There’s two things you need in order to make a serious run in the Stanley Cup playoffs: a deep squad and a hot goaltender. The teams that have made the Cup Finals in the past decade have featured some of the greatest goalie runs in memory, including Tim Thomas and Roberto Luongo in 2011, Jonathan Quick in 2012, and Corey Crawford and Tuukka Rask last year. It’s a pretty simple championship formula – if your first through fourth lines can consistently pressure the opponents’ zone while your blue-liners play solid defense, a superior netminder will do the rest. This postseason has been no exception, as we’ve again witnessed goalies standing on their heads and making otherworldly saves game after game. Among the four remaining teams are three of the game’s most talented goalies (one of whom is out for the playoffs), and the fourth is certainly no slouch, but of course only one team will be hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup come June. Which goaltender is in the best shape to lead his team to the promised land?
Before last night’s debacle, the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist would have been the easy answer. King Henrik had been following his smackdown of the high octane Pittsburgh offense in the Conference Semifinals with an equally impressive showing against the dangerous Canadiens, posting a .931 save percentage over the first four games of the series. His 40 saves in a hard-fought Game 2 was the type of performance that people remember when voting on the Conn Smythe award for playoff MVP. Lundqvist may have been chased from last night’s game after allowing an uncharacteristic four goals on 19 shots, but even the best can have off days. Lundqvist is savvy and experienced enough to wipe his slate clean and with the rest of the Blueshirts rallying around Martin St. Louis after the passing of his mother, I wouldn’t be surprised to see New York in its first Cup Finals since 1994.
On the other side of the country, the LA Kings are once again steered by Jonathan Quick, the premier playoff goalie of the past few years. The former UMass Minuteman is an interesting case in that he hasn’t quite matched the numbers of his peers – of the seven goalies who have played in eight games this postseason, his .911 save percentage ranks second to last – but he has arguably done more with less than anyone else. Los Angeles is normally one of the league’s lowest-scoring teams, and yet finds itself in its third straight Conference Finals. Of course, this is also due to their unexpected offensive explosion over the past few weeks, but I doubt they’re in this position without Quick. The Kings can sometimes be overlooked toward the end of the season until Quick kicks off his annual run of “I’m going to single-handedly drag my team to this win” games, and with his teammates now scoring at a ferocious clip, LA could end the Blackhawks’ season tonight.
This is the part where I’m obligated to mention the unfortunate injury of the Canadiens’ Carey Price. As much as I hate to admit it, since he thoroughly dominated my Bruins in the Conference Semifinals, Price had been neck-in-neck with Lundqvist as the playoffs’ top goalie before he was bodied halfway through Game 1 of the Rangers series. He was yanked after allowing four goals through two periods, and was subsequently pronounced out for the postseason with a leg injury. Until then, he had held the high-scoring Bruins to six goals over the final four games of their series. Rookie Dustin Tokarski has filled in admirably considering his first ever NHL action came in Game 2, but Price’s skates are too big to fill. With the seasoned Lundqvist manning the pipes at the other end of the rink and hungry for a bounceback game, the Habs’ days are numbered.
Finally, we come to the defending champions. The Blackhawks have consistently fielded one of the most balanced and well-rounded teams in the league since coach Joel Quenneville took over in 2008, and they have two Cup wins to show for it. In an unlikely twist, this has actually not been primarily a case of Goalie Gone Wild. Corey Crawford took over the starting job after the Hawks’ championship in 2010 and rattled off two up-and-down seasons that resulted in consecutive first-round exits for Chicago. He did turn a corner last year, allowing 1.84 goals per game in the playoffs and surviving the Bruins’ onslaught in the Finals to recapture the Stanley Cup, but he’s reverted back to “pretty good” this year. However, Crawford is the rare exception to the rule that a goalie dictates his team’s postseason success: his teammates are so talented that he usually only has to be “pretty good.” Chicago is facing elimination tonight, but until they actually bow out, they are still my pick to repeat as champions.