The most important position in sports?
The hockey goaltender.
And the 2003 Stanley Cup playoffs have re-emphasized the point. If anybody else from another sport, representing the honor of his position, took a shot at claiming the distinction, Anaheim's Jean-Sebastien Giguere this spring would make the save and wave his glove in the face of the unfortunate pretender.
In the NHL playoffs, the goaltender's influence grows exponentially over the regular season, widening the gap between the position and the other claimants.
In Bob Gibson's day, maybe you could make an argument. Today, the great starting pitcher works every five days. Unless, of course, he had a bit of shoulder tightness or the beginnings of a blister. (Poor baby!) Or the pitching coach is concerned that the pitch count was a little high and the arm slotting a little off in the last start. Or the starter needs an extra day's rest because he needs to talk to the $1,000-an-hour sports psychologist (paid for by the team, of course) to revive and redirect his "focus."
Ask a starter to go on three days' rest, even in the World Series, and seamhead writers take a break from looking up the second baseman's batting average in the middle innings against left-handers at night on artificial turf, and opine about how "gutty" this guy is.
Besides, the starter's job now is to give his team a "quality start" and get it to the setup guy, who bequeaths the responsibility to the closer.
Just think of the New Jersey Devils' Martin Brodeur, running out of gas, giving way to his relief goalie four minutes into the third period -- and being applauded upon his exit as if he has performed a Herculean feat just to get to that point.
That's the starting pitcher's act these days.
Quarterback? The modern-era passer arguably is as crucial and potentially influential as a goaltender on a one-game basis, perhaps, but he also is more at the mercy of the talent around him. In championship confrontations, the influence does not build from game to game; it is one game, squeezed among the commercials and around the Shania Twain concert.
In football, the Ravens can win a championship with Trent Dilfer at quarterback -- as long as he has Ray Lewis chasing down the ballcarriers and Marvin Lewis coordinating. In hockey, you can't win the Stanley Cup with Islanders' journeyman Garth Snow, roughly Dilfer's equivalent.
Whatever his position, the most influential NBA player is easy to spot, because the referees know he is special enough to get the breaks, never foul out, and not be called for traveling after taking enough steps to make it from the dressing room to the players' parking lot. But it doesn't matter: Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson or Shaquille O'Neal could be virtually flawless, and their teams still can lose. (Heck, out-of-shape Shaq -- hockey coach Jim Schoenfeld's favorite player, because Schoenfeld could reprise his famous taunt, "Have another donut!" -- could make every free throw, as hard as that is to believe, and the Lakers still could lose.)
The hockey goaltender is more influential, and is the biggest difference-maker of all in team sports.
(Well, unless you consider horse racing and the bond between thoroughbred and jockey to be a team. In that case, the jockey is the most influential, if he or she has a buzzer or is pulling back on the reins harder than John Wayne trying to stop a runaway stagecoach.)
There has been a lot of talk about a goaltender being in a "zone" during the 2003 playoffs -- for at least the near future in the NHL, it will be known as "Pulling a Jiggy" -- but what often seems to be overlooked is its how contagious it is.
It affects, or infects, others.
And that's another reason the position is so important.
Giguere has skewed the outcome of the playoffs with the most headshake-inducing performance in the crease since Patrick Roy's showing with the Canadiens in 1993, when he won 10 games in overtime. A decade ago, the Canadiens at least came into the playoffs with 102 points in a top-heavy Eastern Conference. The Mighty Ducks had a renaissance regular season, but little in it gave any hint of what has unfolded.
And that's all Giguere. The suddenly PC position to take of late is that the Ducks have had marvelous offensive balance and have played well in front of Giguere, but that's a bunch of smoke.
Jiggy has gotten the Ducks this far. His supporting cast is decent, and no more than that.
There have been other great goaltending playoff performances since 1993, including Mike Vernon's and Roy's Conn Smythe Trophy-winning work in 1997 and 2001. But neither of those come even close to being as impressive as Giguere's showing through the first three rounds, and that's why he should be this season's Conn Smythe winner even if he suddenly plays like "Hockey Night in Canada" analyst Don Cherry's favorite foil, hapless Swedish goalie Hardy Astrom, in the finals.
Even in "normal" years, playoff goaltending ratchets the position's influence to a higher level. And in years such as this one, when one man does such incredible work, the phenomenon is on display for the whole world to see.
In the playoffs, the "in-the-zone" goalie not only stands on his own head, he gets inside the heads of opponents.
His work dilutes the opposing skaters' confidence, generating frustration and leading to that sabotaging infinitesimal blip of hesitation or
His pads suddenly seem so big, it seems they could be held together in the crease and leave less of an opening for the puck than does a Shooter Tutor.
He has that mental swagger, and he loves knowing that even the grandmother in the second deck or the novice fan watching in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, is saying: "Is this guy human?"
And in front of him, his teammates feel energized and enabled, because if all else fails, the man in the crease will save their bacon.
Even the fortunate bounce, or the clanging of the post, seem confirmation that the fates are so impressed with him, they've jumped on his bandwagon.
Yes, playoff goaltending takes one of the game's central components -- the masked man's importance -- and multiplies it exponentially.
It builds up from game to game, and not just by slight gradations.
With each shake of the head, with each "incredible!" uttered in the broadcast booth after one of his saves, with each act of larceny, his importance jumps.
It's just different in hockey.
Sometimes, the championship goaltending performance involves both general consistency and resilience, including perseverance through the occasional bad nights -- or, simply, an appropriately short memory.
What Giguere has done is lift a good, not great, team to a different level.
Brodeur is doing the more conventional job of giving his team the opportunity to play up to its ability. That doesn't diminish his accomplishment, or dilute the reality that he still is more proven as a playoff goalie than Giguere, who could turn out to be a one-hit wonder. Or it could be the breakthrough for the game's next great "money" goaltender.
As hits go, this could be his "Louie, Louie."
Or it could be his, "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
(Those of you under 30, ask an elder.)
Whichever way that turns out, he has re-confirmed the importance of his position.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, Simon and Schuster's "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," is available nationwide.