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San Jose Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov watches the puck sail past his glove against the Colorado Avalanche during the second period of Game 1 of their NHL Western Conference quarter-final hockey game in San Jose, California April 14, 2010. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith (ROBERT GALBRAITH)
San Jose Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov watches the puck sail past his glove against the Colorado Avalanche during the second period of Game 1 of their NHL Western Conference quarter-final hockey game in San Jose, California April 14, 2010. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith (ROBERT GALBRAITH)

Eric Duhatschek

In search of the next big goaltending hero Add to ...

Unknown or previously underappreciated goaltenders have won all the Stanley Cup championships since the NHL lockout of 2004-05 and this year will be no exception, given who is left standing after the dust settled and the Final Four emerged.



Consider that the Montreal Canadiens' Jaroslav Halak began the year as Carey Price's backup. Michael Leighton started the year as Cam Ward's backup in Carolina, before moving on to the Philadelphia Flyers when Ray Emery went down with an injury. In the West, Antti Niemi needed to earn a job out of training camp just to start as Cristobal Huet's backup, before taking over the top job midseason - and turning in an excellent performance in Sunday afternoon's Western Conference final opener, a 2-1 Chicago Blackhawks' victory.



Only Evgeni Nabokov with the San Jose Sharks was the de facto No. 1, and even with Nabokov, after all those 30-plus wins every season, there were issues and question marks, too.



For that matter, Brian Boucher was largely an afterthought in Philadelphia, only getting the chance to play after injuries forced the Flyers to turn to their No. 3 netminder. Boucher, hurt in the middle of the Bruins' series, helped Philadelphia upset the New Jersey Devils and the much-decorated Martin Brodeur before Leighton was forced back in.



The moral of the story is that yes, while teams do need reliable (and sometimes spectacular) goaltending to advance a long way down the playoff path, you can no longer predict with any certainty where that great goaltending may come from. Sometimes, it is from the ranks of the chosen ones - Brodeur, Roberto Luongo, Miiikka Kiprusoff, Ryan Miller.



More recently, however, a series of anonymous longer shots have come through as often as their more celebrated, gold-plated peers. Makes you wonder too if the teams that patch and gamble between the pipes - and are willing to move netminders in and out rather than sign them to expensive lifetime contracts - might not have the right answer after all.



Picking a playoff MVP two rounds in can be fraught with peril, but the short list is probably down to a handful of possible candidates, a couple of whom - Montreal's Halak and Mike Cammalleri; Philadelphia's Mike Richards and Chris Pronger - weren't on anybody's radar screen going into the postseason. Pronger was with the Edmonton Oilers during their merry 2006 run to the Stanley Cup final, which ended in a seventh game defeat at the hands of Carolina. Curious now that he'd be reunited in Philly with the man running the Hurricanes at the time, coach Peter Laviolette - or that he'd be playing this round against the Canadiens' Jaroslav Spacek, who was his partner that spring in Edmonton.



Ward, the Hurricanes' goalie, won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP that year, largely because voters generally feel compelled to pick a player on the winning side, but that might have been one of the years - like 2003, with Anaheim's J.S. Giguere - when the MVP of the entire playoffs, as commissioner Gary Bettman likes to describe it, probably was Pronger.



If Philly finds a way to slip past Montreal, you wonder if that oversight might not be remedied, considering how well Pronger has played. The voters got it right in 2007 when Anaheim won its only Stanley Cup. With no overwhelmingly clear-cut choice, the Conn Smythe went to Scott Niedermayer, in part because of his lifetime body of playoff work.



By the numbers



6



Consecutive road playoff wins by the Chicago Blackhawks, following Sunday's 2-1 win over the San Jose Sharks in the opening game of the Western Conference final. The Blackhawks' victory snapped San Jose's five-game home-ice playoff winning streak in the process.



QUOTES



"What's the pressure, to win the hockey game? The whole season long as long as you're playing it's always a pressure to win. As a hockey player - or any professional athlete - that's what you want. You want to compete and win. I don't know if it's pressure. I don't really get it, the pressure. You just go and play," Philosophical, even phlegmatic, San Jose Sharks' goaltender Evgeni Nabokov shrugs off the notion that the pressure increases now that his team is the conference final.

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

 

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