Great goaltending is by far the most important key to winning the Stanley Cup because a confident goaltender gives his team the confidence needed to play above the level it did in the regular season and defeat any opponent that stands in its way.
Thus far in the 2012 NHL playoffs, we have seen several underdogs upset the best teams in the NHL, and all of them occurred because of hot goaltending.
The Los Angeles Kings and Washington Capitals are the two greatest examples of that this year. Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby, who was a big question mark heading into the playoffs, was phenomenal against the defending champion Boston Bruins and showed amazing composure for a rookie en route to a seven-game series win for Washington.
Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick has been the best player in the playoffs thus far, and it's not even up for debate. He has led the Kings past the top two seeds in the Western Conference en route to Los Angeles' first conference finals appearance since 1993. No eighth seed had ever beaten the top two seeds in the postseason under the current playoff format.
Let's break down why dominant goaltending is the most important part of any successful playoff run.
The Pressure of the Playoffs Weighs on Goal Scorers
When the playoffs commence, the pressure on every player heightens, but the top goal scorers on each team face immense pressure to carry their clubs offensively.
A good goaltender can destroy a great offensive player's confidence by thwarting every attempt he puts on net. Each game without a goal is blown out of proportion by the media, and these disappointing forwards then start getting away from their game.
They begin to be less aggressive, and every shot that doesn't hit the back of the net is magnified, and each missed chance is another crack in his confidence.
A great goalie can easily get inside a player's head and force him to do things that normally wouldn't be done because he's so desperate to score.
In this way, a good goaltender can add a ton of frustration to the best opposing forwards, which gives his team a much better chance of winning the series.
A Hot Goalie Can Single-Handedly Win a Playoff Series
A goaltender playing on top of his game with a ton of confidence can single-handedly win a playoff series, even if his opponent is the superior team.
In 1986, Montreal Canadiens rookie goaltender Patrick Roy surprised everyone by going 15-5 with a 1.92 GAA during the playoffs, leading the Canadiens to another Stanley Cup title. In 1971, Canadiens rookie goaltender Ken Dryden came out of nowhere and stunned the defending champion Boston Bruins in the playoffs, leading his team to a cup title. Roy and Dryden would go on to win three and five more titles, respectively.
During the 2010 playoffs, Canadiens goaltender Jaroslav Halak dominated the top-seeded and high-powered Washington Capitals in the first round, highlighted by a team playoff record 53 saves during Game 6 of the series.
When goalies start making a number of saves in a row and win consecutive games with stellar performances, their confidence rises to a level that makes them feel almost unbeatable.
Dryden, a six-time Stanley Cup champion, wrote the following about the playoffs in a recent piece on Grantland:
When playoff energy returns, defense returns. Shooters get harassed and forced to bad angles; rebounds are cleared. Great chances become good chances that good goalies can stop. Every goal not scored seems bigger. Every save made seems better. It’s a goalie’s time of year.
You have to like attention to be a goalie. You have to want to be a hero. In the playoffs, you have your chance. You’re playing better than you’ve ever played, in games more important than you’ve ever been in. You can suddenly feel a wave build beneath you. A save, another, the noise of the crowd. You feel good. You feel great.
A goalie who's on his game can defeat a great team almost by himself and affect the outcome of the series in a way that no player in any position in sports can.
Great Goalies Give the Rest of the Team So Much Confidence
Not only does a goalie gain tremendous confidence when he plays well in the playoffs, so do his teammates.
When a goalie is playing out of his mind in net, the rest of the team gets an emotional boost that really helps them play with more focus and determination.
This has been evident throughout the Kings and Philadelphia Flyers' postseason runs this year. Quick's amazingly consistent play has allowed the Kings to take chances on offense because they know that if they get beat, Quick will bail them out. This is one reason why the Kings lead the playoffs in short-handed goals, because they know they can be aggressive and likely not pay for it since Quick has been so dominant.
In the Flyers series against the New Jersey Devils, you see a Philly team scared out of their minds because their goaltending is so poor. Ilya Bryzgalov, with a few exceptions, has played poorly thus far in the playoffs, and his play is certainly on the minds of the Flyers players.
The Flyers know that if they take chances and put Bryzgalov in situations where he has to make great saves repeatedly, their chances of winning go down severely.
A great goaltender in the playoffs gives his teammates the confidence needed to play composed and be aggressive offensively, which is so important for a team. A bad goaltender can have the opposite effect and make a team play not to lose rather than to win.
Poor Goaltending Can Destroy the Best Teams in the Playoffs
The St. Louis Blues had the best goaltending in the regular season this year, led by Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott.
The Blues, led by their two goaltenders and talented defense, gave up the fewest goals of any team in the regular season. Halak and Elliott had a combined record of 49-22-11, a save percentage of .933 and a GAA of 1.76.
While the Blues goaltenders played well in their Round 1 series win against the San Jose Sharks in just five games, their performance against the Kings in the second round was awful and was the primary reason L.A. swept them in four games.
Elliott looked nothing like he did in the regular season and wasn't able to handle the playoff pressure without Halak able to back him up because of an injury.
The Blues, who were one of the best defensive teams in the NHL, allowed 15 goals in four games against a Kings team backed by unbelievable goaltending.
This series was a great example of how opposing goalies who stand on their head on a nightly basis can destroy the confidence of their opponents. The Blues couldn't score, Elliott couldn't keep pucks out of the net and they were bombarded with questions from the media about how they would find a way to beat Quick.
Very Rarely Does Average Goaltending Lead to Stanley Cup Success
In the last 20 years, only one team has won the Stanley Cup with a goaltender who didn't play out of this world throughout the playoffs or already have great playoff experience.
The Chicago Blackhawks in 2010 with Antti Niemi are the only team since 1990 that won the Stanley Cup with a goaltender who didn't dominate throughout the playoffs or have prior cup-winning experience.
If you don't get good, consistent play out of your goaltenders, the chances of your team raising Lord Stanley's Cup are minimal at best.
Having a great goaltender in the playoffs raises the level of confidence in his teammates and destroys the confidence of his opponents.
This is why so many goaltenders make a ton of money, and why owners are willing to eat up a lot of the salary cap with high-priced netminders.
To win the best trophy in sports, there's no question that dominant goaltending is the key ingredient to success.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and was also the organization's on-site reporter for the 2011 Stanley Cup Final in Boston.