The NHL’s postmortem season is well under way, with three first-round series concluded and five other elimination games to be played within the next 48 hours. Normally, the primary storyline these past few years would revolve around goaltenders and their dominance, so what a happy turn of events that – with a handful of exceptions – goaltenders are not stealing the spotlight, or if they are, it is because they are leaking hockey pucks with abandon.
The best illustration might the Montreal Canadiens - Ottawa Senators’ series, which featured Carey Price’s struggles and then Carey Price’s injury. Or if it isn’t, it’s only because the Pittsburgh Penguins find themselves in an unexpectedly competitive series with the New York Islanders, after goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury had three rough outings in a row, forcing coach Dan Bylsma to switch to Tomas Vokoun for what finished as a 4-0 shutout win Thursday night. On paper, it may have looked easy, but the Islanders were the better team for the first period and Vokoun needed to be good then, until Sidney Crosby and Co. began to roll, with three goals in the second period to put it out of reach. The Chicago Blackhawks are through to the second round, in part because the Minnesota Wild was down to its No. 3 goalie by the end of the series; and the Vancouver Canucks deployed both Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider en route to getting swept by the San Jose Sharks.
Luongo wants to move and the Canucks want him to go, but realistically, the best landing place for him is Philadelphia, where the thick skin he developed in all those years of playing on the Left Coast would serve him well in a goalie wasteland. Philadelphia might be the City Of Brotherly Love, but there is little love lost between the Flyer faithful and whomever happens to be the goalie of the moment. It is impossible to see how Ilya Bryzgalov can return there next year, no matter how costly a compliance buyout might be. And if Brygalov takes the money and runs back to Russia, then Luongo’s contract – which closely resembles those that the Flyers signed Mike Richards and Jeff Carter to back in the day – suddenly becomes – well, tolerable might be the most charitable way of describing it.
And if not Philadelphia, could he possibly land in Tampa, where four different goalies (Anders Lindback, Mathieu Garon, Ben Bishop and Cedrick Desjardins) all saw time between the pipes for the Lightning this year? The numbers there, incidentally, paint an interesting picture, given that each of the four goalies had GAA’s between 2.90 and 3.00. Does that mean the goaltending was collectively mediocre across the board, or the team’s overall defensive play was? And if so, would a veteran presence such as Luongo make a difference? It’s a tough call for Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, who must surely have goaltending on the brain now, as he prepares a shadow roster for Canada’s 2014 Olympic team in Sochi.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly all but guaranteed that the NHL would be participating in Sochi next February, which was expected coming out of the lockout.
Most people, in forecasting Canada’s roster a year out, had both Price and Fleury on their lists in goal. Philosophically, Yzerman believes in taking a long view of player assessment, which is why they’ve been scouting players since January. The fact that neither Price nor Fleury performed well under pressure in these playoffs will not help their respective causes. You’d have to think that right now, the leading candidate might be Mike Smith, currently playing for Canada at the world championships in Stockholm, and thus far, leading the tournament with a .952 save percentage (greatly enhanced by a shutout win over Sweden earlier in the preliminary round).
The irony there, of course, is that Smith played for Yzerman in Tampa and ultimately was permitted to leave as an unrestricted free agent following the 2010-11 season (in which he posted an okay 13-6-1 record, with a 2.90 goals-against average). Smith revived his career after signing with Phoenix as a free agent, in no small part because of his work with Coyotes’ goalie coach Sean Burke, arguably one of the greatest international goalies of his generation and a former Olympian. Burke will have been filling Smith’s ears about the value of playing for Hockey Canada internationally – and if Smith continues to impress on the larger ice at the worlds, he should be in the conversation for the Olympic team along with Cam Ward, the Carolina Hurricanes’ goaltender, whose stock will rise by default, given that he was limited to 17 regular-season games this year because of injury.
It’s astonishing how what was once a strength – Canada’s overall depth in goal – will now be its biggest question mark heading into the Olympics. You wonder, if the Chicago Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup and Corey Crawford has a good run, if his name doesn’t enter the conversation as well. Crawford and his partner Ray Emery had the best cumulative goals-against average in the league this year (1.98 to win the Jennings Trophy), but neither of them made it as a finalist in the Vezina trophy balloting.
The three finalists, chosen by the NHL GMs, include a Russian (Sergei Bobrovsky), a Swede (Henrik Lundqvist) and a Finn (Antti Niemi). Of course, most of those GMs might pick an American (Craig Anderson) right now, based on his work, on behalf of the Senators in the win over the Canadiens. Currently, Anderson’s .950 save percentage leads all netminders in the playoffs, while his 1.80 goals-against average ranks third. Too bad the birth certificate reads Park Ridge, Ill. Anderson, Schneider, Jonathan Quick, Jimmy Howard and Ryan Miller, the 2010 Olympic tournament MVP, give the Americans plenty of goaltending options for 2014.
CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS: Courtesy of the Elias Sports Bureau, here’s a fun fact about the Penguins’ goaltending quandary: Vokoun’s shutout over the Islanders was his first in the playoffs in more than nine years, or when he was still with Nashville and stopped 41 shots to defeat the Red Wings 3-0 back in 2004. That’s the third-longest gap between playoff shutouts by any goaltender in NHL history. The two larger gaps were by “Sugar” Jim Henry, who recorded shutouts 10 years and 10 days apart (1942 and 1952), and Brian Boucher, who went 10 years and six days (2000 and 2010). It also meant the Penguins became the first team in 34 years to have two goalies with shutouts in the same playoff series, after Fleury won the opener 5-0. The last to do it was the Islanders’ duo of Billy Smith and Chico Resch against the Blackhawks in the 1979 playoffs ... Ottawa outscored the Canadiens 13-0 in the third period and overtimes of their series which again, according to Elias, marked the largest third period/overtime disparity in Stanley Cup history. Yes, the Canadiens really were that bad down the stretch. The previous record came back in 1944, when the Canadiens outscored the Maple Leafs, 13-1, in the third period/overtime of their first-round series ... Last year, the unexpected playoff scoring hero among NHL defencemen was the New Jersey Devils Bryce Salvador, who managed 14 points in 24 playoff games, after contributing just nine assists in 82 regular-season games. This year, the early favourite to do Salvador-like damage is the Penguins’ Douglas Murray, who already has two playoff goals (and one regular season) in the 19 games he’s played in Pittsburgh since coming over at the NHL trading deadline. Previously, Murray had accounted for just eight goals, regular-season and playoff, in 508 games with the San Jose Sharks.
FREEWAY SERIES, CALIFORNIA STYLE: With both the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings leading their respective series 3-2, the possibility exists for a southern California freeway series for the first time in history. The Ducks and Kings have never faced each other in the playoffs, and according to the L.A. Times, there has never been a Freeway series in any of the other major sports in the area. If they get through, it also means that three of the four survivors in the Western Conference will be the California teams, with the Sharks already through, after sweeping the Canucks. Ducks’ forward Teemu Selanne warns however that they need to be cautious and not get too far ahead of themselves: “In playoffs, you’ve got to be ready every day,” says Selanne. “You have to enjoy a little bit when you win, but not long. Satisfaction is your worst enemy in this sport. You’ve got to forget it and start pushing forward” .. The Red Wings’ Mike Babcock, who will almost certainly be Canada’s Olympic coach, on facing elimination with a team being rebuilt on the fly, talking about the need for a better start: “I explained to one of our guys, one of our kids. It’s kind of a lawn mower. You choke it and you start it and it’s revving for a few minutes to get going. We don’t need to be a lawn mower. We need to get that done in warm-up. We just need to be idling, just perfect (when the game begins).”