Just as real estate is all about location, the NHL playoffs are all about goaltending. Epecially this year: So many teams started the season with one goaltending plan and, at the 11th hour, had to switch to Plan B. Things are so unsettled in Anaheim, San Jose, Minnesota and Tampa Bay that their teams may be starting goalies in the playoffs who began the year in other organizations or far down their own depth charts.
If you factor in Pittsburgh, where there are recurring questions about Marc-André Fleury’s playoff struggles, or St. Louis, where the Blues acquired Ryan Miller at the trade deadline, the outcome of this year’s playoffs could hinge on how those teams handled – or mishandled – their netminding uncertainties.
With a passing nod to Ken Dryden, who had exactly six NHL regular-season games of experience under his belt before he backstopped the 1971 Montreal Canadiens’ Stanley Cup victory, here’s a look at eight intriguing storylines for the 2014 post-season.
A welcome Bryz
Ilya Bryzgalov was on the NHL scrap-heap last fall after being bought out by Philadelphia, where he failed to stabilize the Flyers’ goaltending. In October, he tried out with the ECHL Las Vegas Wranglers; a month later the Edmonton Oilers took a chance and signed him to a contract. Going nowhere, the Oilers flipped him to the Minnesota Wild, where injuries and illnesses to the goalies ahead of him on the depth chart (Niklas Backstrom, Josh Harding, Darcy Kuemper) left Bryzgalov with the job. He was 7-1-3 in his 12 starts with the Wild, providing stability and helping Minnesota earn the Western Conference’s first wild card.
The Anaheim Ducks emerged from a scrambled stretch drive to land the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. But starting goalie Jonas Hiller has struggled, and rookie backup Frederik Andersen is just back after missing time with what were described as headaches. It meant that another raw rookie, John Gibson, made his NHL debut last week, played three games out of four and was Monday named one of the NHL’s three stars for the week. The betting is the Ducks opt for Andersen, who hardly gets mentioned in the rookie-of-the-year conversation despite a sparkling record of 20-5-0 with a 2.29 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.
Will Sharks tank?
San Jose has a reputation as a playoff underachiever, but if the Sharks are ever going to win with the current Joe Thornton-Patrick Marleau group, this might be their best chance. Thornton, Dan Boyle and Logan Couture all used the Olympic break to get rested, and Joe Pavelski scored 40 goals for the first time in his career. But Antti Niemi, who was so good last year, has been so-so this year. Logically, the Sharks need to start Niemi in the opener against Los Angeles to keep his confidence up, but the hook could be quick.
Bishop will be missed
Ben Bishop is the Tampa Bay Lightning’s MVP and the main reason they’re in the playoffs, but he likely won’t be available in the first round because of a left elbow injury. That means the Lightning will turn to Anders Lindback, who had a good finish after a mostly rocky season. Tampa Bay-Montreal would be a pick-’em series if the match-up was Bishop vs. Carey Price, but now you’d have to give the goaltending edge to the Canadiens.
March of the injured Penguins
No team this season has endured a more devastating set of injuries than Pittsburgh. Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Kris Letang and Pascal Dupuis are among the key players who missed significant stretches. Sidney Crosby was mostly healthy and the Penguins received another quality regular-season performance from goaltender Marc-André Fleury, though he faltered in each of the last two playoffs seasons (4.63 GAA in ’12, 3.52 GAA in ’13). Pittsburgh needs Fleury to rediscover his 2008-09 form, when he was excellent in leading the Penguins to back-to-back appearances in the Stanley Cup final, including a championship in 2009.
Can Toews and Kane catch up?
The defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks looked to be mounting a strong title defence until injuries knocked both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane out of the lineup down the stretch. Some may see that as a blessing in disguise – with last year’s four-round playoffs and their participation in the Olympics, Toews and Kane have played a lot of hockey in the last two years, so their forced absence might help them recharge. But it may also take time to get back up to speed, and Chicago’s path back to the final will be a difficult one. Coach Joel Quenneville claims that both his stars are ready to start the playoffs.
The Olympic factor
The playoffs in 2006, after the last time the NHL interrupted its schedule for a European Olympics, were among the most unsettled in history: The top four seeds in the West all lost in the first round. Current teams such as Chicago and St. Louis had a lot of players in Sochi; the Blues, who work so hard under coach Ken Hitchcock, were decimated by late-season injuries, with Olympians David Backes and T.J. Oshie among the wounded. That turned the Blues from the sexy pick to win the Stanley Cup to a team that most view as an underdog in their first-round series against the Blackhawks.
Jarome Iginla as the new Ray Bourque
Back in 2000, nearing the end of a Hall of Fame career, long-time Bruin Ray Bourque consented to a deal that would send him from the rebuilding Bruins to a Stanley Cup contender, the Colorado Avalanche. Bourque didn’t win in his first playoffs after leaving Boston, but he did the following season. Iginla left Calgary late last season under similar circumstances to join Pittsburgh, but lost in the third round. This season in Boston, where he signed as a free agent, Iginla led the Bruins in goal-scoring. Boston won the President’s Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team, and something would have to go badly off the rails for the Bruins to fail to reach the finals again.
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