At the quarter mark of the 2011-12 NHL season we find ourselves looking toward the end of the season -- the time of the year where we speculate over Stanley Cup favorites, offseason moves and awards. While the Vezina Trophy only includes three finalists, we found it hard to distinguish between many of the worthy candidates. Short sample sizes have made even the obscure candidates like Brian Elliott appear elite, making the decision even more difficult. Let's take a look at some of those deserving starting goalies.
Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins
Thomas finished last season with one of the strongest regular season performances of any starting goalie. Thus far, he has not slowed down with an even better GAA -- 1.85 opposed to 2.00 -- and a save percentage just one point lower than last season. While counting stats do not decide a goalie's fate, they do help sway votes. Last season, there was absolutely no chance Roberto Luongo or Pekka Rinne would win the trophy simply because of those peripherals.
Not only has Thomas been elite, he's been the team's MVP. He's allowed two goals or less in 11 of his 14 starts and has not allowed more than three in a single game this season. The Bruins just broke a 10-game winning streak, but Thomas remains on a personal-best eight-game winning streak. When the Bruins were still hungover from the offseason, Thomas stepped up and proved why he should be considered the best player at his position. Right now, the trophy is his to lose.
Does Thomas take home the Vezina for the third time in four seasons?
Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings
What a difference a year makes. Last season, Howard looked lost. The Red Wings attempted to sign Evgeni Nabokov to aid their young goalie as he was starting games with a higher frequency. Chis Osgood was hurt and Joey MacDonald didn't seem like a decent option until it was too late. Despite playing the same number of games and tallying the same wins, Howard's peripherals looked severely worse, moving him from the potentially elite to the privileged and overachieving.
This season, we simply do not feel the same way. His 13 wins are tied for the League lead. His 1.86 GAA ranks third behind only Thomas and Brian Elliott and his .930 SV% over the first two months is the highest totals he's posted since January of 2010. Moreover, he already has matched his career-high with three shutouts. Howard has done the job and looked more like Dominik Hasek than Osgood in the process.
Opposed to previous seasons, the Red Wings have struggled to score at their regular pace. Yet, Howard has kept them in games with several one-goal losses. When the team was on a six-game skid, he stepped up and won four in a row with two of the four wins coming by shutouts. At this rate, Howard could make a case for MVP if he falls short in Vezina voting.
Nikolai Khabibulin, Edmonton Oilers
The popular yet unorthodox pick, Khabibulin has helped the Oilers get back into the playoff picture with his stellar play between the pipes. Coming off a remarkably bad season where he only won 10 of his 47 appearances and finished with a GAA .70 higher than his career average, most pundits labeled Khabibulin as finished. A stint in an Arizona jail also didn't help his chances.
Nevertheless, he has played his best hockey since his final season in Phoenix, which was 13 years ago. In fact, this season would be the best in his 17-year career as his 1.87 GAA is .84 lower than his career average and his .936 SV% is .028 higher than his .908 career mark. Those statistics would compare favorably against the last two winners in Thomas (2.00 GAA, .938 SV%) and Ryan Miller (2.22 GAA, .929 SV%).
Playing behind a young team and head coach Tom Renney, who emphasizes tough defensive play, has been a godsend for the 38-year-old. If the season were to end today, he likely would take home the top honor in his position for the first time in his career.
Honorable Mentions: Carey Price, Marc-Andre Fleury, Henrik Lundqvist, Pekka Rinne, Kari Lehtonen
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images