The further the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs progress, the more apparent it becomes that teams do not necessarily need great goaltending to win.
Not that any team would turn down Carey Price if they had the chance to get him. It goes without saying, the better your goaltending, the greater your chances are of success. Unlike in the past when a great or red-hot goaltender could be the difference in a playoff series, they are receiving more help than ever from the guys who play in front of them.
In today’s game, which has become a high-paced game of chess on ice, good goaltending will suffice.
Think about it, the best four goaltenders entering this season’s playoffs were Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals, Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings and Ben Bishop of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Quick and the Kings were eliminated in the opening round. Holtby and Lundqvist failed to make it out of the second round and when Bishop went down with a leg injury, the Lightning carried on without skipping a beat with Andrei Vasilevskiy capably guarding the net.
Meanwhile, Matt Murray’s solid play has made it impossible for the Pittsburgh Penguins to get their No. 1 goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury, back between the pipes. Fleury was injured coming into the playoffs, but has been 100 per cent healthy for some time, but he has been relegated to the role of backup as Murray rides a hot streak; the Penguins not daring to mess with their winning formula.
It has always been said that good defence wins in the playoffs and that has never been truer than in today’s game where scoring blue chip chances are minimal and while the game is faster than ever, there are often long stretches of back-and-forth play where precious little occurs. The emphasis is on keeping shooters to the outside, clogging up shooting lanes and blocking shots. Shot-blockers are a goalie’s best friend.
Not to down play Martin Jones’s back-to-back shutouts of the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference Final, but how many glorious scoring opportunities did he face as his Sharks won Games 2 and 3 by scores of 4-0 and 3-0? Jones made 26 saves to earn the whitewash in Game 2 and then had to block 22 shots in Game 3. He has not allowed a goal since 9:15 of the second period in Game 1 and had wrung up 150:45 of consecutive shutout hockey.
Does this mean Jones has attained star status in the NHL? Not at all. Jones’s regular season numbers were decent – 2.27 goals-against average, .918 save percentage and six shutouts – but he is not among the NHL’s finalists for the Vezina Trophy as best goaltender in the league. Bishop, Holtby and Quick got the nod for the Trophy that Price likely would have won had he been healthy.
Goalies used to try to steal games for their teams and on some occasions, they still do. But today it is more important to have a goaltender who simply doesn’t cost you the game than one who goes out and tries to win it on his own.
NHL history is riddled with great tales of goaltenders rising to the occasion in the post-season. In 1971, after appearing in only six NHL games (all wins), Ken Dryden led the Montreal Canadiens to the Stanley Cup against the high-powered Boston Bruins, Minnesota North Stars and Chicago Black Hawks. The Philadelphia Flyers scared the daylights out of their opponents to be sure, but the Broad Street Bullies would not have won back-to-back Cups in 1974 and 1975 without the stellar work of Bernie Parent in goal. Dryden and Parent were named winners of the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in their championship seasons. Following in Dryden’s footsteps, in 1986 Patrick Roy was thrust into the spotlight in his rookie season and responded with 15 playoff wins to lead the Habs to the Cup and he, too, won the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Who knows, a goaltender could win the Conn Smythe Trophy this season. If Jones or Murray carries on playing the way they have in the playoffs and their teams win, either of them could earn it. Or if Bishop returns from injury and leads the Lightning to glory, the trophy could be his.
But one thing you can count on, for any team to be successful in today’s game, their goaltender is just one piece of the puzzle.