At Playoff Time, Nhl Teams March To The Beat Of Their Goaltenders And Count On Them To Save The Day

CORRECTS NAME FROM ILYA SOROKIN TO SEMYON VARLAMOV - New York Islanders goaltender Semyon Varlamov makes a save during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the New Jersey Devils in Newark, N.J., Monday, April 15, 2024. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
CORRECTS NAME FROM ILYA SOROKIN TO SEMYON VARLAMOV - New York Islanders goaltender Semyon Varlamov makes a save during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the New Jersey Devils in Newark, N.J., Monday, April 15, 2024. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
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DENVER (AP) — Colorado goaltender Alexandar Georgiev went home after a recent shaky outing and immediately watched film — the car-racing thriller “The Fast and the Furious.”

Anything to keep his own mind from racing.

It's playoff time, where teams march to the beat of their goaltenders. They want them laser-focused, full of confidence and ready to save the day.

There are quite a few teams going into the postseason with big decisions in net. That includes Boston, which could split the goaltending duties, and the Avalanche, where Georgiev led the league in wins (38) but also goals against (183). Not every team has a Connor Hellebuyck, the Winnipeg goaltender who will try to shutdown the Avalanche and is a favorite to capture the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best.

“Your goalie (in the playoffs) is the most important thing, like a quarterback or a pitcher. You need them to be on top of their game,” said former NHL goaltender Michael Leighton, who now lives in Windsor, Ontario, and runs a goalie academy. “If they’re not, your team’s in trouble.”

It simply boils down to that. When a goalie is going good, everything seems to be going good.

“It gives us a ton of confidence," Jets defenseman Neal Pionk said of Hellebuyck's big-save ability. "It lets you play freely, make some plays. Because when we play these good teams, they’re going to make some plays no matter what we do. We could play a perfect game and still give up a few scoring chances and that’s where the goalie helps us out.”

All across the league, the situations vary in net heading into the playoffs:

— Nashville vs. Vancouver. For Nashville, it’s the Juuse Saros Show after leading the NHL in saves (1,672). Thatcher Demko is back from a knee injury for the Canucks.

— Florida vs. Tampa Bay. Andrei Vasilevskiy has rounded into familiar stellar form for the Lightning after returning from back surgery earlier this season. Florida has its own star Russian goalie in Sergei Bobrovsky (six shutouts).

— New York Rangers vs. Washington. With the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Rangers, it’s Igor Shesterkin, who won at least 36 games for a third straight season. Washington's Charlie Lindgren will be making his NHL postseason debut.

— Boston vs. Toronto. The Maple Leafs will rely on Ilya Samsonov while the Bruins have two standouts in Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman.

— Edmonton vs. Los Angeles. Stuart Skinner is in the crease for Edmonton as a familiar foe awaits. The Kings used both Cam Talbot and David Rittich down the stretch as they prepare to face the Oilers for the third consecutive postseason.

— Carolina vs. the New York Islanders. Hurricanes goaltender Frederik Andersen is 9-1 in his 10 starts since his March 7 return, posting a league-best .951 save percentage while his 1.30 goals-against average is second among goalies with more than three starts in that span. Coach Patrick Roy figures to go with a red-hot Semyon Varlamov.

— Dallas vs. Vegas. Logan Thompson and Adin Hill each have compelling cases to be in the net for the defending champion Golden Knights. No such questions for Dallas, who will rely on Jake Oettinger (allowed two goals or less in 10 of his last 11 games).

Last postseason, Oettinger was up-and-down. The ups included his first playoffs shutout and the downs saw him pulled from two games.

“It’s all about forgive and forget and one game at a time," Oettinger explained. "I learned a lot last year and the year before, and I feel like I’m ready for this one.”

Some teams are weighing their options in net and may go with a platoon system, including Vegas and Boston. And even though Andersen is on a roll, Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour wouldn’t tip his hand and could work in Pyotr Kochetkov, who won his last four games.

Having two quality goaltenders can be both a luxury and a challenge. Leighton once split time with Brian Boucher in guiding the Philadelphia Flyers to the 2010 Stanley Cup Final, where they lost six games to Chicago.

The luxury: “Just in case one isn’t sharp or because of injury,” Leighton said.

The challenge: “Sometimes it’s not about the goalie, it’s about the team,” Leighton explained. “The team plays different in front of some goalies. You’re risking your players playing differently in front of a certain goalie.”

Down the stretch, Georgiev has surrendered 22 goals over his last five appearances for Colorado. Should he struggle, Justus Annunen is waiting on the bench.

“Trying to just stay positive and see the positive,” Georgiev said. “I’ve made a lot of good saves and trying to focus on that and bringing that into the next games.”

Goaltending 101: Look forward, not back.

"It’s kind of keeping a cool head, not getting too caught up in everything, not getting too excited,” said Washington’s Darcy Kuemper, who backstopped Colorado to the Cup title in 2022. “Just make sure you’re going out there and doing the things that you’ve done all year and stick to your structure. Obviously, there’s highs and lows all season but you get in the playoffs and it’s even to more extreme levels. You’ve just got to keep a cool head.”

Not to mention a confident one, because it's infectious.

“He’s our brick wall back there,” Stars forward Mason Marchment said of Oettinger. “He’s our stud.”


AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno, and AP Sports Writers Stephen Hawkins, Aaron Beard, Jimmy Golen and Mark Anderson contributed to this report.