The Blackhawks and the Capitals are postseason favorites, but shaky goaltending could spoil their Stanley Cup chances
For a league that glories in rough stuff on the ice, customarily there is restraint to the interactions of NHL teams off it. Voices are muted. Beeswax is minded. But when, during the pillow fight over Ducks defenseman James Wisniewski's suspension-worthy hit on the Blackhawks' Brent Seabrook last month, Anaheim general manager Bob Murray threw down the gauntlet at Chicago coach Joel Quenneville, he nailed the Blackhawks right in their soft underbelly.
"I strongly suggest Joel worries about his goaltending," Murray said, "and stops trying to run the NHL."
Chicago, whose goaltending ranges from relatively untested to periodically unreliable, indeed has reason to fret as the Stanley Cup playoffs open this week. But the Blackhawks aren't the only elite team that will be watching its goalie, or goalies, through the cracks of splayed fingers. Washington, another team with obvious Cup aspirations, has pressing issues of its own. Both clubs, which rank one-two in regular-season goal differential, have similar dilemmas—each has an overpriced and often problematic veteran matched with a promising younger goalie without much portfolio—leaving question marks at a position best served with the finality of a period. And though San Jose and Vancouver, the two teams with the next-best goal differentials, do have reputed go-to goalies, both have been mired in a post-Olympic malaise. "This has been a strange year," says Phoenix coach Dave Tippett. "I can't remember so many top teams starting out [the playoffs] with questions about their goaltending."
The 2010 playoffs: The puck stops somewhere.
Let's start in Chicago, city of broad shoulders and ample five holes. The combined save percentage of its bubble-wrapped goalies—the Blackhawks allowed an NHL-low 25.1 shots per game—is a humdrum .901. Of course statistics such as save percentage or goals-against average hardly paint a nuanced portrait of a dazzling team that owns the puck like Chicago. But middling numbers are red flags even if they don't become flashing red goal lights.
Because Chicago was nuzzled up against the salary cap and didn't want to rejigger its roster at the March 3 trading deadline to pursue a top-flight goalie such as Florida's Tomas Vokoun, Quenneville will open the postseason with Antti Niemi, a combative, butterfly-style rookie who beats up a puck as much as he stops it. His understudy, now in his second disappointing season in Chicago, is 34-year-old Cristobal Huet, the quietest Frenchman since Marcel Marceau. Huet, in the opinion of an opposing veteran goalie, "seems to lack mental toughness. When things go bad, he starts looking real small in the net."
Maybe Huet would cause less angst if his salary were as low-key as he is; Huet is halfway through a four-year, $22.5 million contract, a windfall he earned when Chicago was smitten by his 11--2 record and 1.63 GAA down the stretch for Washington in 2008. The eight-year vet has been a popular teammate in all four of his NHL stops, rarely losing equanimity and always embracing responsibility for weak goals, which tend to come in bunches. When Quenneville ventured an increasingly rare Huet start on March 25, Columbus burned him for seven.
Meanwhile, Niemi, who's third in the NHL with seven shutouts, has a spotty playoff record: he's a combined 4--9 in the Finnish elite and American Hockey leagues. "Antti's been pretty good for us," Quenneville says. "I like his quickness and size"—the 6'2" 210-pounder is an inch taller and five pounds heavier than Huet—"and I like his [aggressive] approach." Still, with Huet indisposed during a West Coast swing last month because of flu, Chicago recalled Corey Crawford from the minors and started him over Niemi in the first of back-to-back games. Crawford badly mishandled a puck to gift-wrap a Ducks goal in a 4--2 loss.
While consternation about goaltending is widespread, it might also be misplaced. Recently there's been no correlation between regular-season save percentage and Stanley Cup championships. (Since the 2004--05 lockout, when the NHL made several rule changes to boost offense, the only Cup-winning team that ranked in the top 10 was the '07 Ducks.) Certainly the tenor of postlockout playoff goaltending has been unconventional, at least when judged on what Detroit G.M. Ken Holland calls "the Patrick Roy--Martin Brodeur scale."
In 2006 Carolina rookie backup Cam Ward earned the Conn Smythe Trophy, winning 15 games with a .920 save percentage en route to the Stanley Cup. In '07 Ilya Bryzgalov played the first three playoff games before Anaheim turned to Jean-Sébastien Gigu√®re, who had a 1.97 GAA. The following year Dominik Hasek split the opening four games against Nashville until Detroit coach Mike Babcock switched and rode Chris Osgood to a Cup. Between 1989 and 2004, only Pittsburgh's Tom Barrasso in '91 didn't earn all 16 of his team's playoff wins. Last season the Penguins' Marc-André Fleury became the first postlockout goalie to win every game.
Once it was a hockey solecism not to ride a single goalie. Now as the disparity between the No. 1 and his nominal backup shrinks, it has become a strategy.
"My mind-set is to start with one, get very comfortable with one," Quenneville says. "[But] when you have [a good backup] in your back pocket, you've got to feel it's an asset."
But there must be a sound Plan B for goalies who, postlockout, face more gilt-edged scoring opportunities, reflected in rising GAAs. (Four goalies who played at least 50 games had averages below 2.10 in '03--04, the climax of the Dead Puck era; Buffalo's Ryan Miller led the 50-gamers this season at 2.22.) The go-go Capitals scored a league-best 313 goals this season, but their 2.77 GAA was the second highest by a President's Trophy winner since 1992--93. If the customary tight checking in the playoffs shackles Alexander Ovechkin & Co., this dashing team could be gone-gone unless its goalie makes all the routine saves and one or two magical stops per game.
There's reason for hope—José Théodore, after all, ended the season with a streak of 23 straight games without a loss in regulation. (He's 20-0-3 since Jan. 13.) But there are lies, damn lies and statistical whoppers, and Théodore's glossy achievement has blemishes: He allowed at least three goals in 12 of those games, four on four occasions and five twice, including a messy March 30 performance against the Senators in which four of the goals were marshmallow-soft. This streak also doesn't include the three in 10 shots Théodore conceded to Calgary on March 28 before sophomore Semyon Varlamov let in two softies in relief in a 5--3 defeat.
Boudreau will probably start the playoffs with the 5'11" Théodore, who is standing up more and playing bigger in net this season while working with new goalie coach Arturs Irbe. Théodore, essentially a stopgap starter when he signed a two-year, $9 million deal as Huet's replacement in 2008, says, "I want to show that when I'm consistent, I'm in the top third of goalies."
He hasn't been a force since he took an extended victory lap around the NHL after winning the Hart and Vezina trophies with Montreal in 2002. Théodore cobbled together a respectable 2009--10 out of the shards of his grief over the death last August of his 54-day-old son, Chace, who suffered from respiratory failure resulting from a premature birth. But he apparently has not won Boudreau's unqualified trust. The coach, who pulled Théodore for the second game of the playoffs last spring after the Rangers scored on a couple of soft wristers in the opener, said he did not plan to name his Game 1 starter until just before the match.
"Some teams [do] need to keep it under two [goals against], but I don't think Chicago and Washington look at it that way," Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff says. "They make up for it with how good they are offensively.... [Maybe] you're scared because you don't quite think those goalies are good enough to carry the team, but [they can win] 4--3 rather than 3--2. I don't think you can discount a team like Washington because of goaltending."
Of the presumptive Game 1 starters, only New Jersey's Brodeur and Pittsburgh's Fleury have won Cups as No. 1s. An astounding seven goalies without any NHL playoff experience have muscled their way into starting roles (sidebar, right). Excluding Brodeur and Fleury, the 14 other first-night goalies have won just 113 playoffs games among them.
But more disquieting than the greenish tint to playoff goaltending—everybody's first Cup had to come sometime—are the number of established starters for serious Cup contenders whose teams are on tenterhooks.
And quick hooks.
Evgeni Nabokov again backstops win-or-bust San Jose, which was dumped by eighth-seeded Anaheim in the first round last year. He ranked fourth in save percentage and fifth in GAA prior to starting for Russia at the Olympics. In 18 NHL games since being exposed by Team Canada—he gave up six goals in a 7--3 quarterfinal train wreck—Nabokov, who along with Brodeur is the only goalie to have three straight 40-win NHL seasons, had a 2.97 GAA and a .902 save percentage. He also was yanked twice in losses last month.
Nor has the triumphant Olympic goalie, the Canucks' Roberto Luongo, been immune from such jitters. Luongo, whose glove can turn to stone under pressure, has been pedestrian if not embarrassing, except on April 1 in L.A. when the Kings whipped eight past him. He allowed more than one even-strength goal in 12 of 16 post-Olympic starts.
There will be a goalie skating with a 35-pound hunk of hardware one glorious night in mid-June. That's pretty much the guideline. It's also the only guarantee in the confounding world of 2010 NHL playoff goaltending.
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Once it was a hockey solecism not to ride a single goalie. Now it has become a strategy.
Photograph by DAVID E. KLUTHO
UNTRIED VS. UNRELIABLE Blackhawks starter Niemi lacks postseason experience, while backup Huet (right) gives up too many soft goals.
JIM RINALDI/ICON SMI
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FALLBACK OPTION Théodore's uneven play could force the Caps to turn to Varlamov (below) in net.
JAMES GUILLORY/US PRESSWIRE
[See caption above]