Goalies and Go-Getters: NHL Playoffs

By Mary Walsh

Watching the French team beat the Canadians in the World Championships was one of the most entertaining viewing experiences I have had in a while. Even though I had to keep clicking through ad popups, exposing my computer to who knows what kind of hazards, the game was riveting. Sure, it went to a shootout, after a couple of power play goals from the French kept them in the game. Goalie Cristobal Huet also kept them in the game, neutralizing the not yet ready for prime time Canadian team. But who doesn’t love to see an underdog steal one?

The French are not the only underdogs playing right now. The Montreal Canadiens, though their record hardly looks like an underdog’s, had the Boston Bruins on the ropes for a bit. I wonder how many people became Habs fans then? It isn’t that the Bruins are so easy to root against, but they won the Cup so recently, and they are reputed to be big tough guys. The Habs are supposed to be quick and light in the way they play. (Hence the utter confusion about the Douglas Murray signing.) Yet even if the Bruins are the hounds and the Canadiens the foxes, it usually takes several hounds to take down one fox. That makes us root for the fox. We know one hound could never catch a fox on his own, but it still seems unfair to gang up on the little fox like that.

The thing is, it isn’t true. Apart from Zdeno Chara, the Bruins are not bigger than average for an NHL team, and the Canadiens are not small. Even their playing styles are exaggerated– the Bruins play fast whenever possible, and the Canadiens don’t scamper around the rink without standing their ground defensively.

Neither team shows the defensive recklessness of some teams (hello Pittsburgh), though both teams get reliable goaltending. Tuuka Rask and Carey Price are both exceptional, in their prime, and playoff hardened. Neither has been surprising in a good way or a bad way. They have performed as expected: very well.

The teams were more evenly matched than advertised, but hyperbole makes it a better story.

What is not exaggerated are their respective playoff records. The Bruins won the Cup in 2011 and made it to the Finals last season. The Habs haven’t been to the Conference Finals since 2010, and they haven’t won a Cup since 1993. One of these teams is due, the other has won recently enough to remember the way clearly. The latter will not go quietly, if at all. The Bruins demonstrated as much by taking the lead in the series on Saturday.

Here in the West, Sharks fans may or may not be watching the Freeway Series between the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks. If they are watching, they may have noticed how strange it is that two teams that did so well at home have now turned into road warriors, if across town really counts as a road game. In any case, it is strange to see the Ducks cast in the underdog role, since they were so dominant in the regular season.

One of the more talked about issues is the way Bruce Boudreau has been handling the Anaheim goaltenders. He pulled Frederik Andersen twice before he had to be replaced for injury, always putting Jonas Hiller in. Hiller has played well, has experience, and probably deserved to start Saturday. But the Ducks started the season overloaded with young goaltending talent. They even traded one away to the Oilers, they had so many goalies. Now they can’t seem to find one the coach can rely on.

It doesn’t really breed confidence, to keep switching goaltenders. It also doesn’t breed confidence to have a goalie the team doesn’t trust to make all the stops he needs to make. Here is the problem with that– some teams play better defense with a backup in the net, precisely because they don’t trust him. Doesn’t it make more sense to give defense extra attention, no matter who is in goal? What if your awesome unbeatable goalie has an off night? It wouldn’t matter if you were helping him out enough.

See the Minnesota Wild and Ilya Bryzgalov for how to make it work. Bryzgalov has one of the most mercurial records in the NHL. This season alone, he had to claw his way back into the league after starting off signed to a PTO with an ECHL team. He is not stealing games for Minnesota, but they are doing pretty well for a team working on its fourth goalie in the season. In response, he is playing better behind them.

See the LA Kings and Jonathan Quick in Games 1 & 2 against Sharks for how to let it take you down. No matter how the Sharks lit him up, it took the Kings two games to figure out that their super-duper goalie was not going to win the game for them and he needed some help. Once they gave it to him all was well, but how it could take them so long to get their act together is mind-boggling.

They say that a goalie has to steal a couple of games along the road to a Stanley Cup. That may be true but it seems awfully risky to assume that your team is going to simply fall apart for a game or two along the way. Yes, if a Sharks goalie had stolen a game, or two, maybe they would still be in it. But after the way the Sharks played in Game 5, did they deserve to be?

Sometimes a team has no choice but to flip flop goalies through the playoffs. The 2010 Flyers made it as far as the Finals, changing starting goalies mid-playoffs due to injury. Michael Leighton had only been cleared to play the day before he replaced Brian Boucher, and each goaltender gave exceptional performances in turn. In the end, they were still being swapped mid-game, I suspect because neither was truly 100% healthy. Through it all, the rest of the team held it together, killed themselves on defense (Ian LaPerriere almost literally) and went further than the Sharks have ever gone.

Maybe confidence is over-rated. Maybe will is all.

Antti Niemi was a raw rookie in his first season of North American hockey when he won. He didn’t even play in the minors. The Blackhawks made due. There really is no sure-thing formula for the role goaltending plays in a Cup run. Everyone needs to pull their weight and a little more if possible. Should it matter to the Ducks whether Anderson or Hiller or Gibson is behind them? No. If the puck is behind them, they need to get it back in front of them ASAP, no matter who is perched in the paint. That’s a good rule for any team to follow.