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.