Like each and every playoff season, goaltending has been the storyline for a number of teams. In fact, the goalies are reason 1A or 1B as to why the two Eastern Conference teams still standing aren’t trying to decide between pitching wedge or nine iron.
But what’s funny about this go-around is how the two Western Conference teams remaining have reached their destinations thanks to a depth of talent and an ability to stay out of the penalty box without compromising tenacity – not because of how their goaltender has stolen a series or a crucial game along the way.
The key to the success of the two Western finalists, quite simply, doesn’t come from the blue ice. Chicago has actually had the shakiest goaltending of the remaining teams – Nikolai Khabibulin’s 2.86 goals-against average ranks 12th and his .897 save percentage is down there with a bunch of goalies who were knocked out in the first round. And it’s not as though the ‘Bulin Wall’ has come up against a wrecking crew – Vancouver, not known for its offense, struggled to create legitimate scoring chances and Calgary’s injury-depleted lineup had difficulty getting anything going either.
The tired story out of Detroit is how they win despite who the team has in net, no matter how many times Chris Osgood has proven himself as a goalie who truly does up his game when the post-season hits. It’s no longer fashionable to call out Osgood as an average or sub-par goalie because, really, the guy has won three Stanley Cups; labeling him a mediocre goalie is a trap I will not fall into.
But even though Osgood has shaved more than a goal off his regular season GAA and improved his save percentage by more than 30 points, there is no way he has “carried” or “won a series” for his team. In the first round, Osgood made a few timely saves, but the Columbus Blue Jackets were outmatched from the drop of the puck in Game 1 and never put Osgood or the Wings in a position where they had to meet a challenge face to face. That series was won because one team was head-and-shoulders better than the other and, to be quite honest, Goldberg could have been tied to the posts and beaten the Jackets. Sure, Osgood had to be stronger in Round 2 in order for the Wings to get past the deceiving Ducks, but Anaheim is notorious for not being able to outshoot even the most timid offense.
There’s a lot to be said about Detroit’s meager 70.7 penalty-killing percentage, too. Where a playoff goalie thrives is keeping his team in games it has no business being in – and that means keeping the other team off the scoreboard when your team is shorthanded. Just look at the top three teams in playoff PK: New Jersey, Carolina and Boston – each of those squads has a Vezina-caliber goalie between the pipes.
This down-to-earth aspect of these otherwise otherworldly teams reared its ugly self in Game 1, especially if you’re a member of the Blackhawks’ booster camp. Khabibulin looked less like a Stanley Cup-winning goalie and more like a rookie facing a reality check.
Osgood wasn’t tested quite as much in the opener, but for what he did face, held the fort mightily. It’s clear the Hawks are going to have to pounce on every man advantage they get because not only is Detroit and its netminder struggling in those situations, but it’s looking like there won’t be too many penalties called at all.
Will the better goalie come away on top in this series? Well, no team can get to the Stanley Cup final with a significantly underachieving goalie, but barring a complete collapse it won’t be the masked men responsible for which team moves on in this bracket, but rather which side plays the superior team game and takes better advantage of mental or positional hiccups.
And even if defense traditionally wins championships, this series will be determined by whichever team can assemble the most tic-tac-toe offensive strikes.
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