Vezina finalists Luongo and Thomas set to duel in Stanley Cup Final

After last year’s Stanley Cup Final, there were fans and pundits who claimed that goaltending wasn’t as important as it used to be. The Blackhawks thought Antti Niemi was replaceable after winning the Stanley Cup and the Philadelphia Flyers came within two games of a championship with a goaltender that ended up playing most of this season in the AHL. Its been five season since the last time a goaltender won the Conn Smythe (Cam Ward in 2006 with the Carolina Hurricanes). But take a look at the men between the pipes in the Final this year and it’s clear to see that good goaltending will always be in style.

Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli understands that these things tend to be cyclical:

“History shows both sides of that. Sometimes teams try to copy the Stanley Cup finalists the following year, subsequent years. We’ve seen teams before without star goaltenders win Cups. Tim is a terrific goaltender and he’s a clutch goaltender. He’s won championships before. I wouldn’t call last year a fluke. I think you’ll probably see it again at some point. You’re going to be more certain to have a proven goaltender. I think history will show that also.”

Both Tim Thomas and Roberto Luongo had the type of seasons that every team wants from their starting goaltender. Luongo lead the league with 38 wins, 2nd in goals against average (2.11), and 3rd in save percentage (.928). Not bad, but Tim Thomas’ numbers were even more impressive. Thomas earned 35 wins and 9 shutouts (2nd in the NHL). He also beat Luongo with a league’s best 2.00 goals against average this season and .938 save percentage; both were among the best the NHL has ever seen. Each goaltender was good enough to earn a spot as finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goaltender.

The spectacular play wasn’t limited to the regular season. Throughout the playoffs, their numbers have been incredibly similar. The both have a 2.29 goals against average, 12 wins, and a pair of shutouts. Thomas has a slightly better save percentage in the post season (.929 vs. .922). Both goaltenders have been called upon at various times to help steal games and have always kept their team in games when the 18 skaters in front of them are having a rough game. That’s all a team can ask from their goaltender: give them a chance to win.

Even though they’ve both been elite netminders since October, Roberto Luongo knows it’ll be a battle:

“Yeah, obviously we have different styles. Tim has had an unbelievable season, probably the best in the league. He’s given his team a chance to win every night.

It’s a good challenge for me, a good battle. There’s different battles. I focus more on their opposition players and what I have to do to be ready against them, but at the same time you want to look at the guy on the other side and try to go save for save.”

Everybody is comfortable with different styles. Obviously he’s a battler. He’ll never give up on a play. He’ll do whatever it takes to make a save, use any part of his body. You got to have a lot of respect for a guy like that. Sometimes you have no choice.

Even myself, included. There are certain things where there’s broken plays or the puck takes a weird bounce where you have no choice but to throw whatever piece of body you can in front of it.

I think I used to do a lot more of that earlier on in my career. As we move along and I get more experience, I think I’ve gotten to the point where I try not to be in those situations, but when they do, you have no choice.

For two teams that have such similarities, it should come as no surprise that they both have strong goaltending going into the final series of the season. The pressure surrounding Roberto Luongo is obvious—the city of Vancouver may burn the city down if they don’t win the Cup this season. But on the other side rink, the 37-year-old Thomas has taken the long road to reach this point in his career. He knows he may never have this opportunity again.

Let’s be realistic: it’s the Stanley Cup Final. Both goaltenders have a tremendous amount of pressure on their shoulders. But if they keep performing at the level they’ve set for the last eight months, fans will be in for a great duel.

Lightning give Vasilevskiy the hook after very rare Jurco goal

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By just about any measure, Monday’s been lousy to Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

He was pulled with a few minutes remaining in the first period after Chicago Blackhawks built a 3-1 lead, scoring those three goals on just eight shots on net.

You could summarize Vasilevskiy’s awful start by those numbers, or by how rare the 3-1 goal was for the scorer.

Tomas Jurco failed to score a goal or an assist in 16 games with the Red Wings, then went pointless in nine more games with Chicago before finally scoring his first goal of the season on Monday.

Now, Jon Cooper didn’t pull Vasilevskiy because Jurco scored that tally. Still, it rubs a little extra salt in his wounds all things considered.

Coach Q thinks Anisimov will be back by playoffs for Blackhawks

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The bad news is that Artem Anisimov seems likely to miss all – or at least most – of the regular season for the Chicago Blackhawks with his lower-body injury.

The good? Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville believes that Anisimov will be ready once the playoffs swing into motion, as the Chicago Sun-Times’ Mark Lazerus reports.

Anisimov was hurt when he got tangled up with Canadiens forward Alex Radulov on March 14:

The Blackhawks have been filling Anisimov’s typical spot alongside Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin with Ryan Hartman and Nick Schmaltz lately. There have been flashes of brilliance with Schmaltz, but Chicago would probably feel most confident with Anisimov back in his familiar place.

Chicago’s Central lead is pretty secure over the Minnesota Wild at the moment, which likely reduces motivation to rush Anisimov back before he’s truly ready. The Blackhawks close out their regular season on April 8, so there’s still time for him to heal up.

Ducks demote Enroth, so Gibson’s close to a return

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The Anaheim Ducks are flying high – er, waddling with some swagger? – right now thanks to Jonathan Bernier‘s somewhat shocking turnaround, but the pending return of John Gibson is promising.

(Especially since the Ducks will likely want him to shake off some rust before the playoffs begin.)

While it’s not clear if he’s exactly 100 percent healthy just yet, the Ducks sending Jhonas Enroth back to the AHL is a strong sign that Gibson is close.

Enroth actually never got a shot to start for the Ducks, as his last NHL appearance came on Nov. 30, closing off his ill-fated run with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Considering that Enroth was once a fairly hot commodity as at least a promising backup, it will be interesting to see how his 2017-18 season pans out. Will he get more or less of a chance than he received this season?

Bernier, meanwhile, is richly rewarding the Ducks for sticking with him.

He’s provided them with a Vezina-caliber March: 9-1-1, 1.71 GAA and .943 save percentage with one shutout. You almost wonder if there’s at least some potential for a goalie controversy if Gibson stumbles whenever he gets back into action … but hey, having two good goalies to choose from is better than none.

(Which was the scenario that must have scared the Ducks when Gibson got hurt in the first place.)

WATCH LIVE: Chicago Blackhawks at Tampa Bay Lightning

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The Tampa Bay Lightning almost certainly haven’t faced the Chicago Blackhawks in a game this important since the two teams were vying for a Stanley Cup.

While the Blackhawks have already punched their ticket to the postseason and are merely trying to pad their lead in the Central Division, the Bolts are fighting for their playoff lives. At the moment, they rank three points behind the Boston Bruins for the final spot in the East. With a game in hand, they can make up a lot of ground tonight.

With all of that in mind, it should be an entertaining contest. You can check it out on NBCSN, watch online or via the NBC Sports App.

Click here for the livestream.