If hockey fans get their wish on Saturday, the tilt between Boston and St. Louis will feature the two storylines – goaltending-wise at least – of this first month of action. There is the potential that Tim Thomas and Jaroslav Halak could go head-to-head tomorrow in Boston. (As a disclaimer, both teams will be in the midst of a back-to-back, which could spoil what could be a great goaltending duel.)
Thomas and Halak have been catalysts for the Bruins and Blues, respectively. You can make a legitimate argument that if the season ended today, they would be one-two in the Vezina Trophy chase. But when you look at some other netminders experience success in the early going, these two are just the tip of the iceberg.
The goaltending league-wide has been really good, dominant in some places. Nine – count ‘em, nine – goaltenders possess a goals-against average below 2.00; that’s unheard of. It’s only November and the Brent Johnsons of the world will come back to earth at some point.
While we have the chance, though, let’s take a look at some of the standouts thus far (through Thursday’s games). - Tim Thomas, BOS (7-0-0, 0.72 GAA, .977 SV %, 3 SO) - Jaroslav Halak, STL (7-1-1, 1.53 GAA, .940 SV %, 3 SO) - Jonathan Quick, LA (8-1-0, 1.64 GAA, .942 SV %, 1 SO) - Niklas Backstrom, MIN (5-3-2, 1.88 GAA, .938 SV %, 1 SO) - Jimmy Howard, DET (5-0-1, 1.95 GAA, .926 SV %, 1 SO) - Brent Johnson, PIT (5-1-1, 1.71 GAA, .941 SV %, 1 SO) - Mathieu Garon, CBJ (4-0-0, 0.89 GAA, .966 SV %, 2 SO) - Antero Niittymaki, SJ (4-1-1, 1.75 GAA, .930 SV %) - Cory Schneider, VAN (3-0-0, 0.90 GAA, .969 SV %)
(Of those nine, I’d guess only four or five will be able to maintain their high level of play past this month.)
There have also been some rookies turning heads. Michal Neuvirth has taken over the oft-injured Semyon Varlamov, performing admirably (8-3-0, 2.31 GAA). He has shown great durability by starting all but one game, yet you have to wonder if he’ll hit a wall later in the year. Nonetheless, he’s been the goaltender the Capitals have been looking for in a while.
Another impressive rookie is Philadelphia’s Sergei Bobrovsky, who boasts a 7-2-0 record and 2.23 GAA. Is he the solution to the Flyers’ annual search for a goalie? Time will tell, but the initial signs are good. ‘Bob’ hasn’t been fazed by the pace of the NHL game, making clutch saves time after time for the Flyers.
Both Neuvirth and Bobrovsky are making their voices heard for the Calder Trophy thus far.
Two other youngsters – Cory Schneider and Anders Lindback – have stepped up as well. Schneider has a perfect record filling in for Roberto Luongo, while Lindback was a brick-wall when Pekka Rinne sustained an injury on opening night.
Back to list above, though, and you’ll recognize some notable omissions – Ryan Miller, Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo, Henrik Lundqvist, Ilya Bryzgalov… the list goes on and on! Can you imagine if these guys can turn it on and put up better numbers?
Thomas’ rejuvenation has been a thrill to watch. The most unconventional ‘tender since Dominik Hasek was, as Pierre McGuire would say, a monster in the 2008/09 campaign. Thomas went 36-11-7 in 54 games with a 2.10 GAA en route to winning the Vezina Trophy.
Last season, though, the 36-year-old took a step back. Thomas slowly lost his grip on the starter’s position (courtesy of Tuukka Rask) and posted less-than-stellar numbers (17-18-8, 2.56 GAA). There was even a lot of scuttlebutt this summer of a possible trade involving Thomas!
Thomas became the first backstop in B’s history – an Original Six franchise, mind you – to start the year 7-0-0.
In Montreal, Halak was the talk of the town for the duration of the 2010 postseason; he almost deserved to have a statue unveiled outside of Bell Centre for his performance! His overall playoff record wasn’t anything to brag about (9-9, 2.55 GAA). In the nine victories, though, Halak had a .961 save percentage and 1.52 GAA, carrying the Canadiens to the conference finals.
With his new team, the Blues, Halak has been ‘as advertised’, teammate Alex Pietrangelo told me last month. His 1.53 GAA is comparable to the one he had in playoff victories when he had to stand on his head. The only difference is the save percentage, yet he’s not facing 35-50 shots a night like he did with the bleu, blanc et rouge.
In fact, St. Louis is giving up the least amount of shots per game in the whole league; a .940 save percentage in that circumstance is pretty damn good. Chicago gave up the least shots per game last season, but neither Antti Niemi (.910) nor Cristobal Huet (.890) had that kind of percentage. And we all know what the ‘Hawks did last spring.
Kings netminder Jonathan Quick has been equally successful, just with less glamour. He has just one shutout (compared to three each for Thomas and Halak) but has been awfully consistent; Quick has surrendered two goals or less in seven of his nine starts. By doing so, he has kept phenom Jonathan Bernier out of the crease more than expected.
One reason why we are seeing these ungodly goaltending numbers early on is because goal-scoring around the league is down… or maybe the goal-scoring isn’t there because of this great goaltending. Only 5.54 goals are being scored on average, 0.14 down from last year (and down 0.29 from 2008/09).
A comparable season is 2007/08, which saw a rate of 5.57 goals per game. That year, there were seven goalies with a GAA below 2.30, most notably Brodeur and Evgeni Nabokov, who were entrenched in a neck-and-neck battle for the Vezina.
In 2008/09 – with a 5.83 goals per game rate – there were just two goalies with said GAA numbers (Thomas and Steve Mason).
If you have an opportunity to watch the (potential) Thomas-Halak battle on Saturday, I advise you to do so. They are two of the many goaltenders that have been locked in this first month. Heck, I don’t think Thomas or Halak are on the same planet right now!
Major League Baseball had the ‘Year of the Pitcher’ in 2010 as there were six different no-hitters and/or perfect games (including Roy Halladay’s playoff no-hitter).
That got me thinking… could this be the ‘Year of the Goaltender’ in the NHL?
Our podcast 'RLD Hockey Talk' is LIVE every Wednesday afternoon at 1:00 ET/Noon CT. Some of our notable guests in past episodes have been Dustin Brown, Doc Emrick, John Buccigross, Dave Strader, E.J. Hradek, Elliotte Friedman and Jay Grossman.