Stanley Cup finalists have been known to ride the backs of hot goaltenders. In some cases a hot goalie helps make a great team exceptional, like Chris Osgood and Marc-Andre Fleury last season, and sometimes a hot goaltender can drag a mediocre team to the finals all by himself, like Dwayne Roloson in 2006 or Miikka Kiprusoff in 2004. Either way, great goaltending seems to be a key ingredient in the recipe of a Stanley Cup champion. If this is true, which netminder can we expect to see hoisting the cup in June?
1. Tim Thomas, Boston
Tim Thomas leads active goaltenders with a 1.51 GAA and is third with a .944 save percentage. He's the only goaltender to put forward a Quality Start in all six of his games, one of which was wasted. A Quality Start replaces wins as a way of evaluating starting goaltenders, as it is awarded to any goaltender who plays well enough to win, regardless of whether his team won or not. Surprisingly, Tim Thomas has only been awarded a single game star and a 2nd game star, despite his stellar goalkeeping.
2. Simeon Varlamov, Washington
Simeon Varlamov began the postseason as Jose Theodore's back-up, but has surprised everyone with his league-best 1.51 GAA, and his 2nd-best .945 save percentage since replacing Theodore as starter in the 2nd game of the 1st round. He has two shutouts, and has been awarded a game star 6 times in his 8 starts, including 3 1st stars. He has only had 1 non-quality start, but the Capitals won that game anyway (known as a Bail Out), but the Capitals also wasted 2 of his 7 Quality Starts, so they still owe him one.
3. Jonas Hiller, Anaheim
Some people were surprised when Randy Carlyle chose Jonas Hiller as his starting goalie over 2007's hero and 2003 Conn Smythe winner Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Given the results, and Hiller's much stronger regular season statistically, it was certainly the right move. Like Varlamov, Hiller has two shutouts and has put forward Quality Starts in 7 of his 8 appearances and, like Washington, Anaheim has wasted two of those Quality Starts. Hiller has a 1.83 GAA and leads active goaltenders with a .951 save percentage. The Ducks have certainly been relying on his goalkeeping, and he's been awarded a league-best 4 1st stars in his 8 games.
4. Chris Osgood, Detroit
Last year's Stanley Cup hero Chris Osgood had a very disappointing regular season statistically, but has risen to the challenge in the playoffs. He has a 1.95 GAA, a strong .928 save percentage, and one shutout. In his six starts he's only failed to have a Quality Start once, but Detroit bailed him out. Detroit also wasted one of his Quality Starts, so they're even. Osgood has collected a game star in half of his starts, including two 1st stars.
5. Roberto Luongo, Vancouver
Roberto Luongo dominated St. Louis in the first round with four straight Quality Starts, including a shutout, and three 1st stars. He's met his match in Chicago, and is still looking for his first Quality Start after the opening two games, although Vancouver did bail him out once. Overall he has a 2.06 GAA, and a .933 save percentage.
6. Cam Ward, Carolina
Carolina's 2006 Stanley Cup hero and Conn Smythe champion Cam Ward has had the most highs and lows throughout the postseason. Of his 9 Starts, 6 were Quality Starts, but 2 were wasted, though he was bailed out of 1 of his non-Quality Starts. 2 of his Quality Starts met the definition by a decimal point, so he could just as easily be ranked 4-5 instead of 6-3. He has a 2.08 GAA, a .937 SV% and 2 shutouts, but is not as consistent as the other goalies.
7. Nikolai Khabibulin, Chicago
Nikolai Khabibulin, who won the Stanley Cup for the Tampa Bay Lighting in 2004, has had Quality Starts in half of his 8 starts. His winning record is is the result of being bailed out in game two against Vancouver. His overall numbers are just as average, with a 2.77 GAA, a .901 SV%, and no shutouts.
8. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh
Marc-Andre Fleury was exceptional in 2008, helping guide the Penguins to an exciting Stanley Cup finals against Detroit. So far this postseason he's managed only 3 Quality Starts in 8 attempts, all of them in the opening four games, and was bailed out in the dramatic Game 6 in Philadelphia. He has a 2.67 GAA and a .913 save percentage and, like Khabibulin, has two game stars (one more than the #1 goalie on this list, Tim Thomas).
It will be interesting to see which of these goaltenders can lead their teams to the Stanley Cup this season. Four of them have done it before, and of the four who haven't, two of them are arguably the league's best goaltenders. Hockey is obviously a team sport, but history has shown that teams with a hot goaltender have a huge advantage in the race for the Cup. If so, I really like Boston's chances this year.
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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