- Jim Kelley
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In another year, it might have been easier.
Had Andrew Raycroft broken into the NHL with the Boston Bruins at the same time as Joe Thornton or Sergei Samsonov, not much would have been expected of the young goaltender. Like other rookies, he would have been afforded time to grow. He might have been praised for his ability to make big saves or for his quick glove hand. Maybe someone would have noticed that he gets up and down pretty well for a big man, has excellent reflexes and has the right temperament for the position.
But it didn't work out that way.
Instead, Raycroft has reached the NHL at the same time Thornton and Samsonov are adding to their reputations as dominant players and the Bruins are establishing themselves as an Eastern Conference contender.
He also has dominated at his position.
That has brought attention and talk of the Calder Trophy. Even the Vezina.
And that has brought expectations.
The last player to win the Calder and the Stanley Cup in the same year is Patrick Roy. But if Roy had an advantage, it was that few knew how he was capable of playing. In 1986, Roy posted 23 wins and a 3.35 goals-against average, and the Montreal Canadiens finished second in their division (fourth in the conference), making their Stanley Cup run every bit as improbable as it was masterful.
Raycroft, a fifth-round pick in 1998, spent three seasons with Providence of the American Hockey League before reaching the NHL on a full-time basis this season. He posted 29 wins, finishing sixth in the league with a 2.05 GAA and fifth with a .926 save percentage, and led the Bruins to the Northeast Division title.
"It's been nice," Raycroft said of the attention. "I try to just go out there and have fun. I'm not on the ice thinking about rookie of the year. My focus has been about wins and the playoffs. I've been thinking a lot about that."
So have the Bruins and their faithful. And Raycroft is the reason why.
It was thought that this would be another season of development for the Bruins. While players like Thornton and Samsonov have developed into dominant players, the Bruins still had some holes to fill. In goal, Raycroft was going to be eased into the No. 1 role and veteran Felix Potvin, a free-agent signee, would play as much as the process dictated.
That was the plan. The reality was pretty much just the opposite.
Raycroft started well and simply got better. By December, Potvin had moved into the backup role and spent the second half of the season playing in every third or fourth game.
Raycroft finished the season with better numbers than Montreal's Jose Theodore, the 2002 Vezina and Hart Trophies winner who he'll meet in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Raycroft doesn't have to play better than Theodore, he just need to be his equal. If that happens, the Bruins could -- and should -- win the series.
But no one can say for certain that Raycroft can do that, not even Raycroft.
After all, the playoffs are an entirely different season.
"You have to be very strong mentally," said Potvin, who sports a 35-37 record in 72 playoff games. "In the playoffs, just like in the regular season, mistakes are going to happen, but you have to be mentally tough enough to bounce back. And you have to do it quickly, because most of the games are going to be 1-0 or 2-1 or something like that. That's where you have to show you are strong mentally and that you can come back."
Raycroft has such a history. During the 1999-2000 season, his last with Kingston of the Ontario Hockey League, Raycroft led the league with a .918 save percentage while facing more shots than any other goalie. His promising play in Providence allowed the Bruins to trade John Grahame to Tampa Bay last season. In his previous three seasons, his save percentage has never been lower than .916, an indication that he is both reliable and consistent.
"People watch him and say 'Wow, where did that come from', but I had him on a day-to-day basis and he's pretty smooth," said Providence coach Scott Gordon. "People who didn't see him play down here don't realize how effective and how efficient he was."
Because of his unflappable nature, it's sometimes lost on people who have seen him play in the NHL. Sure, he's had disappointments this season and has made his share of mistakes, but for the most part he takes everything in stride.
"I don't get too excited about too many things," he said just days before the start of the playoffs. "I try to go with the flow and I understand that good things are going to happen and bad things are going to happen, and the way you react to the bad things is how you are judged as a person and definitely as a goaltender. I just try to keep everything in perspective as much as I can and just go with the flow."
That won't be easy in the playoffs, especially if Thornton is unable to play. If the Bruins are without their No. 1 center, more pressure will be placed on Raycroft's shoulders. The Bruins' history against the Canadiens in the playoffs (the Habs lead the all-time series between the two teams, 22-7) adds even more.
But the Bruins aren't worried about Raycroft.
"The thing about Andrew is that he doesn't beat himself," said Gordon, a former NHL goalie for a brief time with Quebec. "He reads the play well. He doesn't make things hard on himself. He isn't so much flashy as he is always in position. He makes things look easy and he's able to make the big save when he has to."
And now he really has to.
Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.
Can Bruins rookie goalie Andrew Raycroft handle the pressure of the Stanley Cup playoffs? We'll soon find out.