From the Sidelines: Young goalies guide squads deep into NHL playoffs

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April 28, 2009

1:55 AM

Throughout the 1970s, one name sent shivers down the backs of an opposing team’s goalscorers: Ken Dryden. Crouching between the pipes for the Montreal Canadians from 1971-1979, Dryden won five Vezina trophies, recording a staggering 46 shutouts in only 397 games.

More importantly, his individual success helped one of the “Original Six” keep its dominance over the rest of the National Hockey League, as the Canadians collected five Stanley Cups during Dryden’s career.

Goalie play is just as important now as it was then. Last Wednesday, the seventh-seeded New York Rangers were flying high when “King” Henrik Lundqvist held onto a one-goal lead in a furiously paced third period to put Broadway’s Blueshirts one win away from making it to the next round.

Forward Brandon Dubinsky likened Lundqvist to Tina Turner after the 2-1 victory.

“He’s ‘Simply the Best,’” Dubinsky said.

The praise for the Swede did not last long. The second-seeded Washington Capitals shut out the New York Rangers Friday behind the play of their young goalie Simeon Varlamov. Lundqvist had to be pulled in two periods after giving up four goals on fourteen shots. The 4-0 debacle dashed the Rangers’ hope of making it to the next round.

The Capitals cruised to a 5-3 victory Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden to force a seventh game. Lundqvist may not catch all of the blame from the fans, but his inability to pick up his team proves that New York’s success rides on his performance.

In the Western Conference, the Anaheim-San Jose series presents another example of how goalie play can determine who has the greatest momentum in the series. On paper, it appeared San Jose would roll over the eighth-seeded Anaheim Ducks, who snuck into the playoffs in the last weekend of the regular season after a late slump doomed the Minnesota Wild. However, Ducks’ backup goalie Jonas Hiller, in for the injured Stanley Cup Champion Jean-Sebastien Giguere, has been rock solid for most of the series.

In Anaheim’s three wins, Hiller has shut out the top-seeded Sharks twice. San Jose’s Evgeni Nabokov, meanwhile, has not been as sharp, totaling a save percentage below 90 percent for the series. Regardless of regular-season record, a team with a streaking goaltender has the potential to beat any opponent, even the star-studded Sharks.

While Hiller and Varlamov are two examples of young goaltenders coming of age in the playoffs, experience in net is also important. Chris Osgood, who gets lost in the cavalcade of stars on the Detroit Red Wings, had over 100 games of playoff experience heading into this year’s postseason. The Wings first round opponent, the Columbus Blue Jackets, started goalie Steve Mason, a 20-year-old rookie with no playoff experience. Of course, having defenseman Nick Lindstrom screen you on every Detroit possession doesn’t help, but even then it is no wonder this series was never in doubt for the Red Wings.

The Chicago Blackhawks, in the playoffs for the first time since the 2001-2002 season, may have a talented nucleus of young offensive talent, but the presence of veteran Nikolai Khabibulin has, at times, made the Calgary Flames look as offensively inept as they did when he faced them in the Stanley Cup Final in 2004. Although he may have lost a step, Khabibulin has given the young dynamic duo of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews a chance to lead the team over the perennially-contending Flames.

The ability to just score the most goals in the NHL playoffs is clearly overrated. Experienced or not, it is the team with the goalie that is usually the one lifting the Cup in early June.

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