First-round pick of the Quebec Nordiques in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft, Jocelyn Thibault played 586 games during his 15-season NHL career. He played for the Nordiques, Colorado Avalanche, Montreal Canadiens, Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres, scoring 238 wins. He coached the Avalanche goaltenders for two seasons and now owns the Sherbrooke Phoenix in the QMJHL. He has agreed to work with the NHL.com team to deal with hot issues in front of the League’s 32 nets.
The eight teams that will participate in the playoffs in the Eastern Conference are, so to speak, already known, but we cannot say that these eight teams have benefited from an exceptional performance from their goaltenders for the past few weeks.
As the spring tournament approaches, we are obviously not talking about an optimal situation.
For teams like the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins, it’s perhaps a little more worrisome, since none of their young goaltenders seem to want to come out on top in the final stretch of the season. Since March 1, Ilya Samsonov (.880 save percentage) and Vitek Vanecek, Capitals (.903) don’t do the job. Same thing on the side of Jeremy Swayman (.891), and even if Linus Ullmark (.921) does better, it’s probably not with him that we want to start the playoffs in Boston.
However, I do believe that it is possible to restart your season very quickly when the playoffs get under way, so it’s not as if the Capitals and Bruins are already doomed to lose in the first round.
Adrenaline and energy are completely different in sets. It only takes a good game, a good period or even a good stoppage to get back on track. We had proof of that just last year with the Montreal Canadiens, who everyone counted for lost when they trailed 1-3 against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round.
It is certain that the ideal is to arrive in the playoffs on a good momentum, with a certain momentum. That’s not what seems to be shaping up for goaltenders on many of the Eastern teams like the Maple Leafs (Jack Campbell; .875 save percentage since March 1) and the Florida Panthers (Sergei Bobrovsky ; .892), but that doesn’t mean these teams won’t be successful in May.
Advantage to Hurricanes and Lightning
In such a context, we must give a slight advantage to teams that rely on a real number one goalie who knows how to win in the playoffs.
It obviously starts with Andrei Vasilevskiy and the Tampa Bay Lightning. You will never catch me betting against Vasilevskiy in the playoffs! He’s not been at his best since March 1 either (.907 save percentage), but he’s still the best goaltender in the league in my eyes.
The other team that I think is in good shape in net is the Carolina Hurricanes with Frederik Andersen.
I know many of you may have raised eyebrows reading that last sentence, but I believe Andersen has what it takes to lead his team to the Stanley Cup. I have always found him to be an exceptional goalkeeper who is part of the league’s elite. He has exceptional talent, and I think he’s not too far off from the best on the circuit like Vasilevskiy and Carey Price.
Yes, I know, he is criticized for not having delivered the goods in the playoffs so far in his career, and for not having won a single series since 2015 when he wore the colors of the Anaheim Ducks. However, you have to look at his statistics during this sequence to understand that these hasty eliminations were not always his fault.
In 30 playoff games since the 2015-16 season, he has maintained a .920 save percentage in the playoffs. For comparison, Vasilevskiy is at .925 for the same period.
Of course, there are no guarantees. If it was known in advance that winning the playoffs required a 29-year-old, 4-day-old goaltender, who is 6-foot-4-and-a-half tall with brown hair and blue eyes, all teams would go get one that matches this description.
But since there are many imponderables, you might as well rely on whatever comes closest to an elite goaltender, and the Hurricanes and Lightning have that advantage at the moment.
*Comments collected by Sébastien Deschambault, Editorial Director NHL.com