- Terry Frei, Special to ESPN.com
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What's so tough about making NHL playoff predictions?
This seems to be the foolproof formula:
In each series, start with the number of regular-season victories. Multiply by the penalty-kill percentage. Add 2.43 points for home ice. Give four bonus points for each 30-goal scorer. Add or subtract the roster's best plus/minus for any player with more than 1,200 minutes. Award 0.5 points for each member of the active roster who has played on a Stanley Cup champion.
Do all that.
Then give the calculator back to the baseball writer, who truly needs it to figure out the on-base percentage of the shortstop in the final three innings on Tuesday afternoons against pitchers in triple figures in the pitch count. (Most writers also add a coefficient for their assessment of the most fashionable concern in 2006, a pitcher's arm slotting.)
And then, with both the calculating and the calculator out of the way
Pick the team with the goaltender you have the most faith in at the time.
It makes perfect sense, and it doesn't always produce "safe" picks, either.
It also is one of the obvious and often-cited reasons the NHL playoffs are the best postseason in professional sports. The schedule's generally every-other-day relentlessness, with a far higher physical toll and mental strain, beats the heck out of the NBA, where rounds sometimes seem to take a month, and the NFL, where the pressure builds to a weekly crescendo. (MLB continues its daily grind, except in this case the postseason games last a mind-numbing four hours and 22 minutes, instead of the usual three hours and 51 minutes, and Tim McCarver still talks through every game he's working.)
But the catch, and one that makes it even more entertaining, is that everyone's standards can be different, and the factors are all moving targets, difficult to snag out of the air, much less quantify.
Part of the fun is waiting to see which inexperienced playoff goalie, regardless of age, stature or regular-season reputation, might turn out to be the most praiseworthy of performers -- those who not only don't wilt under the increased pressure, but also thrive in it.
Who will disdainfully and eagerly wave on the pressure as if it's a third-period breakaway?
Who gets in the heads of the opposing team, getting the other guys talking to the scribes about needing more traffic in front of the net and then griping on the bus about what the heck got into this guy who didn't seem to be this tough on Thursdays in January?
Of course, history is littered with goalies who earned and couldn't shake the reputations as players who could be counted on when the stakes weren't as high, but were unreliable in the playoffs.
Sometimes, too, we get so caught up in numbers, citing the goals-against and save percentage as the be-all, end-all, we forget that one of the aspects of great playoff goaltending is a short memory. That's the ability to shrug off the occasional rotten game, unless it's in a series-ending game, and move on. It's even wrong to say "forget it and move on," too. That's because the rotten game becomes yet another component in the motivation, not a drag on the confidence.
Finally, it involves a goaltender's arrogance, swagger and attitude becoming contagious. His teammates know he's back there, know he's luxuriating in all this pressure, and they can maybe take a few more chances, which in this playoff season could mean not being so worried about having five guys within spitting distance of the crease and maybe utilizing those stretch passes the rules make possible.
This playoff season comes with more intriguing goaltending questions than ever.
Maybe it's because of the two-year lag time since the last playoffs, and an accompanying changing of the guard in a lot of creases, plus the nagging pain in Dominik Hasek's groin.
But look around. How many of these guys can we be certain about in judging their postseason prowess?
New Jersey's Martin Brodeur. That and the Devils' late-season run have made New Jersey a fashionable (and eminently justifiable) Cup choice heading into the postseason.
And beyond Brodeur, there is
Anaheim's Jean-Sebastien Giguere? His 2003 run with the Mighty Ducks was amazing, and those who quibbled with him being awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy in a losing finals effort must not have been paying attention until the series against the Devils. But was that a few bright-shining months or an indication that he will turn out to be one of the great playoff goalies of all time?
We don't know.
Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff? Well, for one thing, he's looking down at Giguere at the other end of the ice in the first round. He also helped get his team to within one victory of the Cup in 2004, and his work this season has been phenomenal and Vezina-(but not Hart-)worthy. But it's not out of line to say the jury still should be out on him as a playoff goalie.
Hasek? He has to get well first, and also convince coach Bryan Murray that the Senators are better off with a rusty Hasek than Ray Emery. Of course, at this point, if Hasek is back in the crease soon, one reason might be that Emery hasn't proven up to the task. And Murray, who as Ducks GM watched Giguere's compelling work three years ago with enthusiastic interest, surely is hoping he can get such great work from Emery that he can turn to the veteran Czech and say: Sorry, don't need you.
Colorado's Jose Theodore? He bedeviled the Bruins in the first-round comeback two years ago. But the combination of rust, mental baggage and perhaps even the doubts raised by his slight stature in combination with the scaled-down equipment, merit a skeptical attitude about whether he can fulfill the Avalanche's faith in him (at least this soon). That said, in the first round, he's going against a veteran goalie with a sterling regular-season reputation, Marty Turco, who knows that one more playoff stinker will bring back Heimlich jokes out of the closet.
But that all makes it even more fun.
Take Tampa Bay's John Grahame, who has been in and out of John Tortorella's doghouse this season as much as he has been in and out of the Lightning's net. If Tortorella goes with him, and sticks with him, ahead of Sean Burke, the possibilities are intriguing as Grahame succeeds Nikolai Khabibulin as the playoff goalie of record at Tampa Bay. He has a quirky mix of a sometimes lackadaisical attitude yet cutting-edge personality. He has competitiveness in his genes, since he is the son of one-time Bruins and Kings goalie Ron Grahame. He has been in the league since 1999, yet he has played in only two postseason games, one of them an amazing 46-save effort in the 111-minute loss to the Devils in Game 5 of the 2003 conference semifinals. Some scoff at minor-league precedents, but he was an effective playoff goalie with Providence in the AHL.
If he plays, Grahame could either implode or steal the series against the Senators, or something in between. But it's even possible that, shoved into the white-hot postseason crease, he could thrive and give the defending champions not just an upset of the Senators, but also a bona fide chance of repeating.
Without question, Buffalo's Ryan Miller, Carolina's Martin Gerber and the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist have stamped themselves as long-term No. 1s. But as playoff goalies? Who knows? (By the way, if the Canadiens go with David Aebischer over Cristobal Huet, that Montreal-Carolina series will get huge ratings in Switzerland, though everyone will remain neutral.)
Robert Esche got the Flyers to the conference finals two years ago, but Ken Hitchcock -- with some justification -- is coming off as if he is half-hearted about giving Esche the nod over Antero Niittymaki. Does Esche take that as a challenge or take it personally?
Detroit romped to the Presidents' Trophy (pals Bill Clinton and George Herbert Walker Bush could make another trip together to present it), and though Manny Legace sometimes could be excused for yawning because the Red Wings controlled the puck roughly 53 minutes of every game, he really was pretty darned good this season. Plus, that's a franchise that won the Cup with a past-his-prime Mike Vernon, albeit playing well; and with Chris Osgood in the net, so it's not as if Detroit has to get great goaltending to win again. And that's what I think will happen again: Legace will have the great games when he needs them, and his work will be more than an afterthought, but not the centerpiece of another Red Wings' Stanley Cup championship run.
But it's a given that the Oilers' one shot in the first round is if Dwayne Roloson suddenly reverts to his best days at Minnesota, and Legace is a sieve.
It could happen.
With playoff goaltending, anything could happen.
And you don't need a calculator to know that.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."
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