Stop me if you've heard this before: You need a top goaltender -- or at least one who catches fire throughout the playoffs -- to carry your team to the Stanley Cup.
Sounds credible, right? Well, as goaltending is a key part of hockey, that's frequently going to be the case.
On the other hand, you don't have to think too far back to find examples where it was very much not the case. For instance, only two years ago in 2010, we saw 26-year-old rookie Antti Niemi (.910) and the Chicago Blackhawks defeat a Philadelphia Flyers team backstopped by waiver-wire pickup Michael Leighton (.916) and career backup Brian Boucher (.909). And a year prior, a hot-and-cold performance in net by Marc-Andre Fleury (.908) was just good enough to allow the Pittsburgh Penguins to raise the ultimate trophy. With each of those teams, adequate netminding was sufficient given the powerhouse squads playing in front of them.
The lesson? It's not always goaltending. There are a variety of ways to construct a Stanley Cup winner.
Last season, we certainly saw elite goaltending at its best, when regular-season GVT leader Tim Thomas carried the Boston Bruins to their first championship since 1972, blowing away the field as the postseason's most valuable player by far -- an eminently worthy Conn Smythe winner.
Thomas was key to the Bruins' success, but he's only one man. This year, elite goaltending is the theme of the entire playoffs. In fact, we can call 2012 the Year of the Goalie.
Consider that the five top goaltenders of the regular season -- Phoenix's Mike Smith, Los Angeles' Jonathan Quick, New York's Henrik Lundqvist, St. Louis' Brian Elliott and Nashville's Pekka Rinne -- not only made the playoffs, but they all led their teams to the conference semifinals. Go one round deeper now, and -- you guessed it -- the top three netminders of the regular season (in fact, the top three players overall by our rankings) have advanced to the conference finals: Smith, Quick and Lundqvist.
And they haven't stopped playing well just because the regular season ended. In fact, each is the top reason their team is playing in the NHL's final four. Smith, Quick and Lundqvist currently rank first, second and fourth, respectively, in our Conn Smythe Watch.
It's a year when marginal performers like Fleury (.834) and Ilya Bryzgalov (.887) weren't most valuable player, regardless of the fact the oddsmakers had the Penguins pegged as the top team going into the playoffs and that the Flyers were favored against the New Jersey Devils.
One reason for the premium on goaltending is the continuing dip in goal scoring, particularly power-play scoring. In 2005-06, Toronto led the league with 107 power-play goals. In 2011-12, Philadelphia was tops with 66 power-play goals, a total that would have placed the Flyers among the five worst teams in the NHL in 2005-06. Second-place Vancouver (57 PPG) would have ranked second to last in 2005-06.
Consequently, while the league-wide even-strength save percentage (ESSV%) has modestly improved from .915 to .921 since the lockout, average (total) save percentage has jumped from .901 to .914 due to netminders facing many fewer shots on the power play. Due to fewer power-play opportunities, power-play shots have dropped 38 percent since 2005-06.
Coaches have also become smarter with defensive systems. Though Lundqvist is one of the handful of best goaltenders since the lockout, Quick and Smith, especially, had not proven themselves until this season. And that's not even mentioning Brian Elliott, who was actually last in GVT in 2010-11, by Hockey Prospectus' estimation, the worst player in the entire NHL. Give the coaches a nod here.
Martin Brodeur: His second-half surge has carried over into the postseason
Date Games SV%
2010-11 56 .903
2011-12 (1st half) 30 .893
2011-12 (2nd half) 29 .921
2012 playoffs 12 .920
So, in the Year of the Goalie, are we destined for a Stanley Cup finals matchup of Lundqvist against the coin-flip winner of Smith and Quick? It does seem odd to consider all-time great and future first-ballot Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur as the weak link among the remaining netminders. Brodeur's certainly appeared to be a shell of himself for much of the previous two seasons, but a late-season surge saw him finish with a marginally respectable .908 save percentage.
In fact, if we split the past two seasons at the midway point of Brodeur's 2011-12 (see chart at right), we get the same Brodeur of old that we've seen this postseason: he's followed up 29 games of .921 play since Jan. 24 with 12 playoff games of .920 play. And that's in contrast to the washed-up-looking Brodeur, who managed only a .900 save percentage in his prior 86 games.
Still, the bar's been set awfully high by the league-leading trio.
The remaining four: Comparing the four goalies still in the playoffs
Goaltender Team ESSV% SV%
Mike Smith PHX .949 .948
Jonathan Quick LAK .948 .949
Martin Brodeur NJD .947 .920
Henrik Lundqvist NYR .946 .937
But as far as the playoffs, Brodeur's numbers are right in line with his peers when you consider even-strength save percentage (ESSV%), which puts aside the Devils' bad luck and team breakdowns on the power play against the Florida Panthers in the first round.
Sure enough, there's not a slouch left among them.
The conference finals feature the three best goaltenders of the regular season, and one of the best goaltenders ever, all playing near the top of their game.
It's hard to handicap which one will be lifting the Stanley Cup in June, but you can guarantee that the winning goalie will also be lifting the Conn Smythe Trophy.
A version of this story originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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