Chris Peters: Assessing the goaltenders for every playoff team
With the first round of the postseason underway, Chris Peters weighs up the goaltending situation for all 16 playoff teams.
The goaltending position can be make or break for any team this time of year. While hockey is indeed a team game, no player can have as significant an impact on the game as the goaltender, even though no goalie has won the Conn Smythe Award as MVP since 2012, surprisingly enough.
If you have a good goalie, you have a chance. Several teams are finding that to be the case already and have either long-established starters or players firmly locked into place. Others have a good problem with two goalies that can get the job done at a reasonably high level, while the rest are trying to sort out exactly what the heck it is they’re supposed to be doing with their crease.
Through May 20, 18 games have been played in the Stanley Cup Playoffs among the 16 teams participating. So far, 20 goalies have appeared in a game. Washington has played three different goalies so far already.
Of the teams still standing, maybe about eight of the 16 can say they have their guy in net and can feel supremely confident in that goalie.
Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins is locked into his crease and playing well, Andrei Vasilevskiy isn’t going anywhere as long as he’s healthy for the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Cam Talbot has given the Wild a chance in every game he’s started.
Philipp Grubauer has continued his exceptional play from this season going on, while Jordan Binnington has held the Blues in there against a much better team. Connor Hellebuyck is the reigning Vezina winner and backstopped the Winnipeg Jets to a huge Game 1 over the Oilers on the road.
Then, of course, you have Marc-Andre Fleury turning back the clock and playing some of the best hockey of his career for the Vegas Golden Knights, leaving Robin Lehner out of the picture after he seemingly took over the crease last season.
After that, there’s plenty of other concerns for teams. For some, it’s concerns about injury, for others inexperience and, for a few, there’s just not a real clear picture of who the best goalie on their roster is right now.
Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens just got back from an injury and should he go down again, they have a very capable backup in Jake Allen who actually put up better numbers than Price this season. That said, Price is a proven postseason performer with excellent numbers in his last four trips to the postseason. The only concern there is if he gets hurt again. Earning the win in Game 1 had to be satisfying for the Canadiens, but it was particularly reassuring that Price played as sharply as he did.
In that same series, the Toronto Maple Leafs have little reason to lose faith in Jack Campbell after a close loss where he allowed just two goals. That said, the Leafs have Frederik Andersen who was their primary starter heading into the season and just hasn’t been healthy or played well enough this year. If the Maple Leafs are going to go on a run, they’re going to desperately need Campbell to have his best stuff. Inconsistency has crept in at various points this season for Toronto when it comes to goaltending, but this is the time of year where that can’t happen.
One of the best storylines of the playoffs so far is that of Carolina Hurricanes rookie goalie Alex Nedeljkovic, who has started and won his first two games of the postseason this year. The 25-year-old has had to bide his time in this organization after looking like he could one day be their goaltender. However, early this season, he was actually placed on waivers and passed through without getting claimed. The Hurricanes could have lost him for nothing.
Meanwhile, Nedeljkovic appeared in 23 games this season and posted a .932 save percentage, which should get him significant Calder Trophy and all-rookie votes. With two wins and 54 saves on 56 shots through two games, the rookie has proven to head coach Rod Brind’Amour he made the right call. If he falters, the more experienced Petr Mrazek is available, but the Hurricanes might have something special in the goalie they call “Ned.”
The Nashville Predators have handed over the net to 26-year-old Juuse Saros, who appeared in 36 games this season and put together a very strong performance, possibly willing the Preds back into the playoff picture. He unseated longtime goalie Pekka Rinne, who has been less-than-sharp in the latter stages of his career, finally converting his “goalie of the future” tag to the goalie of now. Saros has been under siege in the playoffs as the Hurricanes have a lot of different weapons. Should he falter, maybe the Preds go to Rinne, but Saros has at least given them a chance in a series where they’ve been largely overmatched by Carolina.
There are also some goalie situations that are settled, but still not so rock solid that you can definitively say they’re really set. Edmonton Oilers goalie Mike Smith is going to be the guy, but he has had his shaky moments in the past. I don’t think the Oilers want to go anywhere near having to put Mikko Koskinen in any games, especially since Smith has actually played pretty well this season. That said, it’s hard to see Edmonton going on a Cup run with their goaltending as it is. Losing Game 1 wasn’t Smith’s fault, but he’s not necessarily the guy you expect to get them over the top.
Over on Long Island, Semyon Varlamov has dropped his last two games since entering the lineup, while rookie goalie Ilya Sorokin won his first start in the playoffs. So, what does Barry Trotz do going forward? Varlamov has more experience and has had some great postseason performances in his career. Sorokin has a long history of success playing in the KHL and getting the win in his first game at least has to tempt the head coach to tap his young netminder with a need to even the series on home ice.
Then there are the creases that are largely unsettled at the moment.
Let’s start with the goalie controversy we knew was bound to come up – the one with the Florida Panthers. They have a $10m-a-year goalie who lost in Game 1, didn’t start either of Games 2 or 3, but came on in relief as the Panthers made a dramatic comeback in Game 3 to get the series within a game. Sergei Bobrovsky has been yo-yoing a bit this season and has also dealt with some injuries, but Chris Driedger, who was better than Bobrovsky all season hasn’t gotten the job done. Bobrovsky stopped nine of nine shots in relief in Game 3.
Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville has a difficult situation to figure out when it comes to his goalies. Does he go back to Bobrovsky in Game 4? That could ultimately be the decision that saves or loses the series for the team. Only complicating matters more, Florida has a promising rookie goaltender waiting in the wings in Spencer Knight, who might be Plan C, but could we eventually see him? The way things are going for Florida, it’s possible. Odds are, we’ll see Bobrovsky in Game 4, but who knows anymore.
Then you’ve got an absolute tire fire going in Washington. Ilya Samsonov started the playoffs on the COVID protocol list and needed time to get back up to speed. Rookie Vitek Vanecek got thrust into the starter’s role, but then promptly got hurt in Game 1, giving way to wily veteran Craig Anderson who is nearing his 40th birthday. Though Anderson got the Caps the win in Game 1, it’s been tougher the last two games. Anderson lost Game 2 and then Samsonov got back in time for Game 3, but then committed a terrible gaffe in an overtime loss. Samsonov is still young in his NHL career and is the best goalie on the roster, but a mistake like that can really shake confidence.
The musical goaltending chairs in some of these series do make it a little more challenging to bet. Teams not naming starters until the morning skate can also be frustrating. But I do think it’s going to be particularly important throughout the postseason to double-check projected starters and maybe wait until you know for sure who is in net. It can be a real difference-making call for the teams in their games and for bettors looking to place a wager.
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