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While consternation about goaltending is widespread, it might also be misplaced. Recently there's been no correlation between regular-season save percentage and Stanley Cup championships. (Since the 2004--05 lockout, when the NHL made several rule changes to boost offense, the only Cup-winning team that ranked in the top 10 was the '07 Ducks.) Certainly the tenor of postlockout playoff goaltending has been unconventional, at least when judged on what Detroit G.M. Ken Holland calls "the Patrick Roy--Martin Brodeur scale."
In 2006 Carolina rookie backup Cam Ward earned the Conn Smythe Trophy, winning 15 games with a .920 save percentage en route to the Stanley Cup. In '07 Ilya Bryzgalov played the first three playoff games before Anaheim turned to Jean-Sébastien Giguère, who had a 1.97 GAA. The following year Dominik Hasek split the opening four games against Nashville until Detroit coach Mike Babcock switched and rode Chris Osgood to a Cup. Between 1989 and 2004, only Pittsburgh's Tom Barrasso in '91 didn't earn all 16 of his team's playoff wins. Last season the Penguins' Marc-André Fleury became the first postlockout goalie to win every game.
Once it was a hockey solecism not to ride a single goalie. Now as the disparity between the No. 1 and his nominal backup shrinks, it has become a strategy.
"My mind-set is to start with one, get very comfortable with one," Quenneville says. "[But] when you have [a good backup] in your back pocket, you've got to feel it's an asset."
But there must be a sound Plan B for goalies who, postlockout, face more gilt-edged scoring opportunities, reflected in rising GAAs. (Four goalies who played at least 50 games had averages below 2.10 in '03--04, the climax of the Dead Puck era; Buffalo's Ryan Miller led the 50-gamers this season at 2.22.) The go-go Capitals scored a league-best 313 goals this season, but their 2.77 GAA was the second highest by a President's Trophy winner since 1992--93. If the customary tight checking in the playoffs shackles Alexander Ovechkin & Co., this dashing team could be gone-gone unless its goalie makes all the routine saves and one or two magical stops per game.
There's reason for hope—José Théodore, after all, ended the season with a streak of 23 straight games without a loss in regulation. (He's 20-0-3 since Jan. 13.) But there are lies, damn lies and statistical whoppers, and Théodore's glossy achievement has blemishes: He allowed at least three goals in 12 of those games, four on four occasions and five twice, including a messy March 30 performance against the Senators in which four of the goals were marshmallow-soft. This streak also doesn't include the three in 10 shots Théodore conceded to Calgary on March 28 before sophomore Semyon Varlamov let in two softies in relief in a 5--3 defeat.
Boudreau will probably start the playoffs with the 5'11" Théodore, who is standing up more and playing bigger in net this season while working with new goalie coach Arturs Irbe. Théodore, essentially a stopgap starter when he signed a two-year, $9 million deal as Huet's replacement in 2008, says, "I want to show that when I'm consistent, I'm in the top third of goalies."
He hasn't been a force since he took an extended victory lap around the NHL after winning the Hart and Vezina trophies with Montreal in 2002. Théodore cobbled together a respectable 2009--10 out of the shards of his grief over the death last August of his 54-day-old son, Chace, who suffered from respiratory failure resulting from a premature birth. But he apparently has not won Boudreau's unqualified trust. The coach, who pulled Théodore for the second game of the playoffs last spring after the Rangers scored on a couple of soft wristers in the opener, said he did not plan to name his Game 1 starter until just before the match.
"Some teams [do] need to keep it under two [goals against], but I don't think Chicago and Washington look at it that way," Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff says. "They make up for it with how good they are offensively.... [Maybe] you're scared because you don't quite think those goalies are good enough to carry the team, but [they can win] 4--3 rather than 3--2. I don't think you can discount a team like Washington because of goaltending."
Of the presumptive Game 1 starters, only New Jersey's Brodeur and Pittsburgh's Fleury have won Cups as No. 1s. An astounding seven goalies without any NHL playoff experience have muscled their way into starting roles (sidebar, right). Excluding Brodeur and Fleury, the 14 other first-night goalies have won just 113 playoffs games among them.