EASTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF PREVIEW
Widely considered one of the best goalies in the world, Braden Holtby put up an outstanding season to win the Vezina in 2015-2016 and followed it up with a great playoffs. He's been consistently great in the regular season the last few years but struggled in the playoffs last season. His numbers have dipped this year but he has faced almost 7 full shots per game more than he did last season. His recent "struggles" have been well documented and lamented around the DC area but, from what I've seen, the eye test remains positive with this one. He's had some odd bounces and rough play in front of him. On top of that, whenever fans perceive a goalie as struggling, if the backup comes in and has success it only amplifies the perceived struggling of the starter (See below for Schneider, Cory). There has been concern about Holtby getting burnt out these past few playoffs. I'm not sure I buy it but he has played in 54 games this year which is 9 less than last season so hopefully that won't be an issue either way. I'm not sure which Holtby we will get in these playoffs but, on paper, the Caps have the advantage in net against most teams. It will be interesting, however, if Holtby or the Caps struggle in the first game or two, if they will make a quick change to Grubauer.
I have made a lot of fun of Matt Murray the past two seasons and while he has cleaned up a heck of a lot since his first Stanley Cup run, he still struggles in some glaring ways. Murray's strengths are his ability to track the puck, stay calm, and square and always keep himself in good position. Down low, he is a rock in terms of stopping the puck but he struggles a bit when it comes to controlling his rebounds. His biggest weakness, by far, is his glove hand - something that I noticed right out of the gate when he came in to relieve Marc Andre Fleury two years ago and something that became even more glaring throughout last season's playoff run as well. This goal is the perfect example. I think it's a combination of Murray's glove placement (way too high and turned-up) and the fact that he just doesn't move into shots going to his glove. He seems to just whiff on glove side shots that are above the pad. Keep your eye on this throughout the Penguin's inevitable run to a third Stanley Cup in a row.
I used to be down on Sergei Bobrovsky - I've labeled him as "consistently inconsistent" but the more I watch him the more I can't help but like him. He is still inconsistent but he is a warrior. The guy battles for every shot and never gives up on the puck and I have to respect that. His game is sort of a blend between your technical and athletic type goalies. I'm not sure what to expect with him. He could outplay Holtby or get lit up but either way it's going to be fun to watch. InGoalMag did a real good piece on why he should be the Vezina Trophy winner this year.
Andrei Vasilevskiy has had one heck of a season. He came in to being the full time starter in Tampa after they ditched Ben Bishop and did nothing but lead the league in wins and put up a top 5 save % among goalies starting 50+ games and tie Pekka Rinne for most shutouts this season. His style makes me hesitant to declare him as one of the elite goaltenders and he hasn't proved himself in the playoffs yet but this could be his chance to go from "goalie who had a great season" to "star" status. The Lightning are solid defensively (and offensively, and in net and special teams and coach and etc. etc. etc.) but it's not like Vas has been able to sleep through an elite season. Look for him to steal some games. Or get lit up. I don't know.
The Bs have had a sneaky good season and Tuukka Rask and co. have had a sneaky large part in why. They allowed the second least amount of goals as a tandem through the season. Rask may not be his old self where he was possibly the best in the game for a period of time but he is still a top tier goaltender who can reach that elite level as well. Over the past few seasons I felt he began to stay down in the butterfly way too much but he has seemed to mostly fix that. If the Bruins defense keeps doing it's part and the Bs keep rolling as a whole, Rask could be center point for their success.
Oh, good old Freddy. Freddy's most notable performances have been his last few playoff appearances where he seems to morph into Henrik Lundqvist for a series before encountering some kryptonite in the second round. Anderson has been a consistent starter in the NHL - he's played at least 40 games in the last four seasons and 50+ in three seasons - which is never easy to do and has hovered around middle to lower tier starter status in that time. He's 28 which is about 28 years younger than I thought he was and I might go as far as to say he's the second best red-haired goalie in the NHL. That being said, his pads are boring and chances are he isn't going to win the Leafs any rounds beyond the first.
Between Mrazek and Brian Elliott, the Flyers have a knack for grabbing the Marty Jannetty of solid goaltending duos. Mrazek showed some flashes of promise in Detroit, and he's still only 26, but he just hasn't been consistent enough to put himself in the conversation as a top tier starter. He's got great athleticism but gets caught too often on straight shots and, at times, ends up leaving you scratching your head as to what exactly he was doing. He certainly has the ability to steal some games for the Flyers but the last time the Flyers had a goalie they could rely on is... *google searches Flyers goalies... scrolls down the list... keeps scrolling... keeps scrolling...*... Ron Hextall? He's a fun guy to watch and he can make some saves that few others can. Flyers fans are already pretty down on the guy. I'm curious to see what he does this postseason.
I have kept an eye on the Devils as they've stayed in the playoff hunt throughout the season for the soul reason that, if they made the playoffs, I would finally get to see Cory Schneider backstop the Devils in the playoffs. Now we are here - the Devils have made the playoffs - but Schneider will not be the guy in the crease when the puck drops. Schneider has been a diamond that got thrown into the rough that is New Jersey among the fallout after their Cup run in 2012. He's been one of the consistently great goalies throughout the past 5 seasons. He does a great job controlling the game through rebound control and sound positioning. Unfortunately, he's been hurt a lot this season and the Devils have struggled when he's been in net since his return. A lot of it isn't his fault but he has acknowledged that he hasn't felt like himself lately. Meanwhile Keith Kinkaid has gotten a lot of praise for his play down the stretch, helping the Devils secure a playoff spot. His numbers have been good and for whatever reason, the Devils seem to play better in front of him. Schneider started and looked solid in the regular season finale but reports are saying it's Kinkaid's net to start the post-season. I wouldn't be surprised if the Devils make a change at some point during their bout with the Bolts..
There are some potential goaltending controversies in the East and not exactly where you'd expect them. The Flyers are a goaltending contraversy magnet but New Jersey and Washington have been two places we have been able to rely on seeing a consistent starter in net and now that seems up in the air. It will be interesting to see how short of a leash, if any, Holtby and Schneider are given and whether goaltending is the reason for their team's success/failures this postseason. This isn't exacltly a bold take but I wouldn't be surprised if Rask or Vasilevskiy brings their team on a deep run.