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.
Anybody outside of Montreal remember Steve Penney? Or the early Rogie Vachon? Or Ken Dryden? Vachon was such an unknown that the opposing coach, Punch Imlach, scoffed that he had little fear of a “Jr. B” goalie. Dryden was an unknown quantity, a Cornell University grad, promoted to Montreal from the AHL Voyageurs, and helped the Canadiens knock off a 121-point Bruins team, the heavy favorites after finishing 24 points ahead in the standings. Probably 31 out 33 prognosticators picked the Bruins that year too.
The history of the NHL playoffs since 1994, when the current conference format was introduced shows a lot of No. 2s taking out No. 7. I agree with my old friend Bob McKenzie when it comes to making picks – I hate doing it; if I really knew for sure how it was going to turn out, I’d begin by sharing that knowledge with a friendly sports book or two in Las Vegas. But if I’m obliged to do it, I’m not just going to pencil in eight favorites and settle for the predictable 6-2 record that you can almost certainly get if you do that. I always pick a No. 7 over a No. 2. Philadelphia over New Jersey two years ago worked out just fine (and really enhanced my fantasy team that year). In fact, I was tempted to pick two No. 7s over No. 2s this year, because to me, San Jose-St. Louis is pretty much a pick-em series as well.
Also: I see many similarities between this year’s editions of the Sharks and the Capitals. Both were considered legitimate Stanley Cup contenders back in October, because they had rock-solid line-ups specifically tweaked in the summer to enhance their playoff chances, Washington by adding a veteran goalie, San Jose by adding Brent Burns’ offence from the blue line and swapping out Dany Heatley for Martin Havlat. Both were coming off a string of 100-point seasons and theoretically possessed a hunger inspired by last year’s playoff stumbles. Moreover, neither the Sharks nor the Capitals could do anything in the regular season this year that wouldn’t be erased by another playoff pratfall anyway, so the motivation to play hard wasn’t there, and found themselves stuck between “coast” and “cruise” for much of the season.
The fact that things didn’t go all that well between October and April shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise. Nor does it change the fact that the Sharks and Capitals are still two pretty good teams that had off years. The Caps even had a decent excuse – Nicklas Backstrom’s half-season absence because of a concussion, which really permitted teams to concentrate on stopping Ovechkin.
So Backstrom is back, Ovechkin is playing pretty well, and Mike Green is something of a wild card, which means we circle back to goaltending. Holtby had a decent NHL cameo two years ago; was solid in the final week; seems to have the respect of his teammates; is confident in his own abilities, and by the way, probably knows that he wouldn’t be the first unknown goalie to make a splash out of the gate.
Sure the Caps can win, although I would have liked their chances better this morning if they’d found a way to steal Game 1 on the road. But they have enough elements to suggest they can play a hard competitive series against the Bruins, and if they earn a split in Boston, well, we’ll see what happens.
Why bother playing Ted? Maybe just to see if that tired ‘us against the world’ rallying cry really works, even in the world of professional sport.
THE GOALIE WARS: It’s two days into the playoffs and there isn’t a single goaltending crisis anywhere on the NHL landscape. Something’s gotta give, right? Maybe tonight in Vancouver, where the Canucks lost the opener through no fault of Roberto Luongo’s. Instead, they were just flat-out, outplayed by the Los Angeles Kings, which should provide a wake-up call for tonight’s second game.
Last week, I was chatting with former goaltender Greg Millen about the goaltending fraternity at large, and how not everybody understands how tight it really is inside the dressing rooms, where the goalies – in 99 per cent of the cases - work so well together.
Every team carries 18 position players, so when somebody needs a sounding board, they generally have multiple options. Usually there are only two goalies, and one coach assigned to their care and feeding. So it’s a small exclusive group, that requires a narrow specific expertise and thus its practitioners gravitate towards one another.
The one thing that never changes in the goaltending fraternity is that there’s a rotation. Every night, one starts and the other sits. And, according to Millen, if you happen to be the one sitting at the end of the bench, with the ball-cap on, and the towel draped around your neck, you cannot make that a distraction.
“You’re in a group that’s trying to win games as a team,” explained Millen, “and you have to be a big part of the team, whether you’re playing or not. If you don’t have that team-first attitude, you don’t hang around – because your teammates know it, your coaches know and everybody knows it. So unless you’re a goalie who is an elite, elite guy that people shake their heads at and put up with, because they’re just so good – and there have been a couple of those, not many – then you have to make sure you’re a team player. If you do that, you normally find success goes with it.
“Because that’s the other part of this puzzle that’s extremely important for a goalie - you need your teammates fighting for you. As a goalie, you rely heavily on the guys in front of you. You need their trust and you need them to want to play for you. If you’re a selfish person and not a team player, they’re not going to play for you – and then you’re not going to succeed as a goalie because I don’t care if you’re Jacques Plante, if you don’t have a team playing in front of you, you’re in trouble.”
Millen believes that the pressure on goaltenders may be greater than every these days, in part because scoring, across-the-board, was down again in the NHL this year. Five goalies, including two involved in the Kings-Canucks series (L.A.’s Jonathan Quick and Vancouver’s Cory Schneider) had goals-against average’s under 2.00, numbers associated with the various dead-puck eras of the past. There’s an irony at work here too – as scoring drops off, pressure on goaltenders heightens even further. The line is so fine, and the margins of victory so narrow that you’d think goalies would be celebrated for their collective achievements. Instead, it’s just the opposite, Millen maintained.
“We have put so much emphasis on goaltending in this day and age, and I understand it, because the league is so close now,” said Millen, “but it’s almost as if the goalies aren’t allowed to make mistakes anymore. It’s a bit unfortunate because goalies make mistakes just like forwards and coaches and managers and everybody else in the game.
“But the nice crutch for everybody on the managerial side is, ‘oh, we didn’t get the goaltending.’ That’s often a situation that could be part of the puzzle, but nine times out of 10, it’s not all of it.
Millen played in an era when GAAs in the 4.00 range were not uncommon. Sometimes, they even drifted into the 5.00s. Nowadays, even the statistically worst goalies, are still not giving up many goals.
“I can tell you, as a former goalie, that the goalies now are better than they’ve ever been. No question about it. The guys shoot the puck harder, they’re quicker, the game is faster, and they are better athletes than we ever were.
“The position is just fun to watch right now. It’s amazing. These guys are amazing.”
MILLEN ON VANCOUVER: So does Millen have any thoughts specific to Luongo and Schneider, the Canucks’ goaltending duo? Do you need to be part Sigmund Freud to play goal in Vancouver these days?
“I would suggest that’s the toughest market to play in the NHL right now,” said Millen. “I don’t think that’s unfair. I think it’s even tougher than Toronto or Montreal because the expectations are so high for the team.
“The nice part for Roberto Luongo is he now has somebody with him to help him along the road – and I think they’re going to need both guys to be successful. I assume they will, at some point, in the playoffs. And that’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with that. Everybody seems to want to get into a one-goalie system, and yeah, if you can run with one, obviously, in the playoffs, it’s better, just because you’re winning. You’re not into problems. But if they get into problems, at least they can mix it up a little, which is not a bad thing.”
BOBBY LOU AND SCHNEIDS SPEAK OUT: I put my theories on the goaltending fraternity to Luongo just before the playoffs began, and he explained it this way:
“There’s not many of us, so we almost feel like we’re in the minority and that’s why we stick together,” said Luongo. “It’s a tough position to play and we respect that in each other; and that’s why we’re pretty close.”
Unsolicited, he then added: “And he (Schneider) is a great guy. That’s what makes it easy. He’s an extremely hard worker. He’s got a big heart and he cares for everybody on the team. So how can you not root for a guy like that?”
For his part, Schneider says of Luongo: “I’ve always respected him. I remember watching him in college and high school. I didn’t know him really well before I got here last year, but in the time I’ve spent with him, he’s a bit misunderstood by some people. I think there’s a lot more to him than people realize and he’s done a great job, weathering the expectations, the criticism, his own personal drive – because I think he pushes himself harder than anybody and he’s harder on himself than anyone else ever could be.”
Ultimately, the goal for both is to win the Stanley Cup. If each can make a contribution to the 16 victories that it will take, so be it.
“Once you get to this level, you’re playing for the same team and you’re all pushing for the same goal,”’ said Schneider, “so you want what’s best for your teammates and that includes the other goalie on the team.
“We see other goalies play and you watch and you respect and admire what other guys are able to do and sometimes, you shake your head at how well a guy’s played and the saves they make. You say, ‘wow, I wonder if I could have done that.’ And you feel for them at the same time when they give up a bad goal, or you give up a bad goal, or what people may think is a bad goal but you actually say, ‘hey, it’s a little bit harder than it looks.’
“But at the end of the day, there’s no position quite like goaltending. We all sort of feel for each other and understand what everyone’s going through.”