With March Madness basketball approaching, we are all reminded that the ‘best’ teams rarely go all the way in lengthy post-season tournaments. The NHL is no exception.
In the past decade, only once did the top two seeds in the league meet in the Stanley Cup final. That was way back in 2000-01, when Colorado bested New Jersey. Otherwise, we’ve had teams that didn’t even win their division go all the way to the final (Calgary, Edmonton), as well as win it all (Pittsburgh last season).
So how to prognosticate the Stanley Cup this year? Many times, it’s safe to go with the defending champ. After all, assuming there was no exodus to free agency or raft of injuries, might as well go with the ones who got it done last, right?
Boring as it may be, I do have a lot of confidence in Pittsburgh right now. The team has everything you would hope for in a Cup contender, including a dangerous offense, multi-talented defense, great goaltending and experience.
But who else is in the mix? My first measure for candidates is goaltending and you’d be surprised who gets knocked out because of it.
First off, toss out the notion someone’s going to pull a Cam Ward. The year Carolina won the Cup, the rookie goaltender saw his goals-against average of 3.68 in the regular season drop to 2.14 in the playoffs, while his shutouts went from none to two (in fewer games, no less).
I’m not saying it’s impossible for Michael Leighton or Tuukka Rask to catch fire and shock the world, but let’s not wager on it. Instead, let’s look at some cold, hard numbers.
The top three teams in the NHL right now are Washington, San Jose and Chicago. None of these teams have what could be deemed clutch goaltending, especially compared to the other attributes they excel at.
I don’t want to exhaust the knocks against Chicago’s Cristobal Huet – we all know he has never won an NHL playoff series – but check the numbers. Huet has a very admirable 2.38 goals-against average, but his save percentage is .898. Anything under .900 is suspect in the NHL these days and points to a goalie who doesn’t see a lot of shots.
Indeed, Huet has seen 1,022 blasts of rubber so far; a low total for someone with his workload. For a more visceral assessment, just look at his last start, a very important matchup with hated rival Detroit on American network TV: Huet gave up four goals on 17 shots before getting pulled in favor of Antti Niemi. The Hawks lost the game 5-4 after a comeback fell short.
Further west in San Jose, the Sharks are facing another post-season with high expectations and even higher levels of anxiety. Stopper Evgeni Nabokov was stomped in the Olympics and, like Huet, his statistics bear a closer look.
For Nabby, the problem seems to be tight affairs, which tend to come up a lot in the post-season. Nabokov is one of the league leaders in overtime losses this season with nine and he has only posted two shutouts in 56 games. Over the course of his NHL career, the Russian netminder has usually been good for at least six goose eggs during the regular season.
In Washington, Jose Theodore’s numbers have been far from league-leading all year and though his save percentage is respectable (.910), the Capitals’ frenetic and exciting offensive style means they need a great goalie to cover up when turnovers arise. Theodore has not been great. And while Washington actually rode rookie Semyon Varlamov during last year's playoffs, the young Russian was bounced by Pittsburgh once they got a book on him. Now everyone in the East has seen him play.
It may be unfair to pin all the blame on the netminders, but even if a team’s defense is partially responsible, you’ve still got a problem come playoff time. Detroit has been the perfect antithesis of this; for those Chris Osgood haters out there, keep in mind the Wings have won and lost a Stanley Cup in the past two seasons. Elite talent and great two-way play meant ‘Ozzie’ could be good, not great. But to Osgood’s credit, he was pretty great, anyway. And none of Chicago, San Jose or Washington play two-way hockey like recent Detroit teams.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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