It won't be easy being green for these goalies
There is a school of thought that suggests teams entering the playoffs with inexperienced goaltending start the postseason endurance race with one wheel off the pavement.
But what if all the cars start the race the same way? They can't all go off the rails, can they?
Well, we're about to find out.
Of the eight Eastern Conference teams most likely to qualify for the playoffs, it's entirely possible seven will pin their Stanley Cup hopes on goaltenders with minimal or no playoff experience. And that doesn't take into account the greenhorn netminders waiting in the wings in Atlanta (Kari Lehtonen) and Toronto (Jean-Sebastien Aubin) if either the Leafs or Thrashers can squeeze into the postseason.
Two years ago, people were dismissive of the Calgary Flames' playoff chances because they were relying on untested Miikka Kiprusoff in goal. As the Flames upset favored Vancouver, Detroit, San Jose and came within a game of the Stanley Cup itself, Kiprusoff went from unheralded to superstar in a matter of weeks.
Is there a Kiprusoff in the making in the East?
The unproven cast comprises Hasek's backup in Ottawa, rookie Ray Emery, Martin Gerber in Carolina, rookies Henrik Lundqvist with the Rangers and Ryan Miller in Buffalo, Cristobal Huet in Montreal, Antero Niittymaki in Philly and John Grahame in Tampa. They are all talented and have had success to varying degrees in other venues.
So, does this mean we throw the experience book right out the window?
"I don't think you throw it out the window, but it is what it is," said Craig Button, the former Flames GM who is a top pro scout for Toronto.
"I don't think after 82 games you suddenly go off the rails," Button added, but it's now a question of consistency and resilience when the stakes are at their highest.
"I don't think all of them will play well. But some of them will," added former Tampa and Florida GM Rick Dudley, now a scout with the Chicago Blackhawks.
With the exception of the netminder who faces Brodeur (likely Lundqvist), the experience will be a wash.
"It's not like Ray Emery is at a disadvantage against anyone else," Button said.
Here's a look at the seven.
Hasek claims he'll be ready for the playoffs, which begin April 21, but if Emery, 23, is pressed into service, there are questions about his ability to rebound from subpar performances. Last week, a weary Emery was beaten for five goals against Montreal, then pulled in a 6-2 loss to Buffalo on Saturday.
Last year, Emery and the favored Binghamton Senators were dumped in the first round of the AHL playoffs by Wilkes-Barre/Scranton after Emery gave up only 14 goals in six games.
In Carolina, Dudley thinks Gerber is a having an MVP-like season in his first year as an NHL starter. Gerber was twice the top playoff goalie in the Swedish Elite League, in 2002 and last spring during the lockout. At 31, the technically sound netminder isn't likely to get the jitters that might afflict some of his other green colleagues.
In spite of his recent woes in Buffalo, Miller will enter the playoffs having enjoyed significant success at the AHL and NCAA level, not to mention having a banner rookie NHL campaign. Still, after being named the AHL's goalie of the year last season, Miller was only average in the AHL playoffs as top-ranked Rochester was dumped in the second round by Manitoba in five games.
Of the four rookies in the East playoff story line, Lundqvist appears the most ready to accept the pressures of an NHL playoff run, even if he faces Hall of Fame-bound Brodeur. Already a hero in his native Sweden thanks to the gold-medal turn at the Torino Olympics, easygoing Lundqvist has earned the confidence of a hardworking Rangers club that will be difficult to deal with.
Down the road in Philadelphia, it wouldn't be the playoffs without some sort of spicy goaltending stew bubbling away. Although Robert Esche has conceded the starting playoff job to Niittymaki, there will be added pressure for the 25-year-old Finn knowing that any misstep will bring calls for a change. Still, Niittymaki has shown little indication he cares a whit about pressure. He was unstoppable in leading the Philadelphia Phantoms to a surprise AHL championship last year (he was 15-5 with a 1.75 goals-against average in the postseason), then led the Finns to a surprise silver medal in Torino.
In Montreal, the Canadiens believed so strongly in Huet that they dealt hometown favorite Jose Theodore to Colorado at the deadline. Huet, 30, had played in just 53 NHL games before this season and has little in the way of a playoff résumé, but he leads the NHL with a .931 save percentage and is second with a 2.12 GAA. When it looked as though the Canadiens might slip below the playoff bubble in March, it was Huet who guided the Habs to an eight-game winning streak. As with Gerber, his lack of NHL playoff experience should be balanced nicely by his maturity.
Grahame, 30, might be the most enigmatic of the seven. A backup to Nikolai Khabibulin during the Lightning's march to the Stanley Cup in 2004, Grahame had a bird's-eye view of what it takes to win a championship. But the Denver native has been wildly inconsistent. He's capable of playing well enough to help the Bolts beat anyone in the East. He's also capable of going completely off the rails.
Jovanovski is physical and makes plays that make a difference, the scout said. The Canucks might still draw penalties, but without Jovanovski's skating and puck movement and Salo's cannon from the point, teams can defend the Canucks' power play more easily and Vancouver is struggling to put pucks in the net. "Now, all of a sudden, your work on the five-on-five isn't being rewarded [with power-play goals]," Button said.
Salo suffered a shoulder injury at the Olympics and remains out of action, and Jovanovski returned to the lineup Saturday for the first time since late January after undergoing surgery to repair an abdominal injury. In a must-win situation, Jovanovski scored the overtime winner over Calgary to push Vancouver, at least temporarily, back into a tie with San Jose for the eighth and final playoff spot. Coincidence? We think not. -- S.B.
Let's see how Atlanta does this week. Two weeks ago, Atlanta was in the playoffs and ahead of a couple of teams. Since then, the Thrashers are under .500 at a time when a team needs to stay hot to reach the playoffs. Now, Atlanta is stale and New Jersey and Montreal are red-hot. The Thrashers still have a chance, but likely will have to win every game to keep that chance alive. It's not as if they've been behind all year -- the Thrashers were in it, but couldn't stay in the top eight in the East. There have been rumors that goalie Kari Lehtonen had been playing with a broken finger the past few weeks. If that turns out to be true, that could be what does Atlanta in.
With Scott Stevens retired and Scott Niedermayer departed via free agency, the Devils have been a team in transition this season. In the past, New Jersey has been rock steady. This season, the Devils have been an inconsistent bunch, riding hot and cold streaks throughout the long campaign. Right now, however, Lou Lamoriello's team is rolling pretty well. In fact, after a tough home-ice loss to the Leafs on March 26, the Devils have reeled off seven straight wins to pull within two points of the Flyers for second place in the Atlantic. The two bitter rivals meet twice in the final days of the regular season. The Devils host the Flyers on Thursday and again on Sunday. The one that comes out of those two games better likely will start the playoffs in Buffalo against the Sabres.
San Jose-Vancouver home-and-home (Wednesday, Thursday): OK, it's two games. But for all intents and purposes, a playoff berth rides on the outcome of these matchups. The two teams entered this week tied for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. But because San Jose has two games in hand, it is imperative that Vancouver take at least three of four points in these games to keep its playoff hopes alive. Meanwhile, the Sharks can pretty much secure a postseason spot by sweeping the Canucks. For all the carping about the schedule, you couldn't ask for any more drama in the waning days of the regular season.
"We have no confidence in our ability and no confidence that we are doing it right. We just made too many mistakes. We are afraid
of failure and doing something wrong."
-- Jeremy Roenick of Los Angeles, which has just six goals in its last six games.
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