At times, the NHL playoffs can feel like they’re all about the goaltenders. It’s the most highly visible position in the sport, and in a short series where an entire season can come down to one play, the goalies are often the first to get the credit, and always the first to get the blame.
One guy stands on his head and steals a game. Another gives up a bad goal and loses his job. And then someone else has 20,000 fans booing him, right up until he makes a game-saving stop and everyone goes back to pretending they loved him all along. Sometimes, if a series goes long enough, one goalie gets to be all three of those guys.
It can be hard to keep track of it all. So with the second round almost over, this seemed like a good time to take stock of the market and check in with the goalies who’ve played key roles in this year’s postseason.
Stock Rising: Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens
Price had the best season of his career, which was good. He was the starter on gold medal–winning Team Canada in Sochi, which was better. But now that he’s led the Canadiens into the Eastern Conference finals, vanquishing the heavily favored Bruins along the way, he may be approaching legend status. He’s not there yet — this is Montreal, after all, where you either win the Cup or apologize to everyone for wasting their time. But if Price keeps generating stats like this one, it’s hard to bet against him.
The almost creepily stoic Price was good against the Lightning and great against the Bruins. In between, he managed to work in an adorable dog-rescue story. Can he keep it going? I wouldn’t put it past him. Then again, these days nobody is putting anything past him.1
Holding Steady: Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings
Quick’s reputation has always been tied directly to his playoff performance, since his career regular-season numbers are only a little better than average. But it’s his postseason play that has earned him his elite status (and massive contract). He was unbeatable during the Kings’ 2012 Cup run, and almost as good during last year’s trip to the conference finals.
He hasn’t managed to perform the same magic this year, and that’s a big part of the reason the Kings are facing a Game 7 against Anaheim on Friday night. He looked like he was back in beast mode during a six-game win streak that eliminated the Sharks and put the Ducks in a 2-0 hole, but returned to earth while Anaheim clawed back.
If the Kings lose Friday, Quick’s postseason will go down as a disappointment. If they win, his stature as one of the league’s best big-game goalies will be set to grow yet again.
Stock Rising: Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks
Like Quick, Crawford has his share of doubters based on his regular-season numbers. And his postseason totals hadn’t been especially impressive, either, right up until he led the Blackhawks to last year’s Stanley Cup. That was enough to earn him a big contract extension, one that some pointed to as a possible overpay based on one random hot streak.
Well, make it two random hot streaks, because Crawford’s been fantastic so far this postseason. His Game 3 shutout against the Blues helped turn that series around, and he went into lockdown mode on Tuesday to eliminate the Wild. His .931 save percentage and 1.97 GAA are among the league leaders, and he’s doing it with the type of saves that leave opponents making adorably sad faces.
It’s been more than two decades since a starting goalie won back-to-back Cups.2 Crawford is halfway there.
Stock Rising: Ilya Bryzgalov, Minnesota Wild
You know when some boring company decides to reinvent itself, so it spends millions on a consulting firm to rebrand it with what its executives hope is some cool, crazy, anything-can-happen image? That’s pretty much what Bryzgalov did this spring, except in reverse.
This is a guy who’d gone from All-Star to league punch line, thanks partly to a decline in performance but mostly due to his tendency to say odd things in his odd voice. Goalies are allowed to be eccentric weirdos when they’re winning, but once the puck starts going in, they get the dreaded “distraction” label, and it’s all over.
Bryzgalov seemed headed in that direction, but the Wild’s long list of goaltending injuries and health issues gave him another shot. And he was … well, he was just OK. His .885 save percentage through nine games wasn’t very good, and he won just three times. But he was a visible part of the Wild’s surprising playoff run, and perhaps most important, he did it without any of the sideshow stuff. That alone may be enough to earn him another shot somewhere in the NHL next season.
Remember, it was only a few months ago that this guy was stuck playing at the absolute lowest level of professional hockey.3 All in all, his season turned out better than it was expected to, and he may have an NHL future again.
Holding Steady: Kari Lehtonen, Dallas Stars; Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets
Wait, were these two teams in the playoffs? I looked it up, and apparently they were. Man, the first round feels like it was a thousand years ago.
Stock Soaring: Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers
We’ve talked about the dangers of labeling players based on the relatively small sample size of playoff performance, and Lundqvist is another example. Heading into these playoffs, he was often viewed as a top-tier goaltender who struggled in the postseason. That was largely based on wins and losses — his 30-37 record wasn’t especially inspiring, even though the numbers behind it were usually very good.
A lot can change over a few weeks, and if you took a poll of fans and media today, you’d find plenty of support for Lundqvist as the best big-game goalie in the world. That’s based on yet another Game 7 win, his fifth straight, this one to eliminate the Penguins on Tuesday. The win included one ridiculous sequence with minutes left in the third that saw a stickless Lundqvist somehow keep the puck out during a mad scramble.
Stopping pucks, winning games … he even finds time to serve refreshments. The guy is locked in right now, and that’s bad news for the Habs.
Stock Rising: Steve Mason, Philadelphia Flyers
The market has been divided on Mason for years. He keeps finding starting jobs, first in Columbus and now in Philadelphia, despite career numbers that suggest he might not be very good.
But while he missed two full games and part of a third in the Flyers’ first-round loss to the Rangers, he looked great when he was on the ice. That has to make Flyers fans feel better about his three-year, $12.3 million extension that kicks in next season. And besides, even if Mason falters next season, I’m sure the new GM has a backup plan.
Holding Steady: Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins
Heading into this year’s playoffs, Fleury’s stock didn’t have much room left to drop. The narrative about him had already been cemented: a nice enough regular-season goalie, but one who’ll implode at the first hint of pressure in the playoffs. You had to ignore the 2009 Cup ring to make that work, but we’d all pretty much agreed to do that.
That left Fleury with what seemed like two distinct possibilities this year: become the year’s great redemption story, or flame out again and be stuck with that reputation forever. But with one exception, he was fine in a first-round win over Columbus. And he couldn’t be blamed for the Penguins’ second-round loss to the Rangers, in which he posted back-to-back shutouts in Games 2 and 3. He wasn’t great the rest of the way, but with the team’s vaunted offense suddenly drying up, he was the least of the Penguins’ problems. Fleury was fine — not good enough to drag the Penguins to a win, but not bad enough to take the blame when they lost.
And in an odd way, this was actually the worst possible result for the Penguins. They were obviously hoping Fleury would stand on his head and lead them to another Cup. But failing that, if he’d bombed yet again, then at least they could move forward with a trade or buyout. Instead, they find themselves with a tough call to make in goal — one of many they’ll have to make in Pittsburgh after another disappointing exit.
Trading Halted: Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings
Howard looked sharp through three games against the Bruins, including a Game 1 shutout win. But he missed the next two games with the flu, and that’s all it took for the Bruins to end Detroit’s season.
Holding Steady: Semyon Varlamov, Colorado Avalanche
It would have been tough for Varlamov’s stock to get much higher after a career year that saw him lead the league in wins on a team that wasn’t even supposed to be a playoff contender. He’s unlikely to repeat those numbers next season, but his .913 postseason save percentage was good enough that he’ll escape any blame for the Avalanche’s first-round exit.
Also, I just wanted to mention that if NHL goalies really were stocks, then Colorado coach Patrick Roy would be a frantically overcaffeinated day trader. And he’d make a killing at it.
Stock Falling: Antti Niemi, San Jose Sharks
The Sharks just can’t win the big one, and you know what that means: It’s time to get rid of the guy with the Stanley Cup ring.
OK, maybe that doesn’t make so much sense when you see it written down like that. But Niemi, who won a Cup as a starter with the 2010 Blackhawks, didn’t have a good playoffs, posting an .884 save percentage as the Sharks blew a 3-0 series lead to the Kings in the first round. He looked shaky in Games 4 and 5, and that was enough for the Sharks to make the somewhat surprising decision to turn to backup Alex Stalock in Game 6.
Niemi was back for the seventh game and played fine (stopping 25 of 28 shots), but it wasn’t enough to win the game or restore his reputation. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he’s playing elsewhere by opening night.
Stock Falling: Anders Lindback, Tampa Bay Lightning
Ben Bishop should probably send Lindback a thank-you card for disproving that whole “anyone can be a great goalie when they’re tall” thing.
Stock Falling: Ryan Miller, St. Louis Blues
If we’re sticking with the stock-price theme, then maybe Miller’s value was the unrealistic bubble that needed to pop. Plenty of us loved the deal that sent him to St. Louis,4 since the Blues seemed like a team that could be transformed into a Cup favorite by adding a former Vezina winner.
But there were critics who pointed out that the Vezina came four years ago, which is a long time when you’re talking about a goalie who’s about to turn 34. And it’s not like the Blues really had a problem in goal, where Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott had been playing reasonably well. Factor in the high price the Sabres extracted for Miller’s services, and the deal always had some serious potential to go bust.
And that’s essentially what it did, for both Miller and the Blues. His numbers in St. Louis weren’t great, and while you could hardly blame him for the team’s first-round exit at the hands of the Blackhawks, his .897 save percentage was nowhere near good enough to steal the series.
Now we’re left wondering where he’ll wind up next.5 The Blues are certainly an option, but if they’re not interested, the possibilities suddenly seem limited. Just a few weeks ago, everyone had him linked to Anaheim. But they’re likely out of the goaltending market altogether now, because of our next stock.
The Hot IPO: John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one puzzled by the Ducks’ decision to hand the reins over to John Gibson, a 20-year-old rookie with just three career games who’d never played a minute in the playoffs. But that’s what coach Bruce Boudreau did with the Ducks trailing 2-1 heading into Game 4 of their second-round series against the Kings, and so far it has worked beautifully. Gibson earned a shutout in that first game, and was nearly as good while making 39 saves in Game 5. Suddenly, he was the talk of the league. Even Darryl Sutter got on board.
The Kings finally beat him Wednesday night, handing him the first loss of his NHL career and forcing a seventh game. But with home-ice advantage and a hot rookie who doesn’t seem to know any better, the Ducks still have to like their odds.
A rookie who arrives in time to lead his team on a deep playoff run? Hmmm … looks like we’ve got ourselves a Penney stock!6
Stock Crashing: Jonas Hiller, Anaheim Ducks
Anyone remember Jonas Hiller? Longtime Ducks starter, former All-Star, top 10 among active goalies in active save percentage? The guy who was going to make a mint when he hit unrestricted free agency this summer?
Not ringing any bells? Yeah, me neither. Between Gibson and fellow Ducks rookie Frederik Andersen,7 Hiller has become the forgotten man in Anaheim. He hasn’t even been that bad in the playoffs — his 1.99 GAA and .918 save percentage are both quite good. But somewhere along the line he lost the confidence of Boudreau, and now you have to wonder if he’ll even be able to find a starter’s job over the summer.
Holding Steady: Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins
It seems like just a few days ago that we were talking about Rask as the best goaltender in the league because, well, it was just a few days ago. But things change fast in the playoffs. Now that he’s lost a Game 7 duel with Carey Price, his crown may have already been handed off to Lundqvist, or even to Price himself.
That’s not fair, of course, since Rask was excellent in the playoffs and it wasn’t his fault his teammates stopped scoring. But then again, it’s the playoffs, and he’s goaltender. Nobody said any of this would be fair.