With games getting more important, late in the NHL season, it's time to take a look at each team's goaltending.
Teams are ranked based on the statistical value of their current goaltenders, with a significantly higher portion of the ranking allocated to the starter's performance.
Note: These rankings are hardly set in stone. Just as players and teams move up and down in their respective weekly rankings, this is just a snapshot look at the goaltending for each of these teams now, based on performance up to this point in the season.
1. BUFFALO SABRES
One of the few teams that should be comfortable with their goaltending heading towards the playoffs because Ryan Miller has been the league's best for virtually the entire season and, after a slight dip in February, he starred at the Olympics and has been strong for the Sabres since. Patrick Lalime is the backup, but is only needed on rare occasions.
2. PHOENIX COYOTES
The Coyotes' shocking success this season has been predicated on a strong defensive system and the backbone of that has been Ilya Bryzgalov, who is making a late charge for the Vezina. Jason LaBarbera, who GM Don Maloney was familiar with from his time in the Rangers organization, has thrived as well, with his 2.16 goals against average and .928 save percentage the best marks of his career.
3. COLORADO AVALANCHE
Much of Colorado's success this season has come as a result of Craig Anderson's excellent work this season. In his first year as a starter, Anderson has 35 wins and seven shutouts and his emergence has now put Peter Budaj into a more comfortable position as the backup. What the Avs could do is cut down on the 32.1 shots per game they allow, which ranks 25th in the league and makes Anderson's workload even heavier.
4. NEW JERSEY DEVILS
37-year-old Martin Brodeur has all the accolades a goaltender could want, yet his Olympic foibles and struggles at times this season leave him looking somewhat vulnerable, though the Devils have started to clamp down defensively and Brodeur's play has improved as a result. Journeyman Yann Danis hasn't been asked to do much, starting three games since November, but he's been pretty good when given the chance.
5. BOSTON BRUINS
23-year-old rookie Tuukka Rask has been tremendous and taken the starting job from Tim Thomas, who hasn't been terrible, merely okay. With Boston clinging to the last playoff spot in the East, Rask will get the majority of starts down the stretch, leaving Thomas as a pricey backup and presenting questions about what, if anything, the Bruins might be able to do with him in the offseason.
6. SAN JOSE SHARKS
Following a miserable Olympic experience, Evgeni Nabokov has struggled since, posting a 3.41 goals against average and .879 save percentage in March. For a Sharks team that is desperate for playoff success, they absolutely must have Nabokov on top of his game. Thomas Greiss has been respectable in ten starts as the backup, but he hasn't done enough to inspire confidence that he'd be able to carry the Sharks if Nabokov falters.
7. FLORIDA PANTHERS
Tomas Vokoun has been tremendous in goal for the Panthers, getting little offensive support, and may be starting to tire as his numbers have dipped in March. Backup Scott Clemmensen struggled early, but has had some decent starts lately. Since he signed a three-year deal in the offseason, it would be nice if Clemmensen could at least competently hold down the backup job.
8. CALGARY FLAMES
It's still the Miikka Kiprusoff Show and with the Flames on the outside looking in at the playoffs right now, it doesn't seem to matter much that Vesa Toskala could be a more reliable backup. Playing anyone but Kipper down the stretch will be a decision to be second-guessed if the Flames can't get into the postseason.
9. VANCOUVER CANUCKS
He may have won Olympic gold, but Roberto Luongo has also been pulled from three of his last 11 starts, which doesn't inspire confidence for a team that is counting on Luongo to lead them to the promised land. His overall numbers (2.48 GAA, .915 SVPCT) aren't far off his career averages and he's on his way to his second 40-win season, but the playoffs will tell the tale for him. In a seldom-used backup role, Andrew Raycroft seems to have found a role in which he can succeed. His .912 save percentage is his best since winning Rookie of the Year in 2003-2004.
10. DETROIT RED WINGS
It's all Jimmy Howard all the time, as Chris Osgood has started just two games since Christmas. With the Wings scrambling for a playoff spot, they haven't had the luxury to rest Howard and his strong play has made him a must-start for Mike Babcock. With the Wings finishing strong, Howard should get to prove his real value in the postseason, with a battle-tested veteran like Osgood waiting in the, um, wings.
11. LOS ANGELES KINGS
Jonathan Quick has gone from a promising young goaltender to workhorse almost immediately, starting 64 of 71 games for a team that allows the third-fewest shots in the league. Quick's play has also, generally, improved as the season has progressed, solidifying his role as the starter. Erik Ersberg is the backup, but has started only two games in 2010 and, while he holds down an NHL job, he's effectively behind Jonathan Bernier on the depth chart. Bernier has been tremendous for Manchester in the AHL, won his only start with the Kings this year and would surely be the Kings' starter if something were to keep Quick out of the lineup for an extended period.
12. MONTREAL CANADIENS
Almost despite the team's intentions, Jaroslav Halak has won the starting job over Carey Price, who has started only five games since the beginning of February (and that includes the first two games after the Olympics, where Halak starred for Slovakia). Both 22-year-old Price and 24-year-old Halak are restricted free agents in the summer, so it's conceivable that the Canadiens could sign one long-term and use the other as trade bait.
13. NASHVILLE PREDATORS
After splitting duties between Pekka Rinne and Dan Ellis for much of the season, the Predators have leaned towards Rinne and he's responded with his best month of the season in March. Ellis will be an unrestricted free agent in the summer and he's going to be an option for a team looking for a new starter, but he's a very strong backup for Rinne as the Predators head towards the playoffs.
14. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
For a Cup contender, the Blackhawks have questions in net. Cristobal Huet hasn't been able to hold the starting job, with his .899 save percentage the worst mark of his career, so now 26-year-old Finnish rookie Antti Niemi has been getting more action as the Blackhawks try to get at least serviceable work between the pipes while allowing the fewest shots against in the league.
15. NEW YORK RANGERS
Henrik Lundqvist remains a consistently strong starting goaltender, one that could probably use some offensive support and the addition of Alex Auld is an upgrade to the backup position, though he's only started once since coming over from Dallas on waivers. Prospect Chad Johnson played well in five midseason appearances, so he could be part of the team's future plans.
16. ST. LOUIS BLUES
Chris Mason hasn't quite been as good as he was last year, when his strong finish propelled the Blues into
the playoffs, but he's started a career-high 53 games and put up respectable numbes (2.59 GAA, .911 SVPCT) in the process. Ty Conklin has been excellent in a backup role, but could probably handle a greater workload than he's been handed this season.
17. WASHINGTON CAPITALS
Because of the ongoing injury troubles that have plagued Semyon Varlamov, Jose Theodore has been the Capitals' primary puckstopper and likely will have that role going into the playoffs (as he did last year), with Varlamov getting healthy and potentially ready to take over if need be. Michal Neuvirth had his moments in 17 appearances with the Caps -- and he could be in D.C. next season -- but had a few too many blow-up games.
18. ANAHEIM DUCKS
Once the Ducks signed Jonas Hiller to a contract extension and traded Jean-Sebastien Giguere to Toronto, the Ducks cast their fate with their Swiss netminder and he had been performing really well up to the Olympic break. Like many of his Ducks teammates, he struggled coming out of the break and has just recently turned the tide. The playoffs are a longshot now, but since unproven Curtis McElhinney is the backup, Hiller should start every game until the Ducks are officially eliminated.
19. OTTAWA SENATORS
Pascal Leclaire was supposed to stabilize the Senators troubled goaltending situation, but his .887 save percentage is among the worst in the league and it's given Brian Elliott a chance to win the starting job. After struggling early in the season, Elliott has emerged in the second half and the 24-year-old has to be the Sens choice as they go towards the playoffs.
20. PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
Winning the Stanley Cup has earned Marc-Andre Fleury a certain measure of respect, but his inconsistent play this season with declining numbers in February and March makes him a bit of question mark for a team intent on defending their Stanley Cup. Brent Johnson has been solid in his backup role, just as he was in Washington previously.
21. DALLAS STARS
Seven points ouf of a playoff spot, the Stars have Marty Turco for the rest of this season, but their deadline acquisition of Kari Lehtonen seems to have cast the die for future seasons. Turco was dominant in February, showing that he can still be a number one puckstopper, but Turco has slumped in March, giving more time to Lehtonen as the Stars look to the future.
22. MINNESOTA WILD
For all the talk about how the Wild have changed their style of play, Niklas Backstrom faces fewer shots under the current system, yet his numbers have dipped when compared to the last two seasons and a groin injury has limited him in recent weeks. Josh Harding has played adquately in a reserve role. He's established that he's a quality backup, but the question remains whether 25-year-old Harding is going to get a chance to be more than that, whether with the Wild or elsewhere.
23. ATLANTA THRASHERS
Atlanta is only three points back of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference so they need 36-year-old Johan Hedberg to handle a workload that he hasn't seen since 2001-2002. With a career-best .913 save percentage, Hedberg has been surprisingly effective in the absence of Kari Lehtonen and wrestled the starting job away from 22-year-old Ondrej Pavelec who is still, at least theoretically, the goaltender of the future.
24. TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Getting Jean-Sebastian Giguere from Anaheim at the trade deadline gives the Maple Leafs some security in goal. Giguere was having a poor season with the Ducks, but has played better in Toronto and is now splitting time with Jonas Gustavsson down the stretch. With Gustavsson a restricted free agent in the summer, and Giguere signed through next season, the Leafs will likely have both next season, a tandem which will likely be an upgrade on what they've received from other goaltenders in recent seasons.
25. CAROLINA HURRICANES
With the Hurricanes out of contention, it makes little sense to rush Cam Ward into the lineup; better to let him deal with his back injury and get fully healthy for next season. In the meantime, it's a chance to see what Justin Peters can offer, perhaps leading to the backup job next season and veteran Manny Legace is still on hand to share duties with Peters the rest of the way.
26. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
While he isn't consistent enough to be a true number one workhorse goaltender, Antero Niittymaki has been the better option for the Lightning, ahead of Mike Smith, this season. Unlike Niittymaki, Smith is still under contract for next season, though, so the Bolts have a vested interest in him performing well, but January 12 as the last time he allowed fewer than three goals against in a start.
27. NEW YORK ISLANDERS
As the Rick DiPietro saga goes on, year after year, the Islanders are indeed fortunate that 40-year-old Dwayne Roloson has enough in the tank to start 45 games for a team that does not have a real shutdown defensive side to it. Martin Biron has shown, as he did in Buffalo and Philadelphia previously, that he tends to perform better as a starter and he will be a free agent again in the summer.
28. COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
Well out of playoff contention, the Blue Jackets have to figure out if Steve Mason is going to be the franchise goaltender they thought he was as a rookie last year. Mason responded well in the immediate aftermath of Ken Hitchcock's firing, but he's won just one of his last eight starts, requiring the Jackets to use Mathieu Garon perhaps a little more than expected.
29. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
Ray Emery came inexpensively, after his tour of duty in the KHL, and he generally played okay before injuries wreaked havoc on his season, but the Flyers looked like they struck gold when they brought Michael Leighton back into the fold, as Leighton was 16-5-2 in 27 games before suffering a high ankle sprain that will keep him out of action for a couple of months. That leaves veteran backup Brian Boucher, who has struggled, going 5-15-2 and posting an .898 save percentage; not an ideal situation for a playoff team. 28-year-old Swede Johan Backlund has been decent in the AHL (2.79 GAA, .906 SVPCT in 41 GP with Adirondack) and might need to get a shot if Boucher doesn't improve.
30. EDMONTON OILERS
The signing of Nikolai Khabibulin went all wrong, as he was decidedly mediocre before a herniated disc took him out action in November. His recent DUI arrest didn't make things any better either. With the experienced 'tender out, Jeff Deslauriers has been thrust into the starter's role and, while the 25-year-old has performed admirably, he's also not ready to start for a good NHL team. 2004 first-round pick Devan Dubnyk has seen action late in the season and didn't win any of his first ten decisions, but has won back-to-back starts. A bad team can easily secure their place in the lottery when forced to go with their second and third options in goal.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen.