playoff success in Hockeytown, USA, once again.
Hope the kid likes octopus.
Craig Anderson: Colorado Avalanche
Goaltending was the No. 1 issue coming into this season for the Colorado Avalanche.
But with less than 10 games remaining in the regular season, it's the last worry on anyone's mind. As the Avs battle for their division lead, their now-trusted goalie stands confident in the crease.
Yes, it's been a coming-out party of sorts for Craig Anderson, the Park Ridge, Ill., native who has been in the league since 2002.
He had only appeared in 109 games prior to this season, though.
He's since started in 64 games for Colorado, posting an efficient 36-21-6 record while starring as one of the team's most consistent players on a nightly basis.
The Avalanche are one of the best stories of the 2009-10 season. A large portion of their success must be attributed to their goalie, who is backstopping a youth-riddled group destined for playoff fortune in the years to come—including the current one.
His seven shutouts are among the best, and has him tied with the all-time leader in that category, Martin Brodeur.
Not too bad a thing to brag about.
Not that he has time to—he's too busy stealing games for his team as they climb up the Western Conference standings.
He boasts a .921 save percentage and a 2.28 GAA—miraculous numbers if you think of where this team was expected to be before the season began.
You can bet that next year, no matter how this one plays out for the Avalanche, there will be no questions about the goaltending situation at the start of the year.
Anderson has proven himself a worthy starting goalie, one of the best this league has to offer.
Tuukka Rask: Boston Bruins
In most cases a goalie's starting spot is pretty safe the season following a Vezina Trophy.
Try telling that to Tim Thomas. He's spent more than his fair share of time planted on the bench this season while the up-and-coming Tuukka Rask steals the show in Boston.
Although Thomas has started in 40 games, Rask is right behind at 32.
Above all, it's the difference in wins that has a full-blown goalie controversy over in Bruin country. That is, if you can ever call it that anymore.
The reigning Vezina winner sports a 15-17-8 record, while his counterpart boasts a more impressive 18-10-4 record.
The team in front just seems to play better when Rask is in between the pipes, and it doesn't hurt that he sits atop the NHL in both save percentage (.930) and GAA (2.02).
In a year that has been about as tough as they get for a team, the Bruins can thank their 23-year-old Finnish netminder for their current playoff position—something which they may not even deserve.
And with that playoff spot nowhere close to being a guarantee, the lowest-scoring team in the NHL had better hope that its stellar goaltending maintains its current pace.
Otherwise, there might be a few more changes taking place in Boston in the coming offseason.
None of which will be any fault of Rask’s.
Ilya Bryzgalov: Phoenix Coyotes
Talk about a feel-good story.
The Coyotes were the most talked about team in hockey prior to the season for every reason except the right ones. The actual hockey team has not only become a success story this season but has done so while shoving it down the throats of every team it jumps over in the standings.
The Phoenix Coyotes are the real deal. Their goalie who was once thought to be merely backup material is stealing the headlines in the NHL and is poised for a Hart Trophy nomination.
Prior to Ilya Bryzgalov's phenomenal play, the only nominations being discussed around Phoenix were which city would best fit as the new location for the team.
Bryzgalov has put his two previous disappointing seasons as a member of the Coyotes behind him and shocked everyone with his incredible poise and confidence during each of his 63 games played.
He's second in the NHL in wins with 39, and he has blanked the opposition in eight of those contests—the most of any goalie.
With a .921 save percentage and a 2.28 GAA in the tough Western Conference, the Coyotes' masked man has done a job worthy of praise while protecting the house for a team that looks as if a long postseason run is in the cards.
The 'Yotes are no fluke, and the play of “Breezy” throughout the entire season has their confidence sky-high.
Looks like things for the Coyotes might not end so ugly after all.
Pekka Rinne: Nashville Predators
Although he's achieved almost identical stats to last season, Rinne has been the go-to guy for the surprising Nashville Predators this season. He's won 28 of 51 games, recorded six shutouts, and has been far superior to his counterpart, Dan Ellis.
Jonas Gustavsson: Toronto Maple Leafs
He may not have the best numbers in the world. But in his rookie season, he suffered through a groin injury, two heart procedures, the death of his mother, and playing on the worst team in the Eastern Conference. Coming out of it all with a winning record ain't half bad.
Jose Theodore: Washington Capitals
I don't care what team you play for, when your record in the last 19 games is 17-0-2, you deserve some honorable mention, Mr. Theodore. It looks like Washington's goaltending situation isn't as bad as we all thought it would be, as the Capitals have run away with the Eastern Conference.
Mike Brodeur: Ottawa Senators
Sure, the guy has only played in three games. But after winning all three, recording a shutout, and posting a .966 save percentage, he deserves a little recognition. His immaculate play has Sens' fans wondering why he wasn't given more of an opportunity to show his stuff with the big boys.