NHL Goaltenders in the Spotlight as the Second Round Begins

Scott WeldonCorrespondent IApril 29, 2009

Good goaltending is critical to success in hockey.

The analogy is that it's like pitching in baseball. Close enough, I figure.

This all gets magnified in the playoffs. Goaltenders have often carried unworthy teams further then they deserved to go.

Olaf Kolzig dragged the '97-98 Capitals into the Stanley Cup Finals against the Dteroit Red Wings. Dominic Hasek took the unworthy Buffalo Sabres in to the finals in the next year, and took the Czechs to gold in the 1998 Nagano Olympics.

The 1972-73 Montreal Canadiens, with Ken Dryden in net, were the dominant Stanley Cup champion.  The next year, when Dryden held out and spent the year as an article clerk and working for Ralph Nader, the Canadiens lost in the first round. Goaltending is important. 

This year, things have mostly gone according to form in the first round.

Goalies Luongo, Khabibulin, Thomas, Ward, and Hiller proved to be better then their opposite numbers Chris Mason, Kiprusoff, Price, Brodeur, and Nabokov. That's not the whole story—though in Anaheim that was probably a good part of it.

Still, it helps to get better goaltending then your opponent. Bad goaltending is demoralizing. Players are left feeling that no matter what they do, their goalie is going to give up a soft one and blow it for them.

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The Detroit-Columbus series seemed to go against form. Steve Mason is three times the goalie Osgood is, but Detroit can't be beaten. They could have played with a bricked up net and Detroit still would have pushed enough goals in to win.

The Rangers had a mismatch going in net,s with Henrik Lundquist versus Jose Theodore. I think if Varlamov hadn't been brought in and hadn't been able to supply competent goaltending, Washington could have lost in a hurry.

The Philadelphia-Pittsburgh matchup in nets was pretty even so it came down to Crosby and Malkin not being denied. So you can't just follow the goalie—but they're important.

How does the second round look?


Carolina vs.  Boston

Carolina eked out a last-minute victory over the New Jersey Devils. Eric Staal and his line had a great series. The defense and goaltending was enough to barely contain the Devils' big scorers. Boston will sit on that one line with Chara, Lucic, Thornton, and Yelle.

I can’t see Carolina winning an away game in this series. Boston has the better goaltending, and three lines who can score. After Eric Staal and Ray Whitney, the Hurricanes have Eric Cole and Sergei Samsonov—who both looked mostly disinterested in Game Seven.

Joe Corvo is the power-play quarterback Ottawa still wishes they had. Rod Brind'Amour just isn’t the player he was before he got hurt last year. He’s almost forty and this may be the end for him.

Boston has the better the goalie, the better offense, and the better defense. Hmm...what does that leave

Prediciton: Boston in five games.

Washington vs. Pittsburgh

Both of these teams had tough opening series. Washington’s was tougher, and they had to win Game Seven over a tight-checking New York Rangers team. They live and die with Ovechkin and Semin. Fedorov scored a huge game-winning goal. Mike Green is one of the best offensive defenceman in the league, and Tom Poti has come back from injury and played a great Game Seven.

The story with Washington, though, is goaltending. The brain trust decided early they wouldn’t win too many games with Jose Theodore in net giving up 4.5 goals a game to an offensively-challenged New York team. It’s a shame they didn’t figure this out last summer, or even at the trade deadline.

Instead, in Game Two in the first round of the playoffs they plugged in rookie goaltender Simeon Varlamov from Russia. The 200year-old was a first-round pick in 2006, and he’d had a reasonable year in the six games and 329 minutes he put in. He had a .918 save percentage and a 2.37 goals0against average.

Varlamov’s been great in the playoffs. He is arguably the difference maker in this series. It was a gutsy move—and one that needed to have been made a long time ago. A team with as much talent as Washington deserves a better goalie then Theodore.

Still, these things don’t usually work out. For every Patrick Roy and Ken Dryden excelling in the playoffs as youngsters, there are dozens of Steve Penneys and Carey Prices out there. Varlamov's story is still being written, and he’s got one Game Seven win to put in his resume.

The Rangers wrote the game plan on how to beat Washington. If you contain Ovechkin—like they did in Games Two and Seven—and if you can score enough, you beat them.

New York couldn’t score enough. That won’t be Pittsburgh’s problem. They added some key components to their line up and look to be better then the team that dropped three out of four to the Capitals in the regular season.

They have in Jordan Staal, Maxime Talbot, and Matt Cooke—some of the best checkers in the game.  They skate hard, play the body—and Cooke especially will drive Ovechkin insane. They have a depth of scoring that Washington can't match.

Their young goalie has had a rockier road to climb then Varlamov, but Marc-Andre Fleury is starting to play up to his draft position.

Sergei Gonchar provides the offensive spark from the blue line that Green gives the Capitals. Orpick is their shut-down guy—though without Whitney, their defense does look more vulnerable then last year's did.

Hal Gill will not show well against fleet-footed Russians or Swedes—or Canadians or Americans for that matter. The big old guy can’t skate. Kris Letang is providing some offense from the blueline.

This should all prove too much for Washington, but I expect some great games, with back and forth offensive flow. There should be goals in this series that can’t be scored anywhere else. Pittsburgh wins in the end, because Malkin and Crosby together are better then Ovechkin and Semin together.

Prediction: Pittsburgh in six games.


Anaheim vs. Detroit

Defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit made hash of poor center-less Columbus. Detroit seems to be the only team that can bring in quality depth when players get injured.

In what promises to be a tough series players will get injured. Detroit will fill in with Ericsson, Helm and Leino. Anaheim will have to plug in Hedican and Ryan Carter.

Detroit has the best three defenseman in hockey in Lidstrom, Rafalski, and Kronwall. Anaheim may have a better five with Pronger, Niedermeyer, Whitney, Wiesnewski, and Beauchemin.

Where it falls apart is at forward. Anaheim has four scoring forwards.  Two of them are likely to get neutralized.  Meanwhile, Zetterburg, Datsyuk, Holmstrom, Hossa, Franzen, Samuelsson, Hudler, and  Filppula are all capable of providing offense. Oh, and Cleary had forty points too.

The Ducks' top six guys have 40 points or more. Andrew Ebbet is the only other player doing anything offensively—and he may just be getting points by association. Detroit has 11 players with 40 points or more, plus Holmstrom, who had 37 in 53 games.

Hopefully in this series, Detroit gets challenged enough that Osgood is replaced by the competent Conklin. Other then in net, Detroit has too much for a very good Anaheim team. Scott Niedermeyer has looked touchable these playoffs. This really might be the year he retires.

The longer Osgood plays the longer the series will go. Washington figured out immediately that they couldn’t win with Theodore in net. Detroit is so good the handicap wasn’t even noticed in the first round.  

I’m picking the team with the better goaltending to lose. Honestly, that’s not the way the playoffs are supposed to work.

Predicition: Detroit in six games.

Chicago vs. Vancouver

Vancouver swept their first-round opponent. They managed to heal up injuries they had to Sundin, Salo, and Willie Mitchell.

Chicago had a tougher time with Calgary, but still made it through relatively unscathed. Luongo appeared to pull a groin in that last game in St Louis, but he’s had more then a week of recovery time. He needs to stay healthy for the Canucks to have any chance. 

Vancouver has a good defense when Ohlund, Bieksa, Mitchell, Salo, and Edler can all play. They take a step back when Vaananen is in the lineup, and it gets critical when they have two defencemen hurt.

They suffer from the weakness that most modern cap teams seem to have, which is a lack of “quality” depth at any position. After their top four or five guys, they have filled in with players they can afford.

The Sedins and Burrows still make a good first line. Demitra, Kesler, and Sundin aren’t horrible as a second line, but a checking line with Kyle Wellwood on it is unlikely to hold up anyone.

Sundin needs to be able to play every game to give them the secondary scoring they will need against this very talented Chicago team. It’s easy to see now why he took so long to decide to come back to the NHL. Bet you he doesn’t come back next year. He has gotten too old for this crap.

Chicago beat a much better team in the first round than Vancouver did. They have six or seven forwards that can score, but little Patrick Kane is a definite must-have player. His skill and speed are hard to cover, and Chicago will need all the offense they can muster. They’ll need to move Luongo around his crease to beat him.

That said, Chicago has a good solid defense. Seabrook and their checking line will hold the Sedins to next to nothing. If Sundin can’t step it up, Vancouver will be hard pressed to score in this series.

Luongo is better than Khabibulin, but it’s not a huge difference, and I think Chicago will take Vancouver out quickly, possibly in five. I’m again choosing the worse goalie to win the series. It's not as big a discrepancy as in the Detroit series, but still it can't be smart.    

Prediction: Chicago in six games.