NHL Power Rankings: Top 5 Goaltending Tandems

Simon Cherin-Gordon@SimoncgoContributor IIINovember 27, 2011

NHL Power Rankings: Top 5 Goaltending Tandems

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    The NHL is more competitive right now than it's ever been in the modern era. Last year, five points separated 4th and 10th in the west, and the Vancouver Canucks were the only team in the NHL with more than 49 wins.

    As the talent level between teams continues to dwindle, the talent level between players diminishes as well—perhaps nowhere more noticeably than at the goaltender position.

    Because pure skill is no longer a commodity but a prerequisite for seeing NHL minutes, any team and any player can dominate when they have their game going strong. And we've seen in the past couple postseasons that a hot goalie is better than an elite one.

    Jaroslav Halak. Michael Leighton. Antti Niemi. Dwayne Roloson. None of these guys were the definitive No. 1 on their team throughout the regular season, but I challenge you to find a goalie not named Tim Thomas (who himself wasn't even the sure starter going into last season) that has dominated the playoffs over the last two seasons like these guys.

    Modern-day NHL netminding is about stepping up in big moments. Every goalie these days is hard to beat down low. Each can flash the five-hole, only to close it up. Everyone can dive across the crease for a big glove save. 

    Because of this, there are a plethora of backup netminders around the league that are just as capable of dominating the action, whether it be for one game every two weeks or for an indefinite amount of time when the starter is injured.

    Having a a strong goalie tandem is preferable to having one elite guy these days, because so many goalies can be elite at times. The more potential elite options, the better suited you are for withstanding injuries. slumps and making playoff runs.

    Here's a look at the best goaltender duos in the NHL right now.

5. Antti Niemi & Thomas Greiss

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    Antti Niemi missed the first three games of the season with an injury. Last year's backup Antero Niittymaki is out with an injury that will keep him sidelined until January.

    Enter Thomas Greiss, who spent last season playing on loan in Sweden. Greiss did nothing less than win on opening night and lose 1-0 in the second game.

    Niemi has returned and been his usual self, dominating throughout the game, especially in big moments, as his 9-2-1 record shows. Greiss, however, has remained an exceptional backup and stolen multiple games for San Jose this season.

    Not only has Greiss stabilized what could have been a scary injury situation in goal, but he makes Niittymaki—one of the league's best backups—the best third option in the league by a mile.

    Niemi stats: 9-2-1, 2.31 GAA, .923 SV%

    Greiss stats: 4-3-0, 1.99 GAA, .929 SV%

4. Roberto Luongo & Cory Schneider

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    This is an interesting situation.

    Last year, Luongo and Schneider were hands down the best duo in the NHL, putting up save percentages of .928 and .929, respectively. Luongo, however, started 60 games to Schneider's 22, and his 38 wins, 2.11 GAA and four shutouts made him a Vezina finalist.

    Schneider was widely regarded the best backup goalie in the league.

    Now, the duo is still very potent, but it is Luongo playing second fiddle. A weak start to the season by Bobby Lu has Schneider eating away at the veteran's playing time.

    There are few goaltenders out there with the positioning talent and quick reflexes that Schneider possesses. This allows Schneider to play deep in the paint, and he uses his large frame to essentially wall off the goal, making it hard for attackers to squeeze pucks through no matter how close they are, and even rendering redirections ineffective. 

    Schneider learned this style from his mentor Luongo, but has shown to be less leaky and more levelheaded than Luongo. Still, having a guy of Luongo's caliber backing up one of the best young goalies in the game is a situation for almost every team to envy.

    Luongo stats: 7-5-1, 2.97 GAA, .896 SV%

    Schneider stats: 6-4-0, 2.02 GAA, .931 SV%

3. Henrik Lundqvist & Martin Biron

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    Henrik Lundqvist is the best goaltender in the NHL. As I said in the opening, every modern NHL goalie is tough to beat down low. But Henrik still separates himself from the pack here; he's impossible to beat down low.

    He uses his stick to impeccably cover his five-hole, and because of this he can stay on his feet longer than most goalies. This makes him bigger, allowing him to use his glove, dazzling reflexes and quickness to cover the entire crease.

    The scary thing is, Lundqvist had his best season yet last year, and looks even better this year. How the man hasn't won a Vezina is anybody's guess, but it's only a matter of time.

    The scarier thing is that Martin Biron is actually putting up better numbers than Lundqvist so far.

    Biron has only started four times, but the 34-year-old has brought a calming presence to the net and his team each time he's been on the ice. Lundqvist is the biggest workhorse in the league, playing in an average of 71 games over the last five years.

    That means that the Rangers are very, very used to playing in front of him. A lot of teams with workhorse goalies struggle when the backup is in, not just because the lack of playing time has the backup out of his rhythm, but the team feels like they have to compensate and change their game.

    Biron's track record and ultra-professional approach have his team playing confidently in front of him this season. If this trend continues, Henrik's workload may be significantly reduced this year.

    Which means the best goalie in the world will be rested for the postseason—the scariest thought of all.

    Lundqvist stats: 9-4-3, 2.05 GAA, .935 SV%

    Biron stats: 3-1-0, 1.68 GAA, .937 SV%

2. Tim Thomas & Tuukka Rask

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    A Bruin has led the NHL in save percentage for three straight seasons. Twice it was Tim Thomas, once Tuukka Rask.

    Thomas won the Vezina Trophy in 2008-09, but was outplayed by Rask during the 2009-10 season. Although they split time evenly, it was Rask who led the league in save percentage as well as goals against average.

    In 2010-11, not only did Thomas win back the starting job, but he claimed his second Vezina, leading the league in save percentage and goals against average, while putting up a .940 SV% and 1.98 GAA in 25 playoff games to win the Conn Smythe Trophy.

    The 37-year-old Thomas is off to another Vezina-caliber start, and it seems like he will probably spend his latter days in the league as the go-to guy, cementing what is now a Hall of Fame-worthy legacy.

    Thomas' unorthodox style is as defining as his stats. While most modern elite NHL goalies get by on reflexes, flexibility and positioning, Thomas is incredibly aggressive and physical. He'll move out of position and pay for it if he doesn't make the initial save. But as his GAA and SV% show, he usually makes that initial save.

    He'll also clear his crease himself and invite contact in order to do so. Most teams play to get in their opposing goalie's head; Thomas plays to get in his opposing team's head.

    And then there's Tuukka Rask, who at 22 proved to be one of the best goalies around, and at 24 is patiently and happily waiting to become the next franchise netminder and multiple Vezina-winner for Boston.

    Thomas stats: 11-4-0, 1.86 GAA, .937 SV%

    Rask stats: 3-3-1, 2.25 GAA, .921 SV%

1. Niklas Backstrom & Josh Harding

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    Niklas Backstrom might be the single most underrated goalie in the league. Though he is considered a good goalie, he's never mentioned with Luongo, Price or Miller. But the fact is that Backstrom is among the best goaltenders in the NHL.

    Backstrom is put to the test more so than his elite counterparts. The Wild have had a dismal offense since he's become the starter, and they do not block shots or quickly move the puck out of the offensive zone. Because of these two factors, Backstrom not only faces more shots than almost any other goalie on a nightly basis, but he has to let fewer go by him to support his anemic offense.

    Despite the pressure, Backstrom thrives. His ability to get from post to post in a hurry, come out and challenge shots and get back into position after rebounds has teams forced to try and power the puck through him rather than sneaking it by him.

    He renders this approach ineffective with his ability to make saves with every part of his body and equipment, along with his adeptness playing from a contorted position, on his knees or even on his back (no pun intended).

    Then there's Josh Harding, who until this season looked like an average backup netminder. Now he looks like he'd be starting for most teams.

    Harding is more of a traditional goalie than Backstrom, using his push across the crease and initial positioning to make saves. His rebound control is sensational, and he swallows up hard shots with his glove as well as anyone. 

    Both Backstrom and Harding are so good and so difficult to beat that the Wild's defense has two simple jobs: don't allow screens; and don't turn the puck over. This team has an awful offense and doesn't even have an elite blue line.

    But with two guys who can keep each other fresh all season and stop even the most pretty offensive play, the Wild are legitimate threats to not only make the playoffs, but ride one of these guys a long way.

    Backstrom stats: 7-4-2, 1.97 GAA, .935 SV%

    Harding stats: 6-2-1, 2.07 GAA, .934 SV%