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A sizzling Stanley Cup scandal: San Jose goaltender Vesa Toskala has been ingesting a suspicious-looking substance, mustamakkara, which is not a designer steroid but a designer sausage that, through discreet Finnish culinary channels, found its way to the Sharks' dressing room in Chicago six weeks ago. Unavailable in the U.S., the black sausage is unique to Toskala's hometown of Tampere and is best served with lingonberry sauce, or puolukkahillo, as it is known in Finland. Mustamakkara with puolukkahillo is a mouthful--"I still have some in the fridge," the San Jose netminder says--and the combination has helped fuel Toskala's 11-2-1 run since late March, including a 2-1 win on Sunday that gave the Sharks a 4-1 series win over the Nashville Predators in their first-round matchup. � That the sausage is a lot more seasoned than the goalie, who was making his playoff debut, is not surprising. The tectonic plates beneath the foundation of playoff hockey, goaltending, have subtly shifted. The offensive advantages created by the NHL's new rules interpretations, combined with the recent postseason performances of inexperienced goalies, have made production more important than pedigree. Coaches now accept that, within the upper range of skilled netminders, a hot goalie without much portfolio (such as Toskala, who nudged aside playoff-hardened Evgeni Nabokov for the Sharks' No. 1 job) is a better bet than a name goaltender such as, say, the Stars' Marty Turco, whose playoff record slipped to 8-14 as Dallas was eliminated in five games by the Colorado Avalanche.
Nine of the 16 starters in the first-round openers had never won a postseason game. Toskala's victory came against the Predators own playoff rookie, Chris Mason. The Montreal Canadiens opted for the quietest Frenchman since Marcel Marceau, Cristobal Huet, rather than steady Swiss goalie David Aebischer. The Tampa Bay Lightning, perhaps to coach John Tortorella's regret, elected to use barely-tested John Grahame instead of veteran Sean Burke, who was in net last Saturday for a series-ending Game 5 loss to the Ottawa Senators after the coach eviscerated Grahame for his poor play in the previous two matches. In the Eastern Conference, the New Jersey Devils' Martin Brodeur (box, above) began the playoffs with more postseason wins (84) than the other 15 goalies in uniform had appearances (79). As Nashville coach Barry Trotz said, "A puck never knows if a goaltender is experienced or inexperienced." True Zen. Truer now.
"The difference is you need the timely saves now," Avalanche coach Joel Quenneville said of the changing nature of playoff goaltending. "You need your goalie to be good when you're down a goal ... or maybe up a goal late in the game. You can't expect a goalie to pitch a shutout now in the playoffs. There are too many power plays and too many good [scoring] chances."
With expectations falling in lockstep with postseason save percentages, some unproven playoff goalies seemed capable of emerging as surprise stars the way the Anaheim Mighty Ducks' Jean-S�bastien Giguere (no previous postseason starts) and the Calgary Flames' Miikka Kiprusoff (157 minutes of prior playoff experience) did in taking their teams to Game 7 of the finals in 2003 and 2004, respectively. Who are these new masked men? In addition to the eerily calm Toskala--"Like a computer that puts itself into standby mode: You hit the button and it's right back up," Sharks coach Ron Wilson says of the 28-year-old--there is the unassuming, spiritual Cam Ward, who took over from starter Martin Gerber, in Game 3 and carried the Carolina Hurricanes to three straight wins against Montreal; 23-year-old Ray Emery, the hair-dyin', cockroach-munchin', tattoo-sportin' Ottawa rookie; and 25-year-old Ryan Miller, the lank-haired, matchstick-legged Buffalo rookie butterflyer who deciphers plays quickly. ("He's got the Pentium high-speed, not a dishwasher up there," says Sabres goalie coach Jim Corsi.) If nerves have gripped any of them, they still look more at ease than Colorado's Jos� Th�odore, a former Hart Trophy winner with 28 playoff games before this year whose work, despite a sparkling performance in Game 5, was even less impressive than Turco's.
These playoffs are not about reputation but about opportunity. When Ottawa goalie coach Ron Low quizzed Emery about his mind-set on the morning of his first postseason game, the goalie replied, "Hey, Ronnie, everybody has to start somewhere."
The fact is, all of the playoff neophytes already had played big games on big stages--just not in NHL rinks. Miller might have played the biggest of all: In 2001, before 74,554 at Spartan Stadium, the then Michigan State goalie faced Michigan in the NCAA's first outdoor hockey game, attracting more national attention than this year's Buffalo- Philadelphia first-round series. Miller grew up in East Lansing, where he was sometimes instructed by Spartans NHLers when they returned in the summer. "I'm 13, 14, and [Jason Muzzatti is] showing me techniques pros are using, like how to slide on one knee into the play and bring the butterfly with it," says Miller, who shut out the Flyers 3-0 on Sunday to give the Sabres a 3-2 series lead. His cousins are former NHL forwards Kevin, Kip and Kelly Miller, all of whom helped baptize Ryan into big-time hockey. (Kevin, a righthanded shot who scored 150 goals in a 12-year career, liked working on his slapper coming down the wing, forcing Ryan's glove hand to catch up.) The Stanley Cup playoffs were composed of games, not revelations, for Miller.
Emery took his best shots from Tortorella--the Tampa Bay coach called him Ottawa's weak spot after Game 3--but the goalie survived those as nicely as the cockroach he ate earlier this season to win a $500 dare from Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson. Emery invested his winnings in tattoos that now cover his right arm. That was a more permanent testimony to personal style than his blond dye job. "You're really trying to get traded, aren't you?" Low said when Emery showed up at practice in mid-January with his new-look locks, and then with an image of Mike Tyson painted on his goalie mask.
If there was Tampere sausage in Toskala, there was suspicion of a little Canadian hot dog in Emery. The Senators convinced him that he would get noticed simply by stopping the puck, causing Emery to dye his hair back to its natural black and to sport a mask with the likeness of former Canadian heavyweight George Chuvalo instead of Tyson. Since Dominik Hasek went down with his adductor injury during the Olympics, Emery has been consistently good; he stopped 158 of 171 shots in eliminating the 2004 champions. The sublime if enigmatic Hasek still might haunt his teammates like Banquo's ghost-- Ottawa coach Bryan Murray shooed him off the ice at practice two days before the first-round series started and then banished him from the bench area after Game 1--but Emery has looked poised enough to handle the responsibility of tending the net for a team built expressly to win the Cup this spring. The Senators readied Emery for the postseason by playing him in 24 of 26 games after the Olympic break, mimicking the playoff rhythm. As Corsi says, "Because of the nature of the playoff schedule, it's easier for a hot goalie to stay hot."
Adds former goalie Glenn Healy, an analyst on the Canadian sports network TSN, "In the postseason you don't play the league, you play a team. If you're dialed in to a particular team or a particular group of shooters, you can have two weeks of great hockey."
Toskala's 15 days of fame have begun to stretch into something more meaningful. Early this season he showed no indication that, in his fourth year, he was ready for a breakthrough. After starting 0-4, injuring his groin and doing a stint in the minors, Toskala rejoined the Sharks in December and won 23 of his last 30 regular-season starts. He has moved out higher from his crease--because of the wider international ice, some Europeans play so deep in the net they look like prairie dogs--and he makes himself big on goalmouth scrambles. Now, if he can continue to replicate his exemplary work against Nashville (2.01 goals-against average, .927 save percentage), Toskala could be the ultimate mystery guest at the Stanley Cup banquet.