Goaltending is everything in the NHL playoffs. A brilliant netminder is the competitive equivalent of five shutdown starting pitchers in baseball.
A hot performer at this position can become the great equalizer. He can steal games, turn series and carry a lesser team to the Stanley Cup.
"When you get the goaltending, it rubs off on the rest of your game, whether it's your defensive play, your penalty killing or five-on-five play," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault told New York reporters. "If you know that if you make a mistake, your goaltender is going to bail you out, it's easier to play."
Any goaltender can catch fire during the playoffs to become the equalizer, but some are more likely to reach that level than others. He is how they rank for these playoffs:
1) JONATHAN QUICK, LOS ANGELES KINGS: He is the classic "steal a game" goaltender, flying out at shooters to snuff scoring chances and making acrobatic saves in recovery. When he is on -- as he was in 2012 while leading the Kings to the Cup -- he gets into the head of opponents. Quick won 16 of 20 playoff games that season while posting a 1.41 goals-against average and .946 save percentage. Last season he led LA back to the Final Four with another singular performance.
2) TUUKKA RASK, BOSTON BRUINS: He replaced Cup-winner Tim Thomas in goal and nearly led this powerhouse to its second championship in three years. And then Game 6 of the 2013 Cup finals happened. Rask couldn't hold a late lead to force Game 1. Now Rask, who is 21-14 with a 2.14 GAA and .930 save percentage in the postseason, looks to finish the job for the NHL's top-seeded playoff team.
3) CAREY PRICE, MONTREAL CANADIENS: As the netminder for Canada's only playoff team, he carries the weight of an entire nation on his back. But he is accustomed to that challenge. He led Team Canada to the gold medal at the Sochi Olympics, allowing just three goals in five games. He earned two shutouts and posted outrageous ratios (0.59, .971) during that pressure-packed tournament. He should enter this postseason with tremendous confidence.
4) HENRIK LUNDQVIST, NEW YORK RANGERS: He has done just about everything but win a Stanley Cup in his career. King Henrik has led the Rangers to the Final Four twice. He has earned 50 career shutouts and two Olympic medals. At 32, he is creeping toward the twilight of his career. But he is playing as well as any goaltender in the league right now. In the last four months he posted goals-against averages of 1.91, 1.92, 2.44 and 1.57.
5) RYAN MILLER, ST. LOUIS BLUES: General manager Doug Armstrong paid a high price to pry him out of Buffalo before the trade deadline. He believes Miller can turn back the clock and become a game-stealer. From 2005-07 he won 20 playoff games for the Sabres. He played heroically for Team USA at the Vancouver Olympics, earning tournament MVP honors. He is in the "walk" year of his contract, so millions of dollars are at stake.
6) COREY CRAWFORD, CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: He caught fire last spring, rolling to a 16-7 playoff record with a .932 save percentage and 1.84 GAA after the abbreviated regular season. But Crawford was 5-8 during the previous two playoffs and he slipped this season while posting a middling .917 save percentage. Which goaltender will show up for these playoffs?
7) SERGEI BOBROVSKY, COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS: He has no playoff pedigree. In parts of seven postseason games, he is 0-2 with an .848 save percentage and 4.04 GAA. He faces a highly unfavorable matchup in this postseason. But he fits the profile of a classic game-stealer. When he gets hot, he robs shooters with one improbable save after another. He earned five shutouts this season while posting a strong .923 save percentage.
8) SERGEI VARLAMOV, COLORADO AVALANCHE: He can handle the pressure. What is harder than playing for taskmaster Patrick Roy, the best goaltender of his generation? Like Bobrovsky, he can get hot and do ridiculous things in goal. He posted a .927 save percentage this season while facing lots of shots. His playoff experience for the Washington Capitals in 2008-10 should serve him well.
9) ANTTI NIEMI, SAN JOSE SHARKS: He, too, won a Cup with the mighty Blackhawks. He did that four years ago before departing as a free agent. But this season he fell into a time share with journeyman Alex Stalock (12-5-2, .932 save percentage and a 1.87 GAA in 24 appearances). Coach Todd McLellan remained coy about which netminder would start against the Kings.
10) FREDERIK ANDERSEN, ANAHEIM DUCKS: Earlier this season veteran Jonathan Hiller won 14 games in a row. More recently he struggled and became a pine-time player. Prospect John Gibson showed very well late and may well be Anaheim's goaltender of the future. But for now, Andersen (20-5-0, 2.29 GAA, .923 save percentage) is on the spot for the Western Conference's No. 1 seed.
11) KARI LEHTONEN, DALLAS STARS: When healthy, he can get as hot as anybody. He earned five shutouts this season. But Lehtonen got bombed in his only two playoff appearances, back in 2006-07 for the late, great Atlanta Thrashers. He is an unknown entity in this high-pressure format.
12) JIMMY HOWARD, DETROIT RED WINGS: Groin and finger injuries limited him this season. His health issues mirrored the problems many battered Red Wing veterans endured. Howard is one of the NHL's most experienced playoff goaltenders, but he has never reached game-stealer status. He is 20-22 with a 2.57 GAA in postseason play.
13) MARC-ANDRE FLEURY, PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: Sure, he is a former Cup winner. He won 16 games back in 2008-09 for a loaded team. But has anybody done a worse job in goal in recent NHL playoffs? His save percentages for the last four postseasons were .891, .899, .834 and .883. The Penguins have resurrected Tomas Vokoun just in case.
14) ILYA BRYZGALOV, MINNESOTA WILD: He washed out in Philadelphia. He flopped in Edmonton. But the mercurial Bryzgalov became a lifesaver in Minnesota after arriving before the trade deadline. He was 7-1-3 with a 2.12 GAA as an emergency replacement with Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom shelved (by illness and injury respectively) and fill-in Darcy Kuemper struggling.
15) STEVE MASON, PHILADELPHIA FLYERS: The former Columbus Blue Jackets washout did solid work in the regular season, but he posted ordinary ratios (.917, 2.50) while seldom rising to the level of game-stealer. He is recovering from an upper-body injury that left him iffy for Game 1 of Philadelphia's series with the Rangers.
16) BEN BISHOP, TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: He stole games left and right earlier this season, going 26-7-4 through January. But he struggled after the Olympic break, allowing three or more goals 12 times in March and April. Worse, he is nursing an elbow injury as the playoffs begin. Anders Lindback is a terrible Plan B, so expect Bishop to rush back if possible.