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Who's Your Goalie?
MICHAEL FARBER
April 14, 2008
An All-Star? A journeyman? A postseason neophyte? Playoff teams commit to one goaltender even when some, including top-seeded Detroit, might be wise to keep giving work to their backup
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April 14, 2008

Who's Your Goalie?

An All-Star? A journeyman? A postseason neophyte? Playoff teams commit to one goaltender even when some, including top-seeded Detroit, might be wise to keep giving work to their backup

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While the Flyers' two-man carousel of Ron Hextall and Garth Snow crashed against Detroit in the 1997 finals—"It helped our team knowing they didn't know which one to go with," Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom says—that duo did get them there in convincing fashion. (Philadelphia went 12--3 in the postseason before facing Detroit.) In 2002 the upstart Carolina Hurricanes reached the finals because coach Paul Maurice extracted plus performances from the unlikely pair of Arturs Irbe and Kevin Weekes. Peter Laviolette, Maurice's successor, won the Cup in '06 after starting the playoffs with Gerber in net, switching to rookie backup Cam Ward after Carolina fell behind Montreal in the first-round series, going back to Gerber for two games in the third round against Buffalo, then returning to Ward, who went the rest of the way.

"I know you're supposed to have a Number 1 and a backup, but from my experience I'm fine with a rotation," says Senators defenseman Mike Commodore, a member of the 2006 Hurricanes. "It's a lot to ask of one goaltender: maybe 25, 26 games, two months of hard hockey, lots of intense games in a short period of time with lots of travel. As long as you keep your goalies informed so they're not guessing when they're playing—you don't want goalies flustered—a rotation can work."

THE DIRTY little secret, one that gives the lie to that second playoff truism, is that the pedigree of your postseason goaltender matters less than most people think. While the game genuflects to the well-crafted legend of the playoff goalie, and Conn Smythe voters adore netminders, the statistical gap among the 16 goalies expected to start this spring is modest: Their 2007--08 save percentages range from Ellis's .924 to that .902 of Hasek's. Indeed Brodeur, the postseason standard-bearer among active goaltenders, thinks a playoff goalie doesn't have to take it upon himself to win a series or even a Cup; he just can't lose it.

Former Canadiens general manager Serge Savard pushes the counterintuitive argument even further. He says goaltending might be the least important position on the ice, a startling assertion given that Savard won five Stanley Cups as a Canadiens teammate of Ken Dryden in the 1970s and was Montreal's G.M. in 1993 when Patrick Roy won 10 straight overtime games as the Canadiens captured their 24th Cup.

A NEW HOCKEY truth might be taking shape: It's not that a team needs a great goaltender but rather one who merely gets hot during the playoffs. Since Brodeur won his third Cup in 2003, the goalies who played the deciding game in each of the last three finals have been Nikolai Khabibulin, Kiprusoff, Ward, Jussi Markkanen, Jean-Sébastien Giguère and Emery. There is no discernible pattern; the list runs from money goalies (Giguère, Kiprusoff) to seize-the-moment sorts (Khabibulin, Ward, Emery) to a journeyman (Markkanen). As long as the goaltending is, as Murray puts it, "above average," the deserving team should win any given series. Now, occasionally a goalie might surface who actually steals a Cup the way Montreal's Roy did as a rookie in 1986 and again in '93, but better team almost always trumps better goalie.

Despite the philosophical bent toward cementing a No. 1, pragmatism suggests there could be bigger upsets this spring than if Osgood wins a Game 7 or if Emery makes it back into the net. In the opinion of Pittsburgh Penguins coach Michel Therrien, who never hesitated benching Marc-André Fleury in mid-series when he coached him in the minors, Stanley Cup goaltending should be about numbers and not names. "Performance will dictate play," says Therrien of his postseason goalie strategy. In other words, even though Fleury earned the Penguins' starting job by going 10--3 after March 1, backup Ty Conklin should keep himself sharp.

While who's No. 1 has been a dicey issue for some of this season's playoff teams, many would be well served by looking out for No. 2.

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