There is no denying that goaltending is the most crucial position in hockey. It can mean the difference between not making the playoffs and making a deep run and an eventual shot at the Stanley Cup.
Teams have ridden a hot goalie in some of the most shocking upsets in recent playoff history, and on the reverse end of the spectrum, it has led to some of the biggest collapses as well.
This year will be no different, but for the teams currently jockeying for position in the Metropolitan Division, the goaltending position may be more important than ever.
For a variety of reasons, the goalies of the Metropolitan Division have struggled and could be seen as one of the few weaknesses on teams with plenty of talent.
When it comes down to it, the team that solves their goaltending issues first may be the ones who earn a date with either the Tampa Bay Lightning or Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Uncertainty in the Nation’s Capital
For the Washington Capitals, they don’t even have an official starter right now, as Barry Trotz has been uncommitted to name a number one heading into the playoffs, and seems ok with rotating them out.
The Pittsburgh Penguins may have ridden two goalies to back-to-back starting Stanley Cup victories, but it was never a back-and-forth thing for them. Instead Marc-Andre Fleury took over when Matt Murray was hurt, and the latter took back over at the first sign of trouble.
Both also played at an unreal level, allowing Pittsburgh to rest either, or feel safe with whoever ended up in net.
That isn’t the case with the Capitals, who, despite back-to-back wins - still can’t feel overly confident with Braden Holtby in net. He has struggled in his past 10 games, although he has been better lately.
Holtby had quite the playoff meltdown a year ago, and it carried over into this season. Thankfully, they smartly decided to hang on to Philipp Grubauer who has again been one of the better backup goalies in the league.
When the Capitals put Holtby on a ‘mental reset’, Grubauer didn’t disappoint with an opportunity to be ‘the guy’.
While it’s good to have two solid goalies like the Capitals do, it rarely works out when they don’t come with defined roles. Both Fleury and Murray were great for the Penguins, but there was never any doubting who was getting the nod when the game mattered the most.
After a strong start to Flyer career, Mrazek struggling just to finish games
The ‘honeymoon’ stage ended quickly for the Philadelphia Flyers and Petr Mrazek, who was acquired from the Detroit Red Wings before the trade deadline.
After winning his first three contests with the Flyers, only allowing four goals in three games - including a 28-save shutout of the Montreal Canadiens... Mrazek has struggled. He has been pulled in two of his last three starts and has allowed 33 goals in his last nine games played.
With the Flyers down two starting goaltenders after both Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth, they were forced into making a move to bring in a goalie.
Mrazek, 26, was once one of the most highly-touted young goalies in the league, and eventually lost his job in Detroit to Jimmy Howard (who took his job back after originally losing it to Mrazek), before getting traded to Philadelphia.
Things have gotten even worse in his last three games, as Mrazek has posted a .824 save percentage (SV%) and a 5.31 goals-against-average (GAA).
In 12 games with the Flyers overall, Mrazek has posted a 5-5-1 record, a 3.27 GAA and a .885 SV%.
Mrazek’s struggles, to go along with the Columbus Blue Jackets’ hot streak has pushed the Flyers out of the third seed of the Metropolitan Division, and into the first wild-card spot, which would give them a first-round matchup against the Capitals.
Murray, still the X-Factor
Even before you factor in having Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel, the Penguins will head into the playoffs as one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup due to the fact they have a goalie who has yet to lose a playoff series.
Murray became just the fourth rookie goaltender to lead his team to the Stanley Cup, but he made real history the next year. With the Penguins going back-to-back, Murray became the first goalie to win the Stanley Cup twice while being listed as a rookie.
Without having his safety net of Fleury for the first time, Murray has struggled this season but was finally turning things on before a concussion forced him to miss time yet again.
Murray was shaky early on in his return against the New York Islanders but had no choice but to turn things around as the team played an awful game in front of him. Before that, and his injury, Murray had won nine of his previous 11 starts, including one shutout and three games where he allowed just one goal.
As long as Murray stays healthy, the Penguins will be one of the favorites, something that hasn’t been a guarantee early on in his career. Behind Murray, the Penguins have had to turn to rookies Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith.
Remember, it was a Murray injury right before Game One against the Blue Jackets that opened the door for Fleury to briefly retake the starting job. Fleury won't be here this time around.
The Bob is back
No team is playing better right now than the Blue Jackets, who now own the third spot in the division. Winners of nine straight, Columbus has finally put everything together, and Sergei Bobrovsky is again playing like one of the best in the game.
During the winning-streak, Bobrovsky has won six games and owns a 2.16 GAA along with a .930 SV% in that span.
For Bobrovsky, it has never been about the playoffs. A former Vezina Trophy winner, Bobrovsky’s struggles have always come during the playoffs. In 18 career postseason appearances, the Russian netminder owns a 3-10 record.
His, and his team’s, last two appearances have been thwarted by the Penguins, the team they are more than likely set to face in the first round.
In his postseason career against Pittsburgh, Bobrovsky owns a 3-8 record, as well as a .889 SV%. His overall numbers include a 3.63 GAA and a .887 SV%.
Whether it be exorcising playoff demons, staying on the ice or discovering their full potential, there will be plenty of questions surrounding the goalies of the Metropolitan Division come playoff time.
The New Jersey Devils are trying to fight off the Florida Panthers as the second wild-card team, and if they do so, it will only add another Metropolitan team with goaltender questions. Cory Schneider has just 10 playoff games under his belt with a 1-4 record.
While each team has very talented goaltenders, all pose a specific question, and legitimate concern going into the playoffs.
The team that answers it the quickest will likely be the last one standing among them.
If you had to choose one team’s goaltending, which would it be? Does that team have the best chance of making it out of the Metropolitan Division? Give us your thoughts below in the comments section.