If you polled hockey fans who the top contenders are for the Stanley Cup, four of the most frequent answers you will get will be Washington and Pittsburgh from the eastern conference and San Jose and Chicago from the western conference. What these teams have in common are very good groups of offensive forwards with multiple star players and some pretty good defensemen to go with them. But what they also have in common are question marks in goal that they will have to overcome if they are to go deep into the playoffs.
San Jose Sharks
We all know about the Sharks playoff failures of recent years and much of the blame has been placed on forwards like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Starting goalie Evgeni Nabokov has been an excellent regular season goalie and been OK in the playoffs but he hasn’t stolen a series for the Sharks and his post Olympic play has to be a concern for Sharks fans. As you are all probably aware, Nabokov had a poor Olympics, and in particular, a really bad game against the Canadian team that cost the Russians a shot at a medal. Since the Olympics he hasn’t been any better having posted an 8-7-1 record with a 3.11 goals against average and a very mediocre .897 save percentage and in 16 post Olympic games he has given up 4 or more goals 7 times (including 5 goals Sunday against possible first round opponent Colorado). That isn’t going to cut it in the playoffs. We know Nabokov can play better, but will he turn his game around come playoff time?
The Blackhawks goaltending is an interesting case study into inconsistency. They lead the league in shutouts and are 6th in goals against average but are 7th worst in the league in save percentage. Cristobol Huet can go on stretches where he looks solid and reliable (in his first 21 starts this year he only gave up more than 3 goals once) but then for other stretches he can look downright awful. The end result though is that he is unreliable. Then you have youngster Anti Niemi who has been the better and more reliable goalie this year and has a respectable .913 save percentage but he too has been inconsistent. In 33 starts he has 7 shutouts which is pretty phenomenal (Brodeur leads the league with 9, but he started 73 games) but in those 33 starts he has also given up 4 or more goals 8 times which is not so good.
The Washington Capitals are not unlike the Chicago Blackhawks as they too have a somewhat unreliable veteren (Theodore) and a quality young goalie (Varlamov) that may or may not be ready to carry the load. I have a little more confidence in the Capitals goaltending though as they have been a little more consistent. As a group they only have 3 shutouts, but they have fewer disaster games too and with the Capitals offensive capabilities that might be good enough but it still has to be a concern for Capitals fans.
There may be some that are surprised to see the Penguins make this list but lets look at the facts. As a team the Penguins have the worst goals against average of any playoff bound team and have the fourth worst save percentage in the NHL. Marc-Andre Fleury has a very mediocre .904 save percentage over the course of the season and a pretty bad .892 save percentage since the Olympics. Since February 1st he has started 20 games and given up at least three goals in 14 of them and four or more goals 6 times. We know Fleury can play well enough to win a Stanley Cup, but his performance this season, and over the past couple months in particular, has not been good enough. To make matters worst for Penguins fans, yesterday on TSN it was pointed out in 17 games against division leaders the Penguins have just 3 wins. Of the top four teams in the east, I think the Penguins are the one team most likely to face a first round playoff exit.
(cross posted at HockeyAnalysis.com)