- Scott Burnside, NHL
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As I watched Anaheim Ducks netminder Frederik Andersen take a seat on the end of the Ducks' bench after allowing four goals on just 12 shots through the first half of Sunday's game against the Dallas Stars, I was struck by this thought:
Ho hum, another night and another goaltender takes a beating in the first round of the playoffs.
Yes, the first round has been chock-full of dramatic comebacks and lead changes, and much of that has to do with goaltending that has been equally fluid. Of the 44 games played through Monday, a whopping 31 featured at least one team scoring four or more goals. Nine goaltenders who have played at least two games during the postseason have goals-against averages of 3.00 or higher.
Veteran NHL netminder Martin Biron, now trying his hand at broadcast analysis for a variety of networks, believes on one level that it's simply the theme of this year's first round. Every year, he said, there's something -- whether suspensions or a rash of pucks over the glass, which happened a couple of years ago -- that dominates the early games of the playoffs. This spring it's leads evaporating and lots of bad goals.
"I wish I had the magic answer because I've looked at it from every different angle," Biron said. What is most confounding is that top goalies are struggling across the NHL landscape.
"There's been a lot of questionable goals," Biron said. Five-hole, under the arms, "goals that as a goalie, you say, those have to be stopped. Really, it baffles me."
The key to success in the playoffs, according to Biron, is to maintain consistency despite whatever emotion is flowing around the series. That's even more difficult in the first round when emotions are traditionally at a fever pitch.
Former NHL netminder Kelly Hrudey agrees that the up-and-down nature of the goaltending in this postseason is perplexing. Like Biron, Hrudey suggests the reasons are specific to the dynamics in each series as opposed to some sort of trend afflicting the position.
So what exactly are those dynamics? Let's examine.
The Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins managed to play four straight games that ended 4-3, with blown leads in each contest. While the woes of Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury have been well-documented, more surprising was the uneven play of defending Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky of Columbus.
Bobrovsky allowed a handful of questionable goals, including the Game 1 winner by Brandon Sutter and one late in the second period of Game 3 by Brooks Orpik that set the stage for a Penguins comeback. Both netminders righted the ship in the Penguins' 3-1 victory in Game 5, but Biron wondered if the emotion of the Blue Jackets' surprising success in the team's second-ever playoff appearance is unsettling Bobrovsky just a little.
Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma, who has presided over some wacky playoff goaltending performances in recent years, believes a preponderance of power-play situations has contributed to the high-scoring games and difficult times for goaltenders.
"It is tough to kind of see some of the scores and wonder if this really is the playoffs. I think we expect it to be 2-1 and 1-0 and extremely tight, so to see in our series seven goals a game go in, and you see some of the other numbers that are being put up, you're a little taken aback," Bylsma said.
"But I do think in the first round of the playoffs you see a lot more penalties called than you do in subsequent rounds. And in our series, special teams has been a majority of the goals and that's just usually not the case in playoff hockey, in subsequent rounds especially," he said.
Hrudey wondered if some of the questionable goals given up in the St. Louis Blues-Chicago Blackhawks series were a function of the heightened emotion from a particularly nasty series, with both the Blues' Ryan Miller and the Blackhawks' Corey Crawford allowing goals at crucial times they'd love to have back.
In Crawford's case, Hrudey wonders if it's been about trying to reclaim the emotional groove Crawford was in last year when he won his first Stanley Cup. The tendency is to try to re-create exactly how you felt and what you did coming out of a successful run like last spring, Hrudey said, "but that'll never happen."
You can't re-create the exact circumstances, but "there can be a new one that can be just as productive and just as fruitful," Hrudey said. And sometimes there's an adjustment period before coming to that realization.
To Crawford's credit, after admitting to playing poorly in overtime losses in Games 1 and 2 of that series, he was rock-solid in leading the Blackhawks to four straight wins to close out St. Louis.
One of the most curious performances has been in the Los Angeles Kings-San Jose Sharks series, in which former playoff MVP and Vezina Trophy finalist Jonathan Quick gave up 19 goals through the first four games and has a 3.47 GAA through six games.
According to Hrudey, two things contributed to the bloated numbers for Quick: his aggressive style in challenging shooters, and going side to side -- something Quick does as well as any netminder in the league -- makes him vulnerable to backdoor plays and poor defensive coverage from his teammates that have allowed the Sharks to capitalize multiple times in the series.
As if to reinforce Hrudey's point, Quick has returned to form as the Kings have made life uncomfortable for the Sharks with three straight wins after losing three straight to open the series. And in Game 5 it was Antti Niemi of the Sharks, another former Cup winner, who got the hook just 22 seconds into the second period after allowing three goals on 19 shots.
In Andersen's case, the rookie netminder was bailed out by Jonas Hiller as the Ducks stormed back to score twice in the final 2:10 of regulation to force overtime in Game 6, and then they sent the Stars home on Nick Bonino's overtime winner.
Sunday wasn't a great night for Andersen's counterpart, Kari Lehtonen, who gave up five goals on 30 shots and finished with a 3.29 GAA and .885 save percentage in the six games of the series. Lehtonen himself was given the hook in a 6-2 loss in Game 5.
Going the other way
It's not as if every goalie is suffering from first-round implosion. There are some compelling goaltending stories unfolding, like in Minnesota.
We take little satisfaction in saying "I told you so," but let's just say Ilya Bryzgalov's uninspiring turn through the first two games of the Colorado Avalanche-Minnesota Wild series were pretty much what we expected: eight goals allowed, .822 save percentage and a 4.85 GAA.
Wild coach Mike Yeo went to rookie Darcy Kuemper, who had been hurt at the end of the regular season and before that had struggled with the weight of expectation with a period of uneven play. But since Kuemper's return, the Wild have righted the ship and tied the series. Kuemper allowed just one goal on 48 shots in an overtime loss in Game 5 and then made 21 saves in a 5-2 win in Game 6.
And then there's Steve Mason's performance for the Philadelphia Flyers. Mason took over for Ray Emery, who was good enough to get one win in the Flyers-Rangers series but not good enough to keep the Flyers from falling behind while turning in a 3.49 GAA and .888 save percentage. Mason made 38 saves in a 2-1 win in Game 4, his first start of the postseason.
Tuukka Rask was a force for the Boston Bruins with a .961 save percentage in a five-game series victory over the Detroit Red Wings, and both Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers and Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens have played up to their reputations as elite netminders.
As for whether the spate of spotty goaltending is a trend that anyone thinks will extend beyond the coming days? No.
Most observers I spoke to believe that water will seek its own level once the first round is completed -- which, in general, will mean a return to more traditional scores and more traditional goaltending performances. If you're a fan of watching goalies get the hook, you better get your fill now.
Spotty goaltending has been a theme so far in the first round of the playoffs for various reasons, but it's a trend that's likely coming to an end, writes ESPN.com's Scott Burnside.