As the road to the Stanley Cup Final narrows, it’s clear that goaltending is central to a team’s championship aspirations.
However, the road for teams and their netminders is not always the same. In the Eastern Conference, the back-to-back defending Cup champions in Tampa Bay have the best goalie in the world in Andrei Vasilevskiy. And their potential opponents in the Eastern Final, the New York Rangers, have Hart and Vezina Trophy finalist Igor Shesterkin between the pipes.
The Bolts and Blueshirts have thrived because of their netminders, and Shesterkin and Vasilevskiy have met and exceeded expectations. But in Carolina, No. 1 goalie Frederik Andersen has been injured and unable to play, and backup Antti Raanta has been stellar – at least, until Game Six of their second-round showdown against the Rangers Saturday, when he was pulled in the second period after giving up three goals on 13 shots.
Raanta has had a Jeykll-and-Hyde post-season, posting a .965 save percentage and 0.97 goals-against average at home, while putting up a bloated 3.96 G.A.A. and .872 SP on the road. It’s highly unlikely Canes head coach Rod Brind’Amour will turn to backup Pyotr Kotechkov for Game Seven Monday in Carolina, so it will be Raanta’s game to either shine in or slump in. And he’ll have to outplay Shesterkin, which will be no small feat. The Hurricanes have been great in their own rink, but don’t be surprised to see the Rangers come out on top, thanks to their superstar goalie.
The Western Conference is a different story altogether. There are no dynamic goalies stealing games for their team. The Edmonton Oilers have 40-year-old Mike Smith, who is on his fifth NHL team, and who appeared in only 28 regular-season games this year. Meanwhile, their Western finalist opponents, the Colorado Avalanche, are employing Darcy Kuemper in net; Kuemper has a pedestrian .904 SP in nine playoff games this season, and the 32-year-old’s understudy is 31-year-old Pavel Francouz, who has a .902 SP in two playoff games this year. Nobody is saying the Oilers and Avs are winning in spite of their goaltending, but neither Smith nor Kuemper has dominated games the way Vasilevskiy and Shesterkin have.
For that reason, it’s safe to say the Lightning will be favored against either the Hurricanes or Rangers, as well as against the Oilers and Avalanche in the Cup Final. Since Game Six of their first-round series against a highly-skilled Toronto team, Vasilevskiy has been superb, and he now has a .932 playoff SP, slightly worse than last season (.937 SP), but just as good as he was two years ago, when he won his first Cup.
If the post-season ended today, Vasilevskiy would be the proper choice for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player. That would be his second Conn Smythe. The man is out of this world right now.
Of course, players of Vasilevskiy’s caliber do not come along often. He gets plenty of help from Norris Trophy-winning star defenseman Victor Hedman and Lightning forwards who are defensively responsible, but Vasilevskiy’s confidence and calm in net make life much easier for his teammates.
As you can see, there are many different paths to being a goalie in the Cup Final. But go back through the years and look at the teams that have won multiple Cups: the L.A. Kings had Jonathan Quick; the Pittsburgh Penguins had Marc-Andre Fleury; the Chicago Blackhawks had Corey Crawford. All of them were stars in their prime.
All due respect to Smith and Kuemper, but they have not won at the ultimate stage yet, and thus aren’t on the same level as the aforementioned Cup-winning goalies. Vasilevskiy, on the other hand, already has assured himself a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and he’s still only 27 years old. If you replaced him in Tampa’s net with Smith or Kuemper, it’s unlikely the Lightning would’ve made it past the Maple Leafs.
Nor would the Bolts have swept the Florida Panthers in Round 2. Vasilevskiy allowed just one goal in each of the Lightning’s first three wins over Florida, and in Game Four, he shut them out after turning aside 49 Panthers shots. These are the stats from which icons are made.
It doesn’t matter if the Lightning play the Rangers or Carolina in the Eastern Final. Despite not having home ice advantage, Tampa Bay will be favored to win, and rightly so. Same goes for the Cup Final. This year’s post-season has shown you can win multiple series without a goalie of Vasilevskiy’s stature, but when the best goalie on the planet is locked in the way he is now, there’s almost nothing you can do to stop him from winning, and burnishing his legend.