Make It Or Break It: Rookie Goaltenders and the Stanley Cup Playoffs

Updated: April 26, 2011 at 8:44 am by Dan Berlin

The Stanley Cup Playoffs.  It’s truly make-or-break time, where the men are separated from the boys.  Especially when it comes to rookie netminders.

Succeed in your first postseason and become the stuff that legends are made of.  From Montreal’s Ken Dryden in ’71 and Patrick Roy in ’86, to the Canes’ Cam Ward in ’06 and most recently Antti Niemi last season, winning hockey’s holy grail in Year 1 can translate directly into a prosperous – and even Hall of Fame – career in the NHL.

Yet those stories are few and far between.  For most rookie goalies trying to make a name for themselves in the NHL, the key in their first playoff go-round is to not look out of place and ultimately not to LOSE the series.   Avoid that fate, or risk forever being judged as a goalie not good enough to win when it counts.  Boston’s Tuukka Rask (who blew a 3-0 series lead to Philly last year) and Columbus’ Steve Mason (swept by Detroit in ’09 in only playoff appearance) are two examples of former rookies trying desperately to re-establish their reputations after disastrous playoff debuts.

On the flipside, Tampa Bay’s Dwayne Roloson continues to find NHL work, largely based on past postseason success.  His run to the Finals with Edmonton in ’06 cemented his reputation as an established, proven playoff performer.  So much so, that Lightning GM Steve Yzerman was willing to bank his team’s entire season on the 41-year old veteran.  For Stevie Y, it’s a calculated risk.  He surely realizes that Roloson can’t carry his team single-handedly, but he knows that Rollie the Goalie is solid enough not to lose it for Tampa.  Could he say the same about Mike Smith or Dan Ellis?  Uh, not so much.

This year’s playoffs features three first-year goalies trying to make a name for themselves as proven winners in the clutch.  Chicago’s Corey Crawford, Washington’s Michal Neuvirth and Philadelphia’s Sergei Bobrovsky headline the NHL’s latest batch of fresh meat in the crease.

Time to take an early look at their performances thus far in this year’s playoffs to try and determine if their netminding future’s are bright – or bleak.   Hey, no pressure, kid.

(Stats thru Tuesday April 19th)

COREY CRAWFORD – CHICAGO BLACK HAWKS
Regular Season Record:  33-18-6, 2.30 GAA, .917 Sv%, 4 SO
2011 Playoff Record:  1-3, 2.82 GAA, .899 Sv%

Astonishingly, the Hawks allowed Niemi to walk after last season’s Cup run – mainly because they couldn’t afford to keep him – but also because the 26-year old Crawford was ready to make the jump to the big leagues.   Sure, Crawford posted some decent numbers in his first season after winning the job outright from Marty Turco, but he’s proven unable to this point to come up big in April.  After failing to win the final regular season game vs. Detroit with a playoff berth on the line, Crawford has subsequently not shown the ability to steal any games for the Hawks vs. the Canucks.  Is trailing the series 3-1 his fault?  Of course not.  Which means he’ll be the Hawks undisputed #1 next year and will live to see another postseason.  Still, following this year’s postseason performance, doubts will linger if Crawford is the guy who can get Chicago back to the promised land.

MICHAL NEUVIRTH – WASHINGTON CAPITALS
Regular Season Record:  27-12-4, 2.45 GAA, .914 Sv%, 4 SO
2011 Playoff Record:  2-1, 1.22 GAA, .951 Sv%, 1 SO

The Capitals continued their regular season dominance in 2010-11, securing their 4th straight Southeast division crown while finishing as the top seed in the East for a second year in a row.  Enter Neuvirth who, along with Alex Ovechkin, must feel like he’s carrying the weight of the world – and over a decade of playoff failure – squarely on his shoulders.  Well, so far, so good for the 23-year old Czech netminder.  He’s the early playoff leader in GAA and appears ready, willing and able of taking the Caps on a deep run towards the Cup.

Still, Neuvirth’s future as the Caps starting goalie is hardly guaranteed.  Because of the immense pressure in Washington to win now, it’s basically win-or-else for Neuvirth.  Should he falter and lose in either Round 1 or 2, look for the torch to be passed to Braden Holtby next season in the latest goaltending shuffle designed to try to bring a winner to the nation’s capital.

SERGEI BOBROVSKY – PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
Regular Season Record:  28-13-8, 2.59 GAA, .915 Sv%, 0 SO
2011 Playoff Record:  0-1, 3.38 GAA, .875 Sv%

Two words best describe Bobrovsky’s performance in this year’s playoffs – Epic fail.  In less than four periods of hockey, the rookie netminder managed to allow his stock to plummet from #1 on the Flyers depth chart all the way down to #3, following a loss to Buffalo in Game 1 and a very shaky first period in Game 2 (he allowed 3 goals on 7 shots before getting yanked in favor of Brian Boucher).   It’s obvious Head Coach Peter Laviolette has lost all confidence in Bob, reducing the 22-year old Russian to street clothes for Game 3, while promoting last year’s playoff hero Michael Leighton – who’s played 1 game for the Flyers all season – to backup Boucher.   With it highly unlikely that Bobrovsky will play again this postseason, you have to wonder if he’ll be able to rebound from this failure.  Ever.   Expect the sophomore jinx to be in full effect next season.

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