Timing is everything in the NHL. Particularly in the playoffs. And particularly for goaltenders.
Nobody knows that better than the two men guarding the nets in the Eastern Conference final.
All-Star Game representatives in the middle of the season, both Washington’s Braden Holtby and Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy fell on hard times in the second half, only to rediscover their games when it mattered the most. Today, they are the two main reasons why the Capitals and Lightning are each four wins away from reaching the Stanley Cup final.
“There’s something about when you have a season that’s subpar, below your potential and below your expectations, there’s a reset button that gets hit when you start the playoffs,” said TSN hockey analyst Andy Chiodo, a former NHL goalie. “Right now you watch them, these guys are dialled in. And it’s scary when they get dialled in.”
In that regard, they are not alone.
This has been a somewhat anti-climatic post-season, in that the top teams in the Atlantic, Metropolitan and Pacific Division have already punched a spot in the Final Four. The Central Division-leading Nashville Predators can continue the trend with a win against the Winnipeg Jets in Game 7 on Thursday.
Based on the goaltending numbers, it’s not hard to see why. All three Vezina Trophy finalists (Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck, Nashville’s Pekka Rinne and Vasilevski) are all still playing, as is Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury, who had a sterling 2.24 goals-against average although he only played 46 games because of injury.
And then there is Washington’s Holtby. For years, the former Vezina Trophy winner could never replicate his regular-season success in the post-season. This year, it’s been the exact opposite.
While Fleury was amongst the best goalies regardless of the month in the season, Holtby’s season reads more like an ECG. He was up in October, November and December, dropped down in January and February, before completely flat-lining in March and lost the No. 1 job to Philipp Grubauer.
No question, the switch from longtime goalie coach Mitch Korn — he became the team’s director of goaltending — coupled with Washington’s stripped-down defence culminated in Holtby’s struggles. A year ago, Washington allowed the fourth-fewest shots against. This season, they were in the middle of the pack.
Either way, Holtby found himself in an unfamiliar position: sitting on the bench as a $6.1-million backup.
“We all in one way or another get off the road a little bit, but with the right support you find that road again,” one member of the Capitals organization said. “You don’t think that Sidney Crosby went through that when they fired Mike Johnston and hired Mike Sullivan? He’s definitely grounded and back to the blue-collar place.”
It wasn’t until Grubauer lost the first two games against Columbus in the first round that Holtby was given a chance to win back the starting job. Since then, he has made the most of the opportunity, losing just two of 10 games and allowing just 22 goals. Against Pittsburgh, he outplayed Matt Murray and limited Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel to just one goal in six games.
Vasilevskiy’s season was slightly different. For the first half of the season, he was arguably the best goalie in the NHL. But with Tampa Bay allowing 32.7 shots per game, he might have been one of the most overworked. And by March, he was showing the effects of it.
The 23-year-old didn’t lose the starting job. But with a sub-.900 save percentage in the final two months of the regular season, he might have lost his bid for the Vezina.
Then again, if the Lightning manage to go all the way, his play will definitely earn him some love for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. That’s how good Vasilevskiy has been in the first two rounds. He outplayed New Jersey’s two-headed monster of Keith Kinkaid and Cory Schneider in the opening round, then held Boston to just seven goals in Games 2 through 5.
“When Tampa Bay was doing real well, people were saying well he plays on such a good team,” Chiodo said. “But what made them great was the stability they had in Vasilevsky. His value was on display more when he was struggling than when he was dominant.”
A few weeks ago, when both Vasilevskiy and Holtby were scuffling, we might have been looking towards a Washington versus Tampa Bay matchup as a high-scoring, back-and-forth series in which the last goal wins. Now, with the way both goalies are playing, don’t be surprised if it turns into a defensive gem.
“They’re in the class of two of the hardest working goalies in the NHL. That’s what makes him world class,” Chiodo said. “With that new life that they got in the playoffs, they’ve made good on it.”
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