European goalies on the rise

Will Halak, Niemi, or Nabokov hoist this year's Stanley Cup?

15.05.2010
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Canada Hockey Place Vancouver British Columbia Canada

Russian netminder Evgeni Nabokov makes a glove save. Photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images

It's looking more likely than ever that this year, for just the third time in history, a European goalie will backstop his NHL team to the Stanley Cup. The two previous examples were the Czech Republic's Dominik Hasek (Detroit, 2002) and Russia's Nikolai Khabibulin (Tampa Bay, 2004).

In 2010, three of the NHL teams that moved on to the conference finals have European starters. The lone exception is the Philadelphia Flyers, who eliminated the Boston Bruins and their Finnish starter Tuukka Rask on Friday in a stunning rally from a 3-0 series deficit.

Unquestionably, the best individual performance put on by any netminder in the 2010 playoffs has been that of Jaroslav Halak. Slovakia's Olympic starter shocked the world by helping his eight-seeded Montreal Canadiens knock off the league-leading Washington Capitals in a seven-game first-round series. Halak (2.42 GAA, 93.3 save percentage) then compounded the shock by doing the same against Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in Round Two.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Blackhawks have advanced to the Western Conference final thanks in part to the fine play of Finland's Antti Niemi (2.57 GAA, 90.9 save percentage). The rookie outduelled Vancouver Canuck starter and 2010 Olympic gold medalist Roberto Luongo of Canada in the second round.

The Blackhawks will meet San Jose in Round Three, and the Sharks have Russia's Evgeni Nabokov between the pipes. The 34-year-old from Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, is striving to put a history of playoff failures behind him, and he (2.43 GAA, 90.7 save percentage) made some steps in that direction by eliminating the Detroit Red Wings, who made the last two Stanley Cup finals, in the second round. Nabokov's biggest moment in IIHF competition was earning a gold medal with Russia at the 2008 World Championship in Quebec City.

Of course, injury or poor play could still change the goaltending situation for any of these teams. But it's interesting to note that despite Canada's historic dominance between NHL pipes, only one of the teams that has advanced has a Canadian backup: Montreal, with Carey Price.

Supporting Nabokov is Germany's Thomas Greiss, while Niemi is backed up by France's Cristobal Huet. With the USA's Brian Boucher having suffered a sprained knee, the Philadelphia Flyers are starting Canada's Michael Leighton, with Sweden's Johan Backlund serving as the backup.

Overall, it is less a signal that Canada's quality of netminding has dropped off than that the rest of the world is steadily catching up, year by year.

LUCAS AYKROYD

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