WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF PREVIEW
Pekka Rinne followed up a great 2016-2017 season and run to the Finals with another great year. He finished with the best sv% among goalies who started 50 or more games had a league-leading 8 shutouts. The predators have a ton of defensive depth but there is no doubt they have a goaltender they can rely on. Rinne was great throughout the playoffs last year until he hit a few rough games in the finals. Hopefully he can keep it together this year because he is fun to watch and deserves success after sticking with the Preds through some rough years. His puck handling is a difference maker so look for him to push the puck up and start the breaks on his own.
Connor Hellebyuck is a young goaltender who had a ton of promise coming out of UMass Lowell. He struggled numberwise in his first few years (though the struggles were more due to the team being a mess defensively) but has really shined in his first year as the full time, bonafide starter. Some better play in front of him by his team and some adjustments to his glove positioning has put him in Vezina contention this season. This could be his Holtby 2014-2015 season where he puts together a solid season and playoff performance and establishes himself as one of the elites.
Devan Dubnyk has seemingly had his ups and downs in Minnisota. After being a Vezna and Hart finalist in 2014-2015, Doobs has not quite gotten those numbers back. Minnesota's struggle to have success in the playoffs has often been due to goaltending and Dubnyk seemed to be the one who could solve that issue and get them deep in the playoffs. It hasn't panned out yet as he has been mostly average the past few playoff appearances.
After Murray started the last two Stanley Cup wins for the Penguins, Pittsburgh decided to allow Fleury to be drafted by the upstart Vegas Knights. To be honest, I think Fleury is still a better goaltender than Murray. The Knights are in 1st place in the Pacific and Fleury is a huge reason why. I think if he stayed healthy through the season he'd be getting some MVP buzz. He had some struggles in the playoffs a few years back but looked great last post-season when the Penguins started him. I expect him to have a fire under him this yeaer.
Martin Jones has risen the ranks quickly in my book the past few years. He is one of the most technically sound goaltenders in the NHL, controlling rebounds and playing very strong positionally. This allows his defense to take chances trying to push the puck up the ice. He's got the ability to steal a series or two and give his team a chance to make a run.
It looks like Ryan Miller will at least start the postseason. Gibson left a game for the 6th time due to injury last Sunday and, while he is back to practice, there is no telling when he will suit back up. Miller has been solid in his absence this season to the point where, if he gets hot and the team keeps winning, who knows if Gibson will automatically reclaim his starting position when he does return. Gibson is Jekyll and Hyde in goalie pads. Jekyll Gibson can make things look easy on saves like this. Hyde Gibson can make things look very difficult like this. For such a big dude he ends up with his hands on the ice way too often, ends up on his butt way too often, and just looks like he's flailing around way too often. That being said, the guy is incredible and comes up with saves way more often than not so who am I to judge.
Jonathan Quick is putting up some of the best numbers of his career despite not looking all that great while doing so. I'm not sure what it is, but far too often he looks like he just decides to slide around in his paddle down. He gets caught leaning on open looks and for someone who spends most of his time in the butterfly/paddle down, he lets up a lot of goals down low. But like Gibson, the guy can come up with some saves that nobody else in the world can. He has the track record and the skill to steal multiple series. Let's see if he thrives in the underdog Wildcard spot once again.
With Varlamov out, it looks like the Avs will look to Jonathan Bernier to carry them in the playoffs. Bernier has been a journey-man to-date as he started in Los Angeles with the Kings before moving to Toronto for a brief starting gig. From there he was traded to the Ducks for the 2016-2017 season, then signed with the Avalanche before the start of this season. Bernier struggled in his one stint as a starter (though it probably wasn't entirely his fault) and has been relegated to backup status since. With a backup goaltender and a defense that is suspect, I wouldn't expect the Avs to make much of a splash this post-season. I don't think Bernier is stealing many games but it will most likely not be his fault either when the Avs get canned in the first round.
There is some serious firepower among the goalies in the Western Conference. Quick, Hellebyuck, Fleury, Rinne, and Gibson could be your top five Vezna vote-getters and Martin Jones could be better than all of them. Varlamov and Dubnyk are the weak links but Dubnyk has some potential to get hot and make a run. I don't think we will see any goaltending controversies or replacements on this side. I think the Bernier is at the biggest risk for being replaced as the starter but with Andrew Hammond as the only other option in Colorado, I think it should be Bernier's net for as long as they can stay alive. This should be a fun side of the bracket.