Arguably the most important position on a hockey team, the role of the goaltender is not one to be taken lightly (right, Ilya Bryzgalov?). While the team itself has it's own story of how it got to the playoffs, there is a spotlight shining - at times blindingly - in the blue paint.
In this edition, we present the tales of the goaltenders of the Eastern Conference.
(Click here for Western Conference storylines)
NY Rangers - Henrik Lundqvist
Wins/SO: 39, 8
Success in the regular season isn't foreign to Henrik Lundqvist - he's the only NHL goalie to record seven straight 30-win seasons to start his career. But this has yet to translate into deep playoff runs for the 7th-round Blueshirts' draft pick of 2000.
The Rangers, while once again riding their franchise goalie, did their part to lighten his load - picking up another free-agent prize in the off-season (Brad Richards) while some of the in-house talent matured at the right time (Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin), but the Rangers once again rode Lundqvist's stellar play to the top of the East.
However, Lundqvist picked up a hand injury in Game No. 80. He says it's nothing to worry about, but for part of their game against the Flyers, he could only grip his goal stick with two fingers.
Burning question: Does a (somewhat) rested Henrik Lundqvist finally have the team in front of him to make a deep run?
Boston Bruins - Tim Thomas
Wins/SO: 35, 5
Webster's Dictionary defines 'rollercoaster ride' as the 2011-12 season of Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas. Jokes aside, the defending Conn Smythe, Vezina and Stanley Cup winner and his squad went through a Cup-hangover cold streak to start the season (3-7-0) before catching fire (15-0-1) from November until early December.
Then another dip in the 'coaster: the White House snub and subsequent Facebook statements just before the all-star break fuelled rumours that he wasn't being a team player. It got so bad that people were referring to the White House snub as the 'change' in the Bruins' fortunes (For instance, a Don Cherry tweet: @CoachsCornerCBC: Boston has been in the tank ever since Timmy Thomas insulted president Obama by not going to the White House to celebrate the Stanley Cup).
The all-star game seemed to help the beleaguered 'tender, putting on a show in Ottawa. But then backup and heir-apparent Tuukka Rask went down with an injury, so Thomas was leaned on harder, solidifying his status as the man in the mask for the Northeast Division champs as they look to repeat their Cup run.
Burning question: Will anything besides a return to the East final overshadow the 'White House snub?'
Florida Panthers - Jose Theodore
Wins/SO: 22, 3
An easy pick as the surprise story of the year (no offence, Ottawa Senators), the Panthers got to the playoffs for the first time in 10 seasons, and Theodore's a big reason why. The Panthers needed every point they could muster to break their drought, and that included 18 'loser' points. More specifically, he helped carry Florida into a position to pick up at least a single point every night.
Burning question: Can Theodore backstop a team past the 1st round, proving that they are more than just happy to be back in the post-season?
Pittsburgh Penguins - Marc-Andre Fleury
Wins/SO: 42, 3
A goaltender's job on a hockey team is two-fold: stop the puck and settle his team down. Fleury did both for the Penguins this season, and in spades. He was the figurative glue that held the team together when injuries tore it at the seams. With the Penguins' injury woes a thing of the past - well, at least minimized - Fleury's history of playing at a high level in crucial games has the team branded a legitimate Cup contender, if not the favourite.
Burning question: Can Fleury find away to hold off the Flyers, a
team that has beaten the Penguins 4 times this year, wiping the one
blemish off the team's record this year?
Philadelphia Flyers - Ilya Bryzgalov
Wins/SO: 33, 6
In all the places to land in such a 'humongous big' universe, Ilya Bryzgalov and his personality settled down in hockey mad, and just plain mad, Philadelphia. The big Russian 'tender has gone from saviour, to clown and then back to saviour in his brief tenure with the Flyers.
Playing in front of a fickle fan base (that once booed Santa Claus), it took some effort on the part of Bryzgalov to focus on his own game rather than the circus his off-ice life had become following his starring role in the HBO 24/7 series.
Burning question: Is Bryzgalov the long-term goalie solution the Flyers have been searching for to put them over the top?
New Jersey Devils - Martin Brodeur
Wins/SO: 34, 3
Easily the most experienced of any goalie in this year's playoffs - Martin Brodeur's advantage is also his biggest liability.
The 39-year-old has played all of his 19 full seasons with the New Jersey Devils, picking up three Cup rings on the way, but Brodeur has begun to show his age. While this season saw both Brodeur and his team rebound from a 2010-11 to forget (a missed post-season and an injury-plagued campaign for their goalie) this last contractual obligated year with New Jersey could be his last, especially depending on how far they go.
Burning question(s): Does Martin Brodeur have the stamina for a long playoff drive, and will this be his swan song with the Devils?
Ottawa Senators - Craig Anderson
Wins/SO: 33, 3
On pace to play the most games by a goalie in the league, Craig Anderson was a lock to be in the Ottawa goal every night - that is until an accident off the ice left his teammates calling him 'chicken fingers.'
The team picked up the enormous Ben Bishop (6'7") to bear the brunt of the work in goal until Anderson returned, helping the Senators lock up a playoff spot. Anderson's had past (albeit limited) playoff success, pushing the young Avs team in 2010 into the playoffs and to six games against a favoured Sharks club. This time, a better all-around team surrounds him and Anderson and co. are looking to upset the Rangers.
Burning question(s): Can Anderson replicate his previous playoff prowess in Ottawa - plus, is he fully healed?
Washington Capitals - Braden Holtby (?)
Wins/SO: 4, 1
Picked up on a one-year deal, Tomas Vokoun was supposed to be the missing piece for the perennial powerhouse Capitals, a team that had earned the dubious distinction of the San Jose Sharks of the East - ripping up the regular season only to fall early, and hard, in the post-season. But as the team struggled through the 2011-12 campaign, and now find its top two goalies out with injuries. Yet to solidify an undisputed No. 1 goalie, the team now turns to 22-year-old Braden Holtby, who appeared in just seven games this season.
Burning question: Will Neuvirth or Vokoun return? Is Holtby ready to be a No. 1 starter, especially on a team that has endured a goalie carousel in playoffs past?
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