Defense wins championships. We all know that. And the most important defensive hockey player on every team is the man who guards the six-by-four. If a team is weak between the pipes, don't expect them to go far in the playoffs.
The goaltending in the Eastern Conference features talented rookies, 2011's likely Vezina winner, and a Stanley Cup Champion. There is no shortage of big name and big game players.
But which one is the best? Which goaltender is the most likely to steal a game, or even series? Which netminders could ruin championship dreams with their inconsistent play?
Click through to find out.
Dwayne Roloson: Tampa Bay Lightning
Season: 24-25-5 / .914 / 2.59
Career Playoffs: 18-12 / .915 / 2.56
Stamkos. St. Louis. Lecavalier. Gagne. Roloson.
One of these things does not belong here.
The Lightning are a dynamic team with three of the league’s most dangerous offensive players and a defense that can undoubtedly hold its own. But what can we make of Dwayne Roloson?
Acquired in January by the Lightning, he posted a shutout in his first game against the Washington Capitals. The next game? He allowed five goals on 23 shots, including a goal seven seconds into the game, and was puled in the second period.
The team they played? The Pittsburgh Penguins.
The 42-year-old Roloson hasn’t appeared in a postseason game since 2005-2006 with Edmonton. He was briliant in that series, going 12-5 and leading the Oilers to the Stanley Cup Finals. But that game seven loss in the SCF marked the beginning of Roloson’s downfall. Since that series he has gone 141-143, spending most of his time wallowing away with the hapless New York Islanders.
All the Lightning want from Roloson is for him to not lose them games. It is unlikely that he will steal any wins in the playoffs, but he certainly might cost them a game or two.
Michal Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov: Washington Capitals
Neuvirth: Season: 27-12-4 / .914 / 2.45
Career Playoffs: None
Varlamov: Season: 11-9-5 / .924 / 2.23
Career Playoffs: 10-9 / .915 / 2.49
Another year with the one-seed in the Eastern Conference, another year where Bruce Boudreau and company have to answer questions about their shaky goaltending situation. The Capitals have announced that they will begin the playoffs with Neuvirth between the pipes, but Boudreau has not ruled out the possibility of a goaltending committee for the Caps playoff run.
Goaltending-by-committee is a dicey proposition any time of the season, but especially in the playoffs. What happens to the rookie Neuvirth’s psyche if he allows two goals on five shots early in a game and gets pulled? Does that ruin him for the series?
What if Neuvirth looks shaky one night and Varlamov starts the next game and looks a little better? Who does Boudreau go with in the next game? Does the guy he decides to bench take it personally and let it affect him the rest of the playoffs? It’s easy to see how things can get complicated.
As the top seed, the Capitals are the team to beat, but their goaltending situation leaves them vulnerable to an upset.
Sergei Bobrovsky, Brian Boucher: Philadelphia Flyers
Bobrovsky: Season: 28-13-8 / .915 / 2.59
Career Playoffs: None
Boucher: Season: 18-10-4 / .916 / 2.42
Career Playoffs: 17-14 / .913 / 2.20
Michael Leighton, who got Philadelphia to the Stanley Cup Finals last season, will be the third man on the depth chart for the Flyers heading into the playoffs. Meanwhile, it looks like the Russian rookie Sergei Bobrovsky will get the nod for the Flyers as they face the Canadiens in the first round.
Bobrovsky was the favorite for the Calder trophy through the first few months of the season, but after the All-Star break he began to show signs of vulnerability, and the Flyers found themselves turning to Brian Boucher more and more.
Bobrovsky has not been the same goaltender since defenseman Chris Pronger went down with an injury in early March. The truth is, the Flyers haven’t been the same team without Pronger. They have struggled mightily on the penalty kill in his absence and the defense has looked disorganized.
In order for the rookie netminder to have success, he will have to feel like he has a solid defense in front of him. Pronger’s status for the playoffs remains uncertain, and without him Bobrovsky is going to have to play tremendous in goal.
Carey Price: Montreal Canadiens
Season: 38-28-6 / .923 / 2.35
Career Playoffs: 5-11 / .894 / 3.17
After the success of Jaroslav Halak in the 2009-2010 playoffs, most Canadiens fans expected him to be brought back as the starting goaltender for this season. But the Habs chose to let him walk and hitched their wagon to Carey Price.
Leading up to the 2010-2011 campaign, Price had at best a love/hate relationship with the fans inside of Belle Centre. He was routinely booed and would often receive mock cheers when he made a save. But after a regular season in which he led the league in wins with 38, Price has done more than enough to win over the Habs faithful.
But can he continue this stellar play in the playoffs?
Price does not have much playoff experience, and in what few games he has played he has not been particularly good. The pressure Price will face this postseason will be severe.
Fair or not, no matter how he plays he will be compared to Jaroslav Halak and his unbelievable performance of a season ago. Halak led the Habs to the Eastern Conference Finals as the eight seed, knocking off the Capitals and Penguins along the way.
Canadiens fans are notoriously brutal. Every year the Habs make the playoffs the fans expect nothing less than a Stanley Cup victory. If Price gets off to a bad start at home this postseason, you will hear no shortage of boos in the Belle Centre
Ryan Miller: Buffalo Sabres
Season: 34-22-8 / .916 / 2.59
Career Playoffs: 22-18 / .917 / 2.39
Ryan Miller enters the postseason as somewhat of a question mark. The Sabres netminder suffered an upper-body injury at the end of March that is believed to be a concussion. Undoubtedly, Miller is the stronghold of this team. If he is not 100 percent the Sabres are going to have difficulty doing much in the playoffs.
Miller has no shortage of big-game experience. In addition to his 40 playoff starts, he led the United States to a silver medal in the 2010 Olympics, going 5-1 in the tournament and posting a staggering 1.35 goals against average in the process. If he steps up in the playoffs the Sabres could be a sleeper team to come out of the east.
Tim Thomas: Boston Bruins
Season: 35-11-9 / .938 / 2.00
Career Playoffs: 10-8 / .926 / 2.16
After being replaced by Tuuka Rask as the Bruins starter in 2009-2010 season, Thomas is the odds-on favorite to win the year’s Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender. He led the league in save percentage and goals against average and is the key reason the Bruins allowed the fewest goals in the Eastern Conference this year.
Thomas has only won one playoff series in his long and successful career. His postseason numbers aren’t bad, but it remains to be seen if he can be the guy who steals a series for his team.
Henrik Lundqvist: New York Rangers
Season: 36-27-5 / .923 / 2.28
Career Playoffs: 14-16 / .907 / 2.66
If Thomas doesn’t take home the Vezina this year, it will likely be because King Henrik captured it instead; his regular season was nothing short of brilliant. Of his 35 wins, 11 of them were of the shutout variety. All season long he was consistently solid, but his play down the stretch as the Rangers battled for a playoff spot had Rangers fans wondering if he was the second coming of Mike Richter.
Lundqvist was helped dramatically by his team’s solid defense which relies heavily on shot-blocking. The Rangers were fourth in the league this season in blocked shots with 1,276. With a first-round matchup against the trigger-happy Capitals, the Rangers will have to continue to help Lundqvist by getting in front of pucks.
One of the biggest concerns about Lundqvist heading into the playoffs is durability. He hasn’t suffered any serious injuries this year (aside from a couple conks on the head), but he has played in 68 games. One has to wonder if he may run out of gas in the playoffs.
Marc-Andre Fleury: Pittsburgh Penguins
Season: 36-20-5 / .918 / 2.32
Career Playoffs: 38-24 / .911 / 2.52, 1 Stanley Cup
26-years-old, 62 playoff games, 13 Stanley Cup Finals games and one Stanley Cup ring.
That’s all you need to know about why Marc-Andre Fleury is number one on this list. No other goaltender in the Eastern Conference can touch his experience. Fleury has proven he is a big-game goaltender time and again. There is no reason to think he won’t be the best netminder in the Eastern Conference playoffs this year.
The beginning to Fleury’s season was an unmitigated train wreck. He was benched in late October in favor of backup Brent Johnson as it looked like Fleury was on his way to a massive bust of a season.
But the man they call “Flower” shook off that rough start, put the Penguins on his back, and since January has been playing so well that his name has been whispered as a possible Hart Trophy Candidate. In the face of injuries to nearly a dozen of the Penguins’ most important players, Fleury’s brilliant goalkeeping kept the Pens alive in the race for the Atlantic Division all the way to game 82.
If the Penguins have hopes of raising the Cup again this year, Fleury will have to continue to be the team’s MVP.