Our goalie experts are back for a look at Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In this installment, Ken Baker of the Stop Da Puck blog and Justin Goldman of The Goalie Guild look at the potential difference-making goalies in Round 2, as well as the biggest questions facing each of the eight starting goalies. Justin Goldman looks at Michael Neuvirth and the rest of the Eastern Conference goalie picture, while Ken Baker examines Nashville's Pekka Rinne and the rest of the Western Conference field.
When a rookie goaltender stares down an elite adversary and comes out a winner, the boost of confidence can propel him to the stars.
Washington's Michal Neuvirth -- who has now won a mind-boggling 14 consecutive playoff series dating back to 2007 and his tenure in juniors -- faced "King" Henrik Lundqvist in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and simply shined brighter.
In five games, Neuvirth stopped 140 of 148 shots, posted a 1.38 goals-against average and .946 save percentage, pitched a 22-save shutout in Game 2 and won two games in overtime. For a 23-year-old rookie, those stats, even on an offensively-gifted Capitals team, are clearly of the stellar variety.
When the series ended, articles flooded in with inspiring tales detailing Neuvirth's propensity for playoff success. Two consecutive Calder Cup trophies (2009 and 2010) and a Memorial Cup trophy with the Plymouth Whalers (2007) made a believer out of even the most pessimistic Capitals fan.
But what exactly will make Neuvirth such a dynamic difference-maker heading into Round 2?
First, allow me to explain his uncanny playoff powers by revealing his superhero identity. Meet The Great Deceiver.
Neuvirth, who is clearly one of the most composed, calm and quiet goaltenders in the NHL, thrives in a world of deception. Even though he plays a positionally sound butterfly style that relies on economical movements, he actually has even better foot speed, reflexes and agility.
He just chooses not to use those skills, unless it becomes a necessity.
Instead, Neuvirth focuses on moving less and conserving his energy. With a smaller frame at 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, he plays much bigger in the net and isn't afraid to challenge shooters in an aggressive manner. He also has a terrific absorption rate, soaking up top-shelf shots by dropping into the butterfly with a straight back and relaxed upper body.
And while Neuvirth appears almost docile in the net, he still has the quick, active reflexes needed to make the momentum-shifting save.
Every NHL goaltender, regardless of age or experience, strives to have a perfect balance of positioning and reflexes. They also work extremely hard to read plays and know exactly when to make a blocking save and when to rely on their instincts and reactions.
Yet, in an almost eerie and stoic manner, Neuvirth proved all season long that he has the elusive balance many goaltenders are still trying to find.
So how does Neuvirth's deceptive style make the Capitals an even more formidable foe against the Lightning?
It's his ability to radiate confidence from the crease to the bench.
When his teammates look back and see he's neither swayed by a hostile building or the pressure of winning at home, they too are led to play in an unflappable manner. Neuvirth never appears rattled by a bad goal or by bodies crashing into his crease, so the opposition often struggles to gain momentum.
Many goalie coaches teach their pupils that the same demeanor they reflect on the ice is often duplicated by their teammates. Neuvirth's demeanor has not changed in the slightest bit since the regular season started. Because of this, there's no reason why the Capitals won't continue to play in a confident and aggressive manner.
The New York Rangers were certainly a formidable foe, but Neuvirth's deceptive mental toughness allowed him to play in a relaxed, composed manner. The Lightning will surely prove to be a much more offensive threat, but don't expect The Great Deceiver to be swayed or knocked off his game.
The Big Questions
BRIAN BOUCHER: Can he make the early saves in each game?
Clearly Philly's "starting" goalie for Game 1 against Boston, Brian Boucher gained tons of confidence by winning Game 7 against Buffalo. But in the topsy-turvy world that is Flyers goaltending, exactly how much room does he have for error? We all know Peter Laviolette isn't afraid to give any goalie the quick hook, so Boucher will have to make his early saves at the start of each game in order to calm his team and get into a rhythm. Game 5 was a perfect example of this leading to a disaster, so Boucher must be focused in the first few minutes of every game.
MICHAL NEUVIRTH: Can he shut down the potent Lightning offense?
As you just read, Neuvirth thrives on displaying a calm demeanor and making big saves in an economical manner. That's an easier feat to accomplish against a weaker offensive team like the Rangers. But it could be a very different story against the Lightning. How will Neuvirth handle the dynamic passing and precise, accurate shooting of guys like Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos? Furthermore, will he be able to rely on less movement against Tampa Bay's potent power play?
TIM THOMAS: Can he continue to play in an aggressive manner?
Coming off a grueling and emotionally draining Game 7 overtime win against Montreal, Thomas is being forced to reset, refocus and reenergize in just a few days. That may seem like an easy feat for a veteran of Thomas' pedigree, but it's not so easy when you go up against the physical and rugged Flyers. With more traffic and bigger bodies working extremely hard to eliminate his vision, Thomas will have to work even harder to be aggressive in the second round. But he has to be careful; being too aggressive could catch him out of position at the wrong time.
DWAYNE ROLOSON: Can he eliminate mental mistakes and puck-moving blunders?
It's hard to find a visible weakness in Roloson's first-round series against the Penguins. Heroic in a Game 7 shutout and clutch in Game 6, Roloson was a true leader for the Lightning. But against a high-powered Capitals offense, there is simply no room for mental mistakes. This is not the kind of series where Roloson can turn the puck over behind his net, or make bad passes that lead to scoring chances against and shifts in momentum. Just one of these could be the difference between a win and a loss in an elimination game.