Playoff goaltending is undergoing a transition

Updated: April 28, 2006, 4:55 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

DENVER -- Surprisingly, the Colorado Avalanche have been able to open the playoffs with three straight victories against the Dallas Stars and, still, Jose Theodore has been far from great.

At least that's the way it seems when judged under the traditional standards of playoff goaltending, where the mandate has been for the man in the net to steal one or more in every series.

Theodore has looked like a bad goal waiting to happen, fighting the puck, and both not controlling and not limiting rebounds. He has allowed nine goals in three games, stopping 56 of 65 shots, even as the Avalanche have continued to do a strong job of shot blocking and otherwise preventing the puck from getting to the net. Theodore has done little to cause anyone watching to exclaim (in excitement or frustration, depending on the perspective): "He's back."

But maybe that's going to turn out to be too harsh because perhaps by the end of this playoff run, we're going to have to concede that the old standards -- ones based on the premise that larcenous near-perfection was possible and usually even a prerequisite for a Cup champion -- are history. Part of that is because there are so few "proven" playoff goaltenders in the field, even at the outset. But beyond that, the reality is that playoff goaltending is entering a new world of evaluation standards.

Jose Theodore
Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesJose Theodore has been good but by no means great for the Avs in the playoffs.

If you play well enough, if you're that much better than everyone else, if you win the battle of special-teams performance and discipline, you can get by with decent -- and no more than that -- goaltending. Great goaltending could be reduced more than ever to the elemental bottom line (or the top one on the scoresheet): Which guy allows fewer goals? A great game is a win.

Yes, with even-strength time continuing to be limited and special teams even more crucial, the rewards of relative discipline could be more important than ever. No longer is the primary standard of intelligence the avoidance of the face wash or retaliation, but playing as if a season of lessons have sunk in. The careless reach or instinctive use of the stick to impede will lead to the call -- period. In any period. At any time.

Now don't take that wrong. Hold off on that e-mail saying how moronic it is for me to say goaltending no longer matters or even that it isn't the most important piece of the playoff puzzle. Great (or bad) goaltending certainly still can tip the odds. It still is the No. 1 playoff influence. But maybe by not as wide a margin as in the past.

Martin Brodeur's 21st career shutout, this one in the Game 3 victory over the wilting Rangers, was a spectacular show. And I think we all know, don't we, that sometimes great playoff goaltending can be more about making the tough saves at the right times as much as being completely impregnable. And I'll admit that a mathematician might even argue that the increase in great scoring chances means the influence of the man in the net is greater than ever, and the argument always can be made that having more power plays means the goalie more than ever is called upon to be the best penalty killer. But when the calculator is put away and the eye test is applied, the conclusion might turn out to be that, at the very least, we have to adjust our standards of playoff goaltending evaluation.

And there are no apologies made for the equivocation in all of the above, meaning the use of "perhaps" and "maybe" and "offer void where prohibited." The point is, a week into the first postseason of the New NHL, definitive conclusions would be premature.

In the Colorado-Dallas series, Theodore has been shaky and the Stars' Marty Turco -- who has a glittery save percentage of .832, even worse than Theodore's .862 -- has been worse.

"I think goaltending is still critical, when you look at the importance of timely saves, key saves and frustrating teams," Avalanche coach Joel Quenneville said Thursday. "We've seen a lot of goals go in, in all the series, with a lot of people going to the net, with traffic, screens, more power-play opportunities. The quality chances are much higher. I still think goaltending is huge in the playoffs."

Theodore still at times seemed to be adjusting to the differences in the Montreal and Colorado systems, which for him primarily means the Avalanche defensemen don't peel off as often as the Canadiens' defensemen did.

"In Montreal, when the goaltender stopped the puck, both defense would go to the corners," said Avalanche defenseman Patrice Brisebois, who also played with Theodore at Montreal. "Jose would have the choice to fake to one side, then put the puck on the other side. When he faked, every forechecker is going to go to one side, so you put the puck on the other side and the other defenseman would have more time to make a play. All year, what we did here, our coaches prefer that the defense goes and gets the puck. [The goalie] leaves it. So for Jose, that's different."

Said Theodore on Thursday, "Every game, I'm learning more about my defensemen, how they want me to play the puck around the net. Same thing for them. It's all about learning. But I think so far it's been pretty good. ... As long as the communication is there, as long as they tell me to play it and I can see the forecheck coming, I'll be able to make the play."

Added Quenneville, "There have been subtle changes, and he has to get an idea of the communication. The traffic in front, the patterns are probably a little different, but the bottom line is the goalie has to fight to find the puck. We expect him to keep getting better here, and he's been good for us."

Avalanche defenseman Rob Blake acknowledged there hasn't been much as much goaltending larceny, but he makes some distinctions. "No, but you're seeing series where goaltenders are being pulled because there are more opportunities," he said. "The goaltenders who are going to steal the games are the ones that are still in the net. Marty Brodeur, probably. I haven't watched much of the New Jersey series, but I'm sure he's been as dominant as always. In our series, in the third period and overtime, Theo's been great. Look, now you know they're going to get opportunities. That's where the great goaltending comes in."

That's another thing about playoff goaltending. Looking shaky doesn't matter as long as the puck stays out of the net often enough -- and at the right times. It's like when you're talking about teams that are "fortunate." After a while, if it keeps happening, it isn't an accident or luck.

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."

Terry Frei

Special to ESPN.com
Terry Frei is a columnist for the Denver Post. He is also the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

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