The NHL spotlight shines hotter for goaltenders than it does any other position player in the league, and while that pressure can be a burden, it can also produce some incredible feel-good stories.
Setting aside the typical injuries and starter/backup drama we see every season, there’ve been some pretty amazing goalie stories this year. Here are five goalies who you can’t help but feel happy for.
Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals
It’s a relief to see some stability in the Washington Capitals goal after years of watching Bruce Boudreau throw 20-year-old goalie after 20-year-old goalie to the wolves in the playoffs.
The 25-year-old has blossomed this year under the instruction of former Nashville Predators goalie coach Mitch Korn. He’s started more NHL games than ever before while posting numbers that are leaps and bounds ahead of what he managed in his first four seasons in the league. Holtby has a .923 save percentage, 2.21 goals-against average and seven shutouts so far, good for top 10 in the league in all three categories.
New coach Barry Trotz has also been a boon for Holtby, ushering in more defensive responsibility for the team playing in front of him.
You wouldn’t call Holtby an underdog by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s exciting to see him grow into the top-tier goaltender he’s shown flashes of becoming since he put the Capitals on his back in the 2012 playoffs.
There aren’t many elite Canadian goalies left in the league anymore, but Holtby has a chance to become one of them.
Andrew Hammond, Ottawa Senators
Andrew (the Hamburglar) Hammond has stolen plenty of hearts in Ottawa since he was called up from Binghamton a month ago.
Hammond is a stellar 9-0-1 with a 1.44 goals-against average, .954 save percentage and two shutouts through 11 appearances with the Senators.
Those are numbers you'd never expect from an undrafted 27-year-old rookie.
Hammond’s road to the NHL was an unlikely one. He quit hockey for two weeks as an 18-year-old after he was cut from the BCHL, but got back on the horse in Junior B and landed a spot with the BCHL’s Vernon Vipers the next year. After two championship seasons, Hammond scored a scholarship to Bowling Green State University, where he put up mediocre numbers playing behind a poor Division I team for four years.
But Hammond also showed he could rise to the occasion when Bowling Green played the league’s best teams, and that ability to come through in the clutch helped him land a deal with the Binghamton Senators last year.
Hammond’s AHL numbers were decent last year and unspectacular this year. But injuries to Ottawa’s Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner opened the door for him last month, and he’s kicked that door wide open. Hammond is now posting better numbers in the NHL than he ever did in the AHL.
Hammond’s hot streak may be a short-lived miracle, but really, does it matter how much longer it goes? The guy is still a great story.
And a super-sized source of awful McDonald’s puns.
Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens
Quick, who is the best goalie in the NHL this year?
Most years you’d be facing a debate, but the statistics don’t lie this season: Carey Price is running away with the Vezina Trophy, and making a very strong push for the Hart as league MVP, too.
Price’s league-leading 1.93 goals-against average and .935 save percentage help cover up the Canadiens’ weak possession game to make them a top team in the East. His 37 wins are also tops in the league, and he trails only Marc-Andre Fleury with seven shutouts.
There's no doubt Price is a huge part of what's going on in Montreal, and we need only look to last year’s playoff loss to the Rangers to see where the Habs would be without him.
Players need to stay healthy virtually all season to stay in the NHL awards conversation, and Price has been healthier than most of his chief rivals. The Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist is still out after taking a puck to the throat last month, and Nashville’s Pekka Rinne has only recently returned from his own extended absence. Braden Holtby is playing well in Washington, but he’s simply not in the same class as Price right now.
It’s a tougher task to weigh Price’s value against the top NHL skaters, but in a season where we may not see a 90-point scorer, Price’s statistical dominance among goalies could put him over the top for the Hart.
Price could also become the first goalie to win the league MVP since Jose Theodore did it in 2001-02 as a member of the Canadiens.
Montreal has a long tradition of great goaltenders, and it’s exciting to see the 27-year-old Price becoming part of that tradition.
Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota Wild
Former first-round pick Devan Dubnyk felt like he was at the bottom of a deep pit at springtime last year. He was staying at an old hotel in Hamilton, Ont., staring out the window at the bikers outside a Tim Hortons restaurant and coming to grips with how far he'd fallen.
He’d entered the season as the Edmonton Oilers’ starter, but by March he was with Montreal’s Hamilton AHL team after a failed stint in Nashville. When Carey Price went down with an injury to the Rangers in the playoffs, the Habs didn’t bother calling up Dubnyk as a replacement.
Now he’s one of the hottest goalies in the league and the catalyst for the Minnesota Wild’s current playoff push. The Wild acquired Dubnyk out of desperation from Arizona in January, and that trade has proven to be one of the most effective moves of the year. The Wild were eight points out of a playoff spot at the time and coach Mike Yeo looked like he was about to be fired. Now, they're in a playoff position thanks to Dubnyk's stellar play.
Dubnyk has 19 wins in 26 games with the Wild to go along with a 1.69 goals-against average, .937 save percentage and five shutouts.
He certainly looks poised to be Minnesota’s starting goaltender in the playoffs this April.
That'll feel like worlds away from his career low point in Hamilton one year ago.
Rob Zepp, Philadelphia Flyers
Hands-down the best goalie story of the year, Rob Zepp fulfilled his childhood dream of playing in the NHL when he appeared in goal for the Philadelphia Flyers this season at the age ripe old age of 33.
The Newmarket, Ont. native became the oldest goalie since 1926 to win in his NHL debut with a victory in Winnipeg on Dec. 21. Zepp’s unlikely journey from Ontario Junior A to the NHL made him an instant feel-good story for the Flyers in the midst of a down season, and he would go on to play nine more games with the team. Zepp put up a 0.888 save percentage and 2.89 goals-against average while notching five wins for the Flyers.
Zepp started his pro career with the Newmarket 87s in 1997-98 before jumping to the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers a year later. He was a two-time fourth-round draft pick (99th to Atlanta in 1999, 110th to Carolina in 2001) who never signed with a team and eventually wound up in the ECHL.
Zepp appeared in seven AHL games in the early 2000s but spent most of the time with the Florida Everblades before he bolted for Europe. He played two seasons in Finland and another seven in Germany, during which time he also played for the Germans at the World Championships.
His NHL dream seemed dead, but the Philadelphia Flyers took notice of Zepp in 2012-13 when Claude Giroux played on his team during the lockout. The Flyers signed Zepp last summer, and when Steve Mason and Ray Emery went down with injuries, Zepp finally got his shot at the NHL.