As always, there's pressure to perform in net
They arrive on this stage, in these Stanley Cup playoffs, in any and all varieties of size, shape, age, experience, nationality, style and, of course, talent.
They will be at the center of every game, usually the hero and often the goat, talked about more than any other player. Commentators will make excuses for them, searching for errors made by other players, and fans will curse or praise them depending on whether their team wins or loses, not on the actual quality of performance.
They are the goaltenders.
When these playoffs are over and a champion has been declared, one will leave an indelible story for the history book, an imprint on the collective memory of the sport as the one, the masked man, who best fought off the fear and insecurity and pressure to lift his team to the top of the mountain.
Oh yes, there will be a story, and if last season is any guide, and not merely a distortion of the rule, it might end up being a story not necessarily of greatness but of good timing, of being able to do just enough.
That, in retrospect, would be the Stanley Cup legacy of Carolina Hurricanes netminder Cam Ward, the golly-gee kid who wasn't even his team's choice when the 2006 playoffs began and was pulled in one of the Cup final games, but was there at the end, scratching a scraggly beard and lifting the Cup and winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
The Conn Smythe was probably overkill, another year in which the winner didn't quite make sense in terms of the overall postseason picture. Maybe the Hurricanes don't win the Cup without Ward, or maybe they do win it with Martin Gerber. They had to defeat the Edmonton Oilers in the final round, and by Game 7 of the series, the Oilers were down to their third-string goalie, Jussi Markkanen; Dwayne Roloson was injured in the finals' opening game and Ty Conklin failed miserably in a brief appearance.
Markkanen almost pulled it off, too, and if he had, he surely would have been remembered as the Zach Johnson of Stanley Cup finals history, an athlete caught up in a moment he even didn't believe he'd ever find himself in.
Three years earlier, Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils had set a record for shutouts in the Cup finals and led his team to a championship and then watched as his counterpart, Jean-Sebastien Giguere of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, was handed the Conn Smythe.
"Mar-ty's bet-ter," chanted the crowd at the Continental Airlines Arena as Brodeur waved and smiled, but still wondered about the peculiar decision.
That said, Giguere was splendid that spring, almost unbeatable right up to the finals, when he was unable to stem the Devils' attack in the games played in New Jersey. Winning the Conn Smythe, in the end, seemed more of a statement about how he had been a dominant story of the playoffs, not necessarily the dominant player.
Other than Ward, Markkanen and Roloson, all of the above-mentioned netminders will be part of the shinny passion play that begins to unfold tonight in four cities.
The marvelous Brodeur again leads the Devils, while Giguere may do the same for the no-longer-Mighty Ducks, or may share the workload with Ilya Bryzgalov, as was the case in last season's playoffs.
Ward isn't part of it, because the Hurricanes didn't make the playoffs, but Gerber, the man who started in goal for Carolina against Montreal in the first game of the 2006 postseason, will be prepared as a backup this time around for the Ottawa Senators behind No. 1 Ray Emery.
Even the Alaska-born Conklin is back, having moved from Edmonton to Columbus to Buffalo over the last 10 months. The Sabres picked him up at the deadline after dealing away their security blanket, Martin Biron.
• If there is a goaltending matchup of extremes, it is within the New Jersey-Tampa Bay series, where Brodeur, after setting a league record for most victories in a single season, carries in his 89 career playoff wins to face the duo of Johan Holmqvist and Marc Denis and their combined postseason win total of, ahem, zero. Yep, 89-0. Just one stat to go by, but one of these teams is going to be guessing and one has a backup who will only be seen with a baseball cap welded to his head.
Holmqvist is the unknown, really, a 28-year-old Swede who was sort of designated as the starter by Tampa coach John "I'd Strangle Goalies If I Could" Tortorella. His surprise arrival from Europe as an NHL goalie was mirrored -- bettered, really -- by Finnish national Nicklas Backstrom of the Minnesota Wild.
In 41 appearances, Backstrom led the NHL in save percentage and goals-against average, and with alternate Manny Fernandez helped turn the Wild into the NHL's best defensive team this season. They tangle with Anaheim's Giguere and Bryzgalov, who both battled injuries this season. Without question, that series could be a four-goalie event.
• The same could easily be the case for the San Jose-Nashville series. The Predators have both Tomas Vokoun and Chris Mason, while the Sharks leaned on Evgeni Nabokov down the stretch, but used Vesa Toskala in last spring's playoffs.
There are only three series, interestingly, that pit clear-cut No. 1 netminders against one another.
• In the Detroit-Calgary matchup, it'll be 2006 Vezina Trophy winner Miikka Kiprusoff of the Flames going against Czech legend Dominik Hasek of the Wings. Kiprusoff struggled in the first half of this season, and the fact the Flames were very good at home and very bad on the road was a reflection of his work.
And Hasek? He was supposed to be "the man" for Ottawa last spring, but was hurt during the Olympics and never returned. Back in Motown for a second go-round for a moderate contract and amidst promises he'd be a good citizen this time, he was true to his word, at least until he was admonished late in the season by his own coach for diving. The unpredictable Hasek could either be the reason the Wings win or the reason they don't.
• Atlanta will put yet another Finn, Kari Lehtonen, up against another Swede, Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers. This is Lehtonen's first NHL playoffs appearance, but he has as many postseason victories as Lundqvist (zero), who suffered through a sweep at the hands of the Devils last season.
Luongo, a serious candidate for both the Hart and Vezina trophies, set a team record for victories and has redefined himself after years with weak or mediocre Florida Panthers teams. He made the Canucks a lot better this season, and the next step is to prove he can take that quality of play into the postseason.
Turco, meanwhile, probably needs to win this series if he's going to remain the starter in Dallas, with youngster Mike Smith looking over his shoulder. Turco did not play well last spring, when the Stars were stunned in the first round by Colorado, and another season of strong statistical play won't mean much if he can't come out on top in what will be a tight, low-scoring series.
• In Buffalo, Ryan Miller no longer has Biron as his trusted backup, which may not mean much given that Miller played every minute of every game last spring as the Sabres went all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. Meanwhile, the Sabres face a team with a cluttered goaltending situation in the New York Islanders.
Wade (Yoda) Dubielewicz was the Isles' late-season hero, and is another goalie searching for his first playoff win. It's totally unclear whether coach Ted Nolan has enough confidence in the former University of Denver star to go with him all the way against the Sabres and leave veteran Mike Dunham on the bench. Dubielewicz got the final four wins of the season for the Isles, but didn't face a lot of work; that will surely change against the Sabres. The status of Long Island's true starter, the concussed Rick DiPietro, is unclear after he just got permission to start skating on his own. Like Erik Cole in last season's Stanley Cup finals, you can bet DiPietro's availability will be a daily topic.
• Finally, there's the Pittsburgh-Ottawa series, which, to many, is the marquee confrontation of the first round. Ideally, only two goalies will play in this series: Emery for the Senators and Marc-Andre Fleury for the Penguins. That plan, however, could go out the window in a series that might be the most mutually offensive of the opening round, and backups Gerber and Jocelyn Thibault have had plenty of work during the regular season.
Emery has assumed Dan Cloutier's role as the most combative member of the NHL goaltending lodge, a youngster who once wanted to have Mike Tyson painted on his mask and took on Buffalo enforcer Andrew Peters in a scrap this season. Fleury, meanwhile, hasn't been a featured performer on a prime-time stage since his misplay cost Canada a gold medal in the World Junior Championships in his last year before turning pro. He has the most ordinary numbers of the top goalies in the playoffs, but has the firepower of the Penguins to fall back upon.
In each series, then, there is an enticing goaltending story, a collision of reputations and résumés.
Let the stories unfold.
Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."