x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

One constant in NHL play-off success is riding the hot goaltender

Teams that raise the Stanley Cup at the end of the NHL play-offs usually can thank their in-form goaltender for carrying them there, writes Gregg Patton.

A hot goaltender, such as Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, can help a team lift the Stanley Cup at the end of the NHL's post-season.
A hot goaltender, such as Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, can help a team lift the Stanley Cup at the end of the NHL's post-season.

The temptation for the novice NHL observer would be to assume Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins - the dominant teams in each conference - are on a collision course for the Stanley Cup finals.

Ah, not so fast, grasshopper.

You have much to learn.

The hockey post-season is a nightmare for forecasters. Too many funny bounces and deflections in hockey. Too many referees' calls made and not made.

Too many goaltenders who may suddenly have the best eight weeks of their lives.

It has been 12 years since the top seeds from each conference met on the final stage.

Indeed, since a labour dispute killed the 2004/05 season, and the league returned with a salary cap that fostered parity, only one top-seeded team, Detroit Red Wings in 2008, won the title.

The point was emphasised last year when a humble No 8 seed, Los Angeles Kings, motored through the three top teams in the Western Conference before beating New Jersey Devils, the No 6 seed from the East, to win their first Cup.

Anything can happen, and often does.

This season, the Blackhawks worked for 48 games to finish the regular season with a league-best 77 points.

All that means is home-ice advantage, and a different edge to each game, for the next two months.

"Play-off hockey - especially in the first round - can be pretty chaotic and fast-paced," the Chicago centre Jonathan Toews told NHL.com. "There's a lot of hitting. Teams will try to take you out of your game. We'll have to be ready for it."

It is not just the hyper-energetic pace that changes things in the play-offs. The oldest axiom in hockey is that a hot goaltender carries the Stanley Cup. Last year, it was Jonathan Quick of the Kings. The year before it was Tim Thomas of Boston Bruins.

The Hawks and the Penguins may like their odds. Both teams use two goaltenders, with uncannily similar results.

More goalies to catch fire?

Corey Crawford and Ray Emery of Chicago each allowed a stingy 1.94 goals per game and made saves at the rates of .926 and .922, respectively.

Pittsburgh pair, Marc-Andre Fleury (2.39 GA, .916 save percentage) and Tomas Vokoun (2.45 and .919) were nearly twins, too.

But these play-offs are chock full of excellent goalies, and who is to say it is not one of their turns to snatch the Cup from a favourite?

Craig Anderson of Ottawa, Tuukka Rask of Boston, Antti Niemi of San Jose, Cory Schneider of Vancouver and Henrik Lundqvist of New York Rangers all had brilliant seasons, and each is capable of dominating a series. Perhaps even an entire post-season.

 

sports@thenational.ae

 

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