By Steve Silverman
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Few players have more impact on any team sport more than the goaltender does in hockey.
As we get set for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Rangers and the Kings on Wednesday, hockey fans should be privy to the finest puck-stopping matchup in recent memory.
Tuukka Rask vs. Corey Crawford was quite good last year, while Jonathan Quick vs. Martin Brodeur two years ago was somewhat overblown because Marty was no longer at the top of his game. Tim Thomas vs. Roberto Luongo seemed like a top-level battle in 2011, but Luongo did not hold up his end when he had to take his act on the road.
But Quick vs. Henrik Lundqvist should be a remarkable battle between two of the elite goaltenders in the game. Lundqvist has been at or near the top of the NHL for years, while Quick joined the party when he led the Kings to the Stanley Cup two years ago. The only other goaltender who deserves to be recognized on the same level as these two is Boston’s Rask.
But as good as they both are, Lundqvist appears to have the edge this playoff season. He carries a 2.03 goals-against average into the final round, and he has a save percentage of .928. Quick a 2.86 GAA and a .906 save percentage.
Here’s how those numbers translate into actual performance: Lundqvist has helped his team win two seven-game series and a six-gamer to earn its spot in the Stanley Cup Final. He has given up 39 goals in those 20 games.
Quick has backstopped the Kings to victories in three seven-game series, and each one of those series triumphs were earned by beating opponents – San Jose, Anaheim and Chicago – on the road in the final game. Quick has played 21 games for the Kings and he has given up 59 goals.
Here’s one of the reasons that Lundqvist gives the Rangers an edge in goal: He played poorly in Game 5 against the Canadiens in Montreal, giving up four goals on 19 shots before head coach Alain Vigneault pulled him and let Cam Talbot finish the game.
But he rebounded in a hurry, a sure sign that not much fazes him mentally.
Lundqvist may have been tormented by that performance as he prepared for Game 6, but once he stepped on the ice at Madison Square Garden, he was once again “the King.” He beat the Habs 1-0 and while he did not face a barrage of shots, he was not about to let the Canadiens draw first blood or tie the game once Dominic Moore scored late in the second period.
His remarkable save on a second period shot by Thomas Vanek helped set the stage for Moore’ game-winning goal.
Quick does not come into the series with the same kind of momentum. The Kings led the Blackhawks three games to one and appeared ready to knock the defending champions out of the playoffs in Game 5. However, Quick was not at his best as he gave up five goals and the Blackhawks sent the series back to Los Angeles with an overtime victory.
The proud Kings had a lead in the latter half of the third period of Game 6, but Quick was somewhat shaky as he gave up goals to Duncan Keith and Patrick Kane. He was not in championship form, as the Kings dropped a 4-3 decision and allowed the Blackhawks to fore a deciding game.
Quick has earned his reputation as one of the game’s best goalies with his ability to come up with huge performances in Game 7. The Kings survived against the Blackhawks when Alec Martinez scored on a deflected shot in overtime, but the game itself was not Quick’s finest hour.
He gave up four goals in the victory, including a bad angle bank shot off the stick of Brandon Saad that forced the Kings to play come-from-behind hockey.
So, while Lundqvist shook off his poor effort in Game 5 against Montreal, Quick closed the show against Chicago with three consecutive subpar performances.
The best goalies have very short memories and put bad goals and bad games behind them quickly. They don’t follow one bad game with another, or in Quick’s case, three troubling games in a row.
Lundqvist and Quick do not play similar styles. While both men are excellent athletes, Quick tries to put his athletic ability on display with aggressive side-to-side movement, playing way out in the blue paint and then throwing his body at the puck.
Lundqvist plays a much quieter game as he relies on positioning, knowledge and instincts to make saves. He will be aggressive and acrobatic when he has to, but that is not his preferred method. He tries to stare down the shooter and then beat him with a counter move.
“We’re kind of the opposites,” Lundqvist said. “He’s extremely aggressive. He’s like a gymnast out there. He’s so quick and so powerful. I sit back. I try to stay deep in my net. In the end, it’s about stopping the puck.”
Quick’s tendency to play aggressively leaves him vulnerable to shot fakes. If the Rangers can draw him away from the goal, fake a shot and then change the angle, they have an excellent chance to beat him.
He has also been vulnerable to shots that go high to his glove hand, having given up 14 such goals in 21 postseason games.
Lundqvist has given up eight goals on low shots to his stick side, and that’s the closest thing to a weakness that the King has displayed in 20 playoff games.
If the underdog Rangers are going to win this series, they can’t allow Quick to regain his confidence. They must draw him out of the net and then make cross-ice passes that leave him out of position. Those plays have caused problems for Quick throughout the postseason.
The Kings will try to put traffic in front of Lundqvist and obscure his vision. If the Rangers defense can’t keep forwards like Dustin Brown and Jeff Carter from establishing a net-front presence, not even Lundqvist will be able to slow them down.
But based on performance in this postseason to this point, Lundqvist has the edge and that gives the Rangers a real chance to end up hoisting the Stanley Cup.
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