The 2016 NHL playoffs has been defined by inexperienced goaltenders who have taken up the challenge of carrying their teams to the summit of hockey glory.
The four remaining clubs who are still competing for Lord Stanley’s mug feature well balanced rosters with depth scoring and tight defensive units that have over-performed to this point. There’s also one major factor that all four share, they all have a starting goalie who has no idea what it is to play hockey this time of year.
Yes, the Tampa Bay Lightning did not use Andrei Vasilevskiy as their starter this post-season but he has had to assume the role due to Ben Bishop’s injury. As well, the expectancy is Bishop may miss more than just a week as his status is very up in the air. Therefore, all four teams remaining in the eastern and western conference finals are currently being backstopped by a goalie who has never played under such pressure before. This is traditionally a cause for alarm. Yet no one seems to be wavered by the fact that all four teams remaining have very little experience in between the posts. So maybe we are in fact seeing a new age NHL. To prove such a point lets take a look at how the four teams goaltenders stack up when based off their post-season experience.
Tampa Bay has been forced their hand since a shock injury to their starter in Game 1 of the Eastern finals against Pittsburgh. Since coming in midway through the opening period 21 year-old Andrei Vasilevskiy has looked nothing but sharp and focused. He helped guide Tampa to a first game win before being their only consistently good player in their game two and three losses. Vasilevskiy only was able to perform in 24 games this year as the backup during the regular season after returning from a blood clot injury at the end of training camp. The year prior as a rookie he had 16 appearances during the season, and never touched the ice during Tampa’s stanley cup run and loss to Chicago in last year’s finals. Therefore the youngster has literally nothing but a handful of regular season action under his belt, and is basically going off of ability at this current time. Considering he was able to backstop them to a series evening win in game four off skill alone, Vasilevskiy has been very impressive thus far.
Opposite of him in goal for the Pittsburgh Penguins has been little known Matt Murray. The also 21 year old netminder is in his first season in the NHL, having only 13 games under his belt before returning from injury to be the starter during the playoffs. He has been asked to do quite a bit of heavy lifting for the Pens over their first two series but has settled in nicely, and may be considered the most calming and consistent of the remaining goaltenders. This would be surprising considering he has the least experience playing in the NHL of any remaining starters (or any of the 2016 playoff goalies). Murray has used his size, and quick lateral movements for a bigger goalie to his advantage in order to cut off alot of the lower half of the net. However, as Kelly Hrudey has mentioned on CBC’s Hockey Night broadcasts throughout the playoffs, Murray does have a tendency to make himself too small in the net when he’s trying to play the proper angles and percentages. Albeit there are noticeable adjustments needed in Murray’s game, it really hasn’t come back to bite him yet, and the Pens are hoping it won’t anytime soon.
In the West, there is a slightly older pair of goaltenders dueling it out for their respective sides, and yet both has very little to no playoff experience either. San Jose this past off-season went out and acquired the goalie they felt they needed to take the next step for years to come. The problem was that nobody else felt the same way about it. However, Martin Jones was thinking exactly the same thing when he chose to move an hour north of LA to his new California home, and he has put in the necessary work in his first season as a Shark. Jones at 26 had two prior successful seasons with the Los Angeles Kings which gave the Sharks enough confidence to pursue him as their #1 starting goaltender. His first season has proved their hunch was more than correct. Jones led San Jose to the post-season in his first full year as a starter in the NHL, playing the most games he ever has in a season professionally. However, it has not tired or deterred him from having an extremely successful first post-season including recently shutting out the Blues in back to back games (2 & 3). If Jones continues his form of play there is a good chance the Sharks will be vying for the Stanley Cup in a week or two’s time due to his successful play in goal, and he could very well be the first Shark goaltender to ever hoist the cup this June.
The St. Louis Blues for the fifth consecutive season had Brian Elliott as their number two depth chart starter in goal, and for a fifth consecutive year Brian had another successful season as a backup. However, this year due to a late injury in February to then starter Jake Allen, Elliott started gathering games under his belt late in the season and started to win more and more. With this undertaking coach Ken Hitchcock decided to ride the stellar play of Elliott into the post-season, and it has paid off. Elliott has dragged St. Louis through two of the toughest teams in the NHL, Chicago and Dallas in the first two rounds and has shown great resiliency in bouncing back from tough losses in prior games in both series. Albeit Elliott has two past post-season experiences as a starter, both were over 3 years ago and were only a round or less of action giving Elliott very little experience to go off for this year’s run. Therefore, even though he is 31 and has had some time to get used to the NHL, Elliott has really never dealt with this type of pressure and consistently must win games. Making this year just as eye opening an experience for him as it has been his fellow playoff counterparts.
UPDATE: Brian Elliott after being pulled from a game three loss against the Sharks with his team down 3-0, is no longer the starting netminder now for St. Louis. Jake Allen (still nearly zippidee-doo-da in terms of playoff experience) is now been given the keys to the car for the Blues playoff drive. Allen who is 25 going on 26 this August has been the Blues starter the past two seasons for the majority of the regular season. He has posted some fine numbers even tho his post-season performance in his first playoff last year was sub-par and lackluster in his Blues being eliminated in 6 games by the lower seeded Wild. Allen will have some improvement to do going forward in these playoffs and his first game back as a starter was not pretty albeit gaining the win 6-3 on the road in game four. The test will be the same for Allen as it has been for the others, shake off the inexperience tag and replace it with a new one, champion.
No matter who the Stanley Cup winner is this season they will be led there by a goaltender who has never been to a final before. One thing is for certain, one of these goalies will buck the trend and leave the group behind while joining a new group of goaltenders, also known as Stanley Cup Champions.