Columnists, Sports

Going for Two: Goaltending a saving grace for NHL teams

After missing a large portion of last season due to injury, Carey Price has been a stalwart in net this season. PHOTO COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
After missing a large portion of last season due to injury, Carey Price has been a stalwart in net this season. PHOTO COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

In hockey, goalies are as important as a starting pitcher is in baseball; but instead of delivering the 100-mile-an-hour projectile, they are on the receiving end. To be a contender in the NHL, a team must rely on the strength of their netminder to anchor their defense.

After opening their season last year with a franchise-best nine consecutive wins, the Montreal Canadiens were steamrolling seemingly the entire NHL.

While the Habs looked to be getting production from all three facets of their team, it was the stellar play of goaltender Carey Price that stabilized Montreal’s defense, allowing their offense to flourish. However, in a late November contest with the New York Rangers, Price suffered an injury that ended his season.

Price was well on his way to one of his best statistical seasons in his NHL career. Leading the league with a 1.96 goals-against average and a .933 save percentage in the previous season, Price had crafted a .934 save percentage while going 10-2. Once his season came to an early end, the Canadiens were forced to turn to rookie netminder Mike Condon.

Under the play of the inexperienced Condon, Montreal went 22-34-4 the rest of the way, and missed the playoffs for the first time in three seasons.

Now with Price back in net, the Habs have returned to their winning ways – much to the chagrin of this Bruins fan. Montreal now sits atop the Eastern Conference and has a firm eight-point lead over the second place Bruins in the Atlantic Division.

Professionally, NHL fans will always remember the play of Cam Ward in 2006 when he brought the Carolina Hurricanes out of obscurity and delivered them the Stanley Cup after a Conn Smythe worthy Finals.  

Recently, Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings has been the backbone of a team that has been on the cusp of a dynasty with Cup wins in 2012 and 2014. And while Quick’s numbers have taken a hit after a career year in 2012, the net minder is still one of the best in the league, as evident by his third-place finish in last year’s Vezina voting.

The Bruins find themselves in a curious situation with their young goaltender, Tuukka Rask. The young Finland native is three year’s removed from a Vezina Trophy of his own, but has often been labeled the scapegoat for Boston’s woes over the last two seasons. What has victimized Rask is a failure to deliver in big games; however, he has regularly been a victim of outside factors.

In last year’s regular season finale with the Ottawa Senators, the Bruins needed a win to secure the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Facing off with a divisional foe that had proved troublesome for the B’s all season long, fans and pundits alike were calling upon Rask to turn in a shutdown outing and bring the Bruins back to the postseason.

Rask, however, was scratched from the lineup due to illness, claiming that he had spent the entire night before with a recently contracted stomach virus. Naturally, the Boston media descended as fans called for Rask to be traded – a mantra that many B’s supporters still clamor for.

In 2010, the Bruins jumped out to a 3-0 series lead against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals with Rask in the cage. However, the Bruins added an infamous chapter to the franchise’s history when they allowed the Flyers to storm back and win the series with four straight wins.

Many around Beantown blamed Rask for collapsing in the net as the stakes heightened with each passing loss. However, what was largely overlooked was the loss of center David Krejci, who was tied for the team lead in points that season, after he suffered a broken wrist in Game 3. Krejci’s departure crippled the Boston offense and ultimately the Bruins as a whole, though many unfairly faulted Rask for the collapse.

Goaltenders can mean the difference between championships and mediocrity for a lot of teams around the NHL. The Rangers have been able to focus their time on acquiring fast, skilled offensive players because of their faith in Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes. For a team like the Edmonton Oilers – who have owned the number 1 pick in the NHL Draft in four of the last seven seasons – a lack of a solid netminder has kept their team stagnant and unproductive as they have searched repeatedly to the answer to their struggles. (Hint: it’s not selecting another superstar forward.)

While many people around hockey love to see finesse-type players scoring highlight reel goals, teams find true value in goaltenders who are charged with stopping those attempts.

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