Child Shall Lead Them

Child Shall Lead Them

Child Shall Lead Them – Rookie goaltenders have had success in the Stanley Cup Playoffs before  most notably with Ken Dryden in 1971 and Patrick Roy in 1986, both leading the Montreal Canadiens to the Cup – but never before has a crop of rookie goalies dominated the playoffs like they have this season.

Child Shall Lead Them

Of the five remaining teams in this year’s playoffs, three are led by rookie goalies and another by a first-year starter. Carolina’s Cam Ward, Buffalo’s Ryan Miller, Anaheim’s Ilya Bryzgalov, and San Jose’s Vesa Toskala have all enjoyed incredible playoff success thus far.

Seven-year veteran Dwayne Roloson of the Edmonton Oilers, who was acquired in a mid-season trade with the Minnesota Wild, is the only experienced goaltender left. I don’t think anyone would have predicted that, especially with the presence of such big-name goalies as Martin Brodeur and Miikka Kiprusoff, and other veteran backstops or NHL powerhouses like Detroit’s Manny Legace, Dallas’s Marty Turco, and Colorado’s Jose Theodore, among the contenders.

The New Favorite

Thanks to a surprisingly easy 4 games to 1 victory over the New Jersey Devils, and a dominating performance winning four straight games over Montreal after losing the first two in Round 1, the Carolina Hurricanes have emerged as the new favorite to win Lord Stanley’s Cup. Despite finishing the regular season with 112 points, just 1 behind Eastern Conference leader Ottawa, the Hurricanes’ odds of winning the Cup entering the playoffs were posted at 10-1. That was before the oddsmakers had seen Ward turn away almost every shot he’s faced.

In 10 playoff games, the 22-year-old rookie has allowed just 17 goals while posting a 1.77 goals against average (GAA). Ward let in just five goals in Carolina’s four victories over New Jersey as he outplayed his boyhood idol Brodeur. With his stellar play, and the Hurricanes’ opportunistic offense, led by 100-point scorer Eric Staal, Carolina will be tough to beat.

The Upstart Challenger

The Sabres’ Miller is the only U.S.-born goalie among the Fab Four. He hopes to duplicate the feat of another rookie American goalie, Ron Hextall, who led the Philadelphia Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1987. After a shaky start in Game 1 against Ottawa, Buffalo’s defense and Miller shut down the Senators the rest of the way, allowing two or fewer goals in each of the last four games. The Michigan native has a 2.25 GAA and a .921 save percentage in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Buffalo’s defense has been stellar in front of Miller. Defensemen Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder lead all playoff performers in plus/minus at plus-13. The Sabres’ offense has been scoring in bunches. Buffalo has a team-leading 43 goals scored in 11 games and is riding high after winger Jason Pominville’s shorthanded, overtime goal clinched the series against Ottawa.

Mr. Perfect – Almost

Anaheim’s Bryzgalov has been the most surprising and impressive of all the rookies. Bryzgalov didn’t even enter the playoffs as the Ducks’ No. 1 goalie. That honor went to Jean-Sebastian Giguere, who led Anaheim to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2003, his second year in the league, and was named the Conn Smythe winner as the MVP of the playoffs that season.

After splitting their first four games against Calgary in Round 1, the Ducks made the switch to Bryzgalov and they haven’t regretted it. The 24-year-old Russian has practically stood on his head as he is sporting a ridiculous 0.87 GAA and .967 save percentage. He recorded three straight shutouts, including Game 7 at Calgary to clinch that series. In doing so, Bryzgalov set a rookie playoff record, holding opponents scoreless for 249 minutes, 15 seconds. Only Montreal’s George Hainsworth, 270:08 in 1930, has had a longer playoff scoreless streak.

The Final Four

San Jose’s Toskala is hoping to join his fellow first-year netminders in the conference finals. After an excellent series against Nashville in Round 1, including a shutout in Game 2, and two 2-1 victories to open the Edmonton series, Toskala and the Sharks find themselves on the ropes as the Oilers have stormed back to take a 3-2 series lead. Edmonton will try to close it out at home on Wednesday night.

San Jose’s offense is led by Patrick Marleau, who leads all playoff goal scorers with nine. The Sharks will need to get an early lead and help Toskala protect it to force a Game 7 at home on Friday.

The Finals

The matchup between Ward and Miller should be as entertaining as it gets. Both are capable of stealing a game or two for their respective teams. Carolina is the favorite, but Buffalo has a lot of momentum and Miller has shown he can win the close games with four one-goal victories against Ottawa. Look for the Sabres to get to the Finals.

The Ducks have had a long time off after unexpectedly sweeping the Avalanche. Anaheim may be a little rusty to start the conference finals, but the Ducks have good veteran leadership in Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne and will ride the stellar play of Bryzgalov past either the Oilers or the Sharks to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.

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