If I had to make a hard decision on which teams I think will be in the Eastern Conference final today – and I don’t, so this is a soft prediction – I’d pick the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers.
I’d pick Boston for their depth, their toughness, their strong team defense and the fact they proved themselves as underdogs in the playoffs against the Montreal Canadiens in last year’s marathon first-round matchup.
I’d pick Philadelphia for their depth, their toughness, the number of playoff game-breakers they have on the roster (Jeff Carter, Simon Gagne, Kimmo Timonen to name a few). Not to mention, last year they established themselves as a team that can survive a few rounds on blood, sweat and tears.
But at the same time, I could just as easily see each bow out early. And why is that? It’s simple; neither has one of those goalies who can win a series on his head and carry a team two or three rounds on his own.
Now, before you scroll to the bottom of this page and barrage me with how Tim Thomas is third in goals-against average (and Manny Fernandez is second), first in save percentage, earned a second consecutive All-Star Game selection and has an impressive 22 wins in 32 games, or how Martin Biron was a wall in bringing the unsuspecting Flyers to the edge of a Stanley Cup final appearance and established himself as a true No. 1, let me call bogus on your claim that either, or both, have hit series-stealer status.
Trust me, I’m a big Tim Thomas fan. My family are Bruins fans and I’ve spent the past year or two trying to convince my Dad that Thomas is for real and not a poor man’s impersonation of Dominik Hasek, who will implode at the first challenge. The thing about being known as one of these goalies that can carry a team is you have to do it – and not tail off – before you can be one.
Sure, Thomas has put up impeccable numbers and should be mentioned in the Vezina Trophy race, but he’s 34 years old and has never won a playoff series. While he does get the job done now, his style lends itself to a bad goal here or a bad goal there, which could be a fatal flaw over a seven-game series. (Not to mention the fact you have to win four of them to win the Cup.)
And while Philadelphia Flyers fans are probably steaming at me for saying you have to steal a series to establish yourself as one of those netminders and itching to point out how Biron was arguably the best goalie in the pre-Stanley Cup rounds of last year’s playoffs, let me throw this at you: This year, the backup, Antero Niittymaki, has better numbers than Biron. So really, deep down, can you honestly put money on a guy who isn’t even a clear cut No. 1?
The East is certainly bereft of these proven, big game goalies compared to the West, which is what makes the Left Coast a better Conference. But it has a few who are more secure than the reps of Beantown and Brotherly Love.
New Jersey is on fire and will have Martin Brodeur back by playoff time. The Rangers, though leveling-out and not looking special, have Henrik Lundqvist and he can undoubtedly steal a few games. Buffalo has Ryan Miller – third star for the month of January – who has been in two Eastern Conference finals. Even Carolina has Cam Ward, who has a Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe to his name.
You can easily argue Biron and Thomas are better goalies than Miller and Ward, but while some of you will vehemently disagree with me when I say replacing Biron and Thomas with Miller and Ward would make Philadelphia and Boston safer picks to advance in the playoffs, I strongly believe the more stable, consistent, historically-successful stoppers are more likely to upset the volatile netminders in a seven-game series, any day.
That is until Thomas gets the powerhouse Bruins to the final where they should be, or Biron again shakes-off an up-and-down regular season to shine in the playoff light. Because, as noted, the Catch-22 is: You have to do it before you can be believed and bet-on as a playoff goalie.
So is there a safer pick? Probably, but wouldn’t Philadelphia vs. Boston be one helluva matchup for the right to play for the Stanley Cup?
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