May 16, 2011

Final Four Proves Goaltending's Worth

From the old NHL to the new one, some things never change.

These 2011 playoffs have proven that goaltending is the cornerstone to a successful playoff run. As the Conference Finals begin, the common denominator between the final four is the last line of defence. It is no accident that these teams have made it so far thanks to solid play between the pipes.

Whether it has been Dwayne Roloson, Roberto Luongo, Antti Niemi, or Tim Thomas, series have been won and lost in goaltending duels. Big names, and small, old and young, this is a bunch that is getting it done.

The baby-face of these four backstoppers is the San Jose Sharks' Antti Niemi. The sophomore already has a Stanley Cup ring, and after leaving Chicago for the West Coast, questions were raised about whether this rookie sensation was a one-hit-wonder, or if he was for real. Answered.

Niemi chalked up 35 wins in San Jose's effort to take the Pacific Division, and his 2.38 GAA was ninth among the league's starters. More importantly, he has been clutch in the playoffs. Goaltending is not just about being good, its about being good when it matters, and in five overtime appearances so far, he has not conceded a goal. He has let everyone know that last season was no fluke.

Roberto Luongo has had a different mission. His 2009/10 season produced his worst save percentage of his career at .913, and worse, the Canucks bucked out of the post-season at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks for the second straight year. The brunt of the criticism landed on Luongo's shoulders, and he needed a bounce-back.

This year has been that sort of season for Luongo. A Vezina candidate, he has been solid in net during the Canucks' playoff run. He did take a stumble during the quarter-final series against Chicago, but after Schneider was awarded the start in Game 6, he stormed back and delivered a performance in the deciding game that was nothing short of brilliant.

The semis boasted a goaltending duel, as Luongo stared down another nominee for the Vezina in Nashville's Pekka Rinne. While Rinne received much praise for his spectacular play, Luongo quietly outdid him, posting better numbers, and winning more games. No scintillating saves, he just made it look easy.

Tim Thomas is famous for his scintillating saves, however, and he has had himself a season for the ages. The 36-year-old's .938 save percentage is the NHL's single-season record, and he produced a Dead Puck-esque 2.00 GAA. A lot of people chose the Boston Bruins before the playoffs to come out of the east, and their explanations more often that not included his name.

But Thomas was slow out of the gate against the hated Montreal Canadiens. Boston dropped the first two games, and Thomas' best-even save percentage was no where to be found, as he now was below .900. Boston's goalie needed to turn his game around if the rest of the team was to do the same.

That is precisely what happened, as Thomas picked up his game, and the Bruins took the next three games, and the series lead. Even when the Habs forced a seventh, Thomas outdid Carey Price when it counted most, and Boston never looked back.

In the second round, Thomas completely outclassed the Philadelphia Flyers goaltending corps. Philly was a mess, and Thomas stayed dominant. As a result, the Bruins also dominated the series, sweeping the Flyers.

Tim Thomas is certainly not the only greybeard excelling in net. His third round opponent Dwayne Roloson, at 41 years old, makes Thomas look like a prospect fresh out of the draft. Roloson has never been a superstar goalie, and his best days were widely thought to be behind him. No one was even sure if he was going to play another season, or announce his retirement.

He ended up deciding to sign on for one more year with the New York Islanders, and after a decent start there, was dealt at the deadline to the Tampa Bay Lightning. He has proven to be a massive upgrade over Dan Ellis and Mike Smith.

His experience has bred consistency, as he was great down the stretch for the Lightning, and has now shifted to outstanding for the playoffs. In a tight series against the Penguins, he was the difference. When they were up against the heavily favoured Capitals, Tampa's goaltending advantage helped them sweep.

Roloson has led this Lightning team, and his level of play has not wavered. If Tampa Bay still has Dan Ellis playing in goal, this playoff run simply does not happen.

Even with all the changes made during the lockout to encourage scoring, goalies have maintained their  importance. In fact, throughout every era hockey was endured, the foundation of a dynasty has always started in the crease.

Edmonton had Grant Fuhr, the Islanders had Billy Smith, the Habs has Ken  Dryden, Toronto had Johnny Bower. Each one of these men are in the Hockey Hall of Fame. The game can change all it likes, but you can never alter this principal.

Offence gets the glory, but goaltending wins championships.

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