You gotta love that Ted Leonsis, unless you’re Bruce Boudreau, and then maybe you don’t love him quite as much after he fired you mid-season with a career 201-88-40 coaching record with the Washington Capitals. But Leonsis, the Capitals’ heavily engaged fan/owner, tweeted a message earlier this week, playing the underdog card to the hilt. "Why bother playing," asked Leonsis, tweeting a link to a local blog post in which 31 of 33 “experts” picked the Boston Bruins to defeat his Capitals in the opening round. Clearly, Leonsis didn’t like how heavily the sentiment was running against his team and reacted the way any fan might – loyally, but with just a hint of petulance thrown in for good measure.
Spoiler alert: I was in the minority that chose Washington in an upset. But the fact that most predicted a Bruins’ victory was defensible on many levels. The Bruins are the reigning champions; they have a defenceman in Zdeno Chara with the ability to shut down Alex Ovechkin, and on paper, the goaltending match-up looked decidedly one-sided.
For the Bruins, it featured Tim Thomas, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner (as the NHL’s top goalie) and the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner (as MVP playoff), who earned a shutout in the opener, a narrow 1-0 Boston overtime victory. For Washington, it was a rookie, Braden Holtby, the No. 3 goalie in the organization, pressed into service because the Capitals’ regular netminders, Tomas Vokoun and Michael Neuvirth, are both injured, who acquitted himself very nicely in his debut.
Goaltending is supposed to be everything in the playoffs, right? Right?
Assessing the Bruins-Capitals series a few days ago, I thought Washington in 2012 shared some similarities with the Philadelphia Flyers of 2010. Remember how that looked in April two years ago, before the playoffs began?
Philadelphia was a seventh seed, had barely scraped into the playoffs and was trying to get by with a goaltending tandem that featured Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher. In the opening round, they were facing a tough No. 2, the New Jersey Devils, who had Martin Brodeur in goal, the goalie with the most victories of all time, someone coming off a strong season. Brent Sutter was the coach and the Devils were the heavy favorite. You could argue that the position players on both teams roughly offset one another, but the Devils held such a significant edge between the pipes that they were the consensus choice most places. Probably 31 out of 33 prognosticators had the Devils over the Flyers in that series too. Experts love to pick favorites; if you roll the dice on an underdog and you miss, you can look both naïve and silly after the fact.
Two years ago, the Flyers’ goaltending held up just fine in the opening round and was solid right to the finish line, where they came up just short in the Stanley Cup final against the Chicago Blackhawks.
That’s the thing about goaltending in the playoffs. Your career body of work counts for very little. Last year’s performance counts for very little. Hardware on the shelf? Nice to have, but in a best-of-seven series that starts from scratch, it is pretty close to irrelevant.
Any goaltender good enough to play in the NHL is also good enough to get on a roll for two weeks, or four, or even six, and win you a round or two or three. Anybody remember how great Patrick Lalime was for the Ottawa Senators in the 2003 playoffs (a 1.82 GAA in 18 games)? Anybody remember how great Brent Johnson was for the St. Louis Blues in the 2002 playoffs (a 1.83 GAA in 10 games)? Anybody remember how the Pittsburgh Penguins plucked Johan Hedberg out of the AHL’s Manitoba Moose and got a lot of mileage out of him in the 2001 playoffs, 18 games, nine wins, and a 2.30 GAA? Still remember Mario Lemieux extolling the virtues of the “Moose” to Pierre MacGuire after a memorable series win. You had a sense that if you’d ask Lemieux to identify “the Moose” by name, he might have come up with his surname or his Christian name, but maybe not both.