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NHL playoff goaltending not what it used to be

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

With apologies to Simon and Garfunkel, where have you gone Dominik Hasek? Or Patrick Roy? Or Ken Dryden?

It’s funny how nobody seems to be complaining about the size of goalie equipment in this year’s playoffs, isn’t it? Of course, that’s bound to happen when the guys in the nets have been a collective epic fail when it comes to any sustained consistency stopping the puck.

The matchup last spring that pitted Antti Niemi against Michael Leighton was billed as the worst goaltending matchup in Stanley Cup final history and they didn’t disappoint. Neither goaltender was very good and Patrick Kane’s overtime winner in Game 6 was arguably the worst Stanley Cup-clinching goal in the history of the game.

This year hasn’t been much better. Not only has there been a dearth of that lock-down type of playoff goaltending we’ve become accustomed to seeing, the goalies have been losing games for their teams. And if the goalkeeping continues to deteriorate the way it has so far, whoever plays in the final is going to make last year’s final look like Turk Broda vs. Bill Durnan.

I mean, who would have ever thought that Mike Smith would have the best numbers in the conference final? The fact that Smith has even seen the ice this deep into the playoffs is a clear indictment of the goaltending the Tampa Bay Lightning has received in the first four games of the Eastern Conference final.

But as bad as Roloson has been, no goalie has been worse than Niemi in the third round. Niemi, who continues to confound with his run of success, has picked the worst time of the year to be porous. In the first four games of the Western Conference final, Niemi has allowed 17 goals for a 4.32 goals-against average and a putrid .857 save percentage.

Now, we’ll acknowledge that a team doesn’t give its goalie much of a chance when it gives up three 5-on-3 situations in the same period, but you simply have to expect him to stop more than nine shots when you only give up 13 in a game.

Roloson, who was so good early in the playoffs, has faltered in a big way in Round 3. He has been pulled twice in four games, has just an .862 save percentage and a 4.43 goals-against average. Whatever magic Roloson had going early in the playoffs has worn off in an enormous way and you’d have to think the Lightning are considering making a permanent switch going into Game 5 Monday night. If they aren’t, they risk digging themselves into another deep hole early in a game.

Both Niemi and Roloson – if he plays – have to be much better to be sure if they have any designs on taking their teams to the Stanley Cup final. But it’s not as though their counterparts at the other end of the ice have been lights out either. For all the acrobatic brilliance Tim Thomas has displayed in these playoffs, he has also spent stretches of time ranging from ordinary to brutal. The man who set the all-time record for recorded save percentage during the regular season has just a .908 mark in the Eastern Conference final to go with a 3.26 goals-against average.

Roberto Luongo has been the best of the four in Round 3 with a .917 save percentage and a 2.77 GAA. Decent numbers to be sure, but certainly not the kind of spectacular numbers we’ve seen in past playoffs.

The dearth of lights-out goalkeeping is a trend that has been developing for a number of years now, particularly since the lockout. There was a time when it was almost impossible to win the Stanley Cup without an absolutely spectacular performance in the crease. But in recent years it seems adequate goalkeeping is enough to get the job done and, in fact, some teams have won in the playoffs in spite of, not because of, their goaltending. Of course, there was also a time when a 1-0 lead was considered almost insurmountable in the playoffs. But now, in part because goalies have been so shaky, a 3-0 lead, either in a game or a series, no longer represents a sure thing.

It’s a curious phenomenon, one that has contributed in a big way to an elevated excitement level in the playoffs. When talking about low scoring in the NHL, former Philadelphia Flyers GM Bob Clarke opined that if you wanted more scoring, all you had to do was get lousy goalies.

And while not all of the goaltending this spring has been lousy, enough of it has been for everyone to take notice of the men between the posts for the wrong reasons.

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to with his blog. 

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