After the Montreal Canadiens Game 1 victory over the Washington Capitals, I asked former Devils and Hurricanes goaltender and current Hockey Night in Canada broadcaster Kevin Weekes the key to the Habs shutting down the Capitals offense. It’s a “willingness of players to execute,” Weekes said.
Execution along with an incredible debut performance by goaltender Jaroslav Halak.
Give the defense and coaching their due, but let’s talk superstar performance. Let’s talk Halak. After being pulled in Game 3 and being benched for Game 4, Halak faced 134 shots in the final three games and stopped 131 shots. That’s a .978 save percentage. Keep in mind the greatest goalie of all-time (debatably) Dominik Hasek’s highest playoff save percentage was .950 in a seven game series in 1993-94.
If the regular season is your measure, the Habs had no business competing with Washington. The Capitals had 39 more points in the standings, 111 more goals scored, plus-85 regular season differential for the Caps, minus-6 for the Habs. Not to mention that the Capitals won 30 of 41 games at home, the Canadiens won 19 of 41 on the road. On the individual level, four Capitals players had more points than Montreal’s leading scorer. Ten Caps had a better plus/minus than Montreal’s leader. What the Canadiens had and the Caps did not was a quality goaltender.
In honor of Jaroslav Halak’s performance, we look the top 3 (not including Halak) best playoff debut performances by goaltenders post-lockout:
2006: Cam Ward vs. Montreal Canadiens
Ward watched the Hurricanes’ Game 1, 6-1 defeat from the bench. Not a big shock considering Ward was mediocre with a GVT of just -7.9 during the regular season saving only .882 of shots and allowing almost four goals per game and had zero shutouts. But, after the Game 1 defeat and a rough start for Marty Gerber in Game 2, the Hurricanes decided to give the 22-year old a go.
Ward suffered a difficult overtime loss in Game 2 stopping 20 of 23 shots in 67 minutes in net. After the Game 2 defeat, Ward had a .939 save percentage over the final five games of the series including overtime victories in Game 3 and Game 6. But, it was Game 5 that set Ward apart amongst post-lockout performances. The Hurricanes’ rookie stopped 30 of 31 shots as his teammates struggled to win face-offs including 6 of 14 in their own zone. Eric Staal, Kevyn Adams and Dough Weight combined to win 10 of 27 face-offs.
With Ward starting, the Hurricanes won four straight, all by one goal and three of which were 2-1. After the series victory, defenseman Craig Rivet said, "It's amazing. You can sit here and talk about a guy making great saves and keeping you in games, but he's just an awesome guy. Guys really like to play in front of him, like to work for him, and you can go back in this series and really scratch your head at some of the saves that he made on breakaways and things like that to keep us in the game. Without him there, I think it would have been a shorter series."
2007: Roberto Loungo vs. Dallas Stars
Anybody who watched Game 1 of this series knew it was going to be special, especially for goalie Roberto Loungo. He allowed four goals, but he saved 72 shots and won the game in four overtimes or in other terms 138 minutes. His teammates were dominated in the faceoff circle, winning only 56 of 121 including 6 for 21 by Ryan Kesler and in the shots category, putting up 56 in the four OTs.
The four overtime win wasn’t the only time Loungo played free hockey, the seven game series featured three overtimes. After losing Game 2, the Canadian goalie beat the Stars again in overtime in Game 3, 2-1 earning the first star saving .963 percent. He did have some help from an incredible play by Willie Mitchell, who swept a trickling puck off the goal line with less than three minutes left. But, several times during the game Loungo made freakish saves giving the Canucks a 2-1 lead in the series.
The series progressed with a number of close games, including a 1-0 overtime victory for the Stars in Game 5 and a 2-0 win in Game 6. In the two losses, Loungo faced 60 shots and stopped 57. Game 7, however, Luongo’s dominance finally paid off. He stopped 19 of 20 shots, finished off the Stars in a 4-1 and was awarded the first star. Luongo, who had a 38.5 regular season GVT, ended the series with 228 saves in 240 shots, a .950 save percentage.
2009: Jonas Hiller vs. San Jose Sharks
Jonas Hiller took over the starting goalie job in Anaheim for Stanley Cup winning goalie J.S. Giguere in 2009. He proved quickly he belonged, shutting out the San Jose Sharks 2-0 and stopping 35 of 35 shots. Even more impressive, 11 of the 35 shots were on the power play and three more were shorthanded.
Game 2 might have been better than Game 1, when Hiller –again the team’s first star – stopped 42 of 44 shots from the Sharks. The 26-year old goalie faced 14 shots while the Sharks were on the power play and stopped all 14.
The Sharks, generally associated with playoff chokes, were shut down consistently by Hiller despite a lineup that included Thornton, Roenick, Cheechoo, Blake and Pavelski. Hiller also shut out the Sharks in Game 4, stopping 31 of 31 and 7 of 7 while down one man and allowed just one goal in the clinching Game 6 while stopping 36 of 37 shots.
For the series, Hiller faced 230 shots in six games, an average of 38 per game. He stopped 220 of the 230 shots for a .956 save percentage for the series.
The victory was not only a great performance, but like Halak’s debut, it was an enormous upset. The Ducks were also an 8 vs. 1 seed. The Sharks, who had 117 points, were 32-5-4 at home while the Ducks, just 91 points, won just 20 of 41 on the road. The Sharks had a plus-53 goal differential, while the Ducks were just plus-7.
Cam Ward went on to win the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy while Jonas Hiller lost the next series in seven games to the Detroit Red Wings. Halak will have to shut down the league’s best two players back-to-back if he is to repeat Ward’s performance.
Matthew Coller is host of The Blue Line Show on ESPN 950 Rochester and is an author of the Business of Sports Network.
Matthew Coller is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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