The conclusion to 2013-14 NHL regular season is fast approaching. After game play Monday, the League is down to 52 games remaining on the schedule, with 10 to be played Tuesday. Yet, much remains to be decided in the frantic run to the finish line, including playoff qualification, playoff positioning and numerous individual accomplishments and milestones. To celebrate the six-day countdown to the end of the season April 13 and the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 16, NHL.com will provide a piece of playoff-related content each day.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs can be an emotional pressure cooker for every player, but no position feels the white-hot heat of the spotlight more than the goaltender. Every mistake is amplified and announced by a flashing red light. Reputations that took all season to build can be shattered in two weeks, or forged forever during two months.
Here are six NHL goalies that will face extra scrutiny this postseason:
Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins -- The Teflon layer that normally comes with winning a Stanley Cup no longer sticks to the Penguins' starting goaltender. For the past two postseasons the pucks have not stuck either. Successive playoff implosions have eroded any goodwill remaining from his Cup win in 2009 and a trip to the Cup Final the previous year. Fleury is finishing another solid regular season in Pittsburgh, but the regular season hasn't been the problem.
Fleury has posted save percentages below .900 in four straight playoffs, sinking to .834 in 2012 and surrendering the starting job to Tomas Vokoun after posting an .883 save percentage, punctuated by a laundry list of "How did that go in?" goals last spring.
So what will be different this postseason?
Under new goaltending coach Mike Bales, Fleury is playing a more controlled, contained, positional game, relying less on timing, rhythm and his incredible innate athleticism. He isn't chasing the play as aggressively as he did in the past, which left him with too much space to recover on passes and rebounds, often outside his posts and exposed to the kind of funky bounces off him and into the net which left observers shaking their heads. Best of all, Bales has been there to reinforce the importance of these positional staples anytime Fleury has wandered, which should help ensure he doesn't abandon them at the first sign of adversity this postseason and start chasing the puck after one bad game like he did in playoffs past.
Whether these changes, plus the addition of new post-play tactics to leave fewer holes, will be enough remains to be seen. But you can be sure Fleury will have lots of eyes watching for any sign of a stumble and, as a result, more pressure than any other goalie in these playoffs.
2. Ryan Miller, St. Louis Blues -- Miller was acquired to put St. Louis over the top after the franchise won one series during the past two postseasons, eliminated each time by the Los Angeles Kings and star goalie Jonathan Quick.
After excelling behind a struggling Buffalo Sabres team for most of the season, the pressure is a lot higher and the workload a lot different with the stingier Blues, leaving Miller, 33 and headed to free agency this summer, with a lot more time to think about all that is riding on his first playoff run in three seasons.
After a 7-0-1 start in St. Louis, some eyebrows have been raised amid a 3-4-0 stretch which has included 19 goals allowed, but that's nothing compared to the buzz if Miller's Blues fall short in the playoffs again.
Rookie Frederik Andersen already was making a push for postseason play with a .924 save percentage, which is decisively better than Hiller's .911. And when Andersen was knocked out by a slap shot off the mask from Nashville Predators defenseman Shea Weber, super-prospect John Gibson, 20, posted an 18-save shutout in a key start Monday against the Vancouver Canucks. That start came the night after Hiller struggled again in a 4-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers.
Hiller was exceptional for Switzerland at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and shut out St. Louis in his first game back, but since then he has allowed 30 goals in 10 games. Hiller has received little of the tight defensive support Gibson enjoyed in his first NHL start, but Hiller's struggles may have opened the door for other goalies in Anaheim, if not to start the playoffs then certainly ready to go in at the first sign of trouble, and again when Hiller becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer.
4. Ilya Bryzgalov, Minnesota Wild -- Bought out of his massive contract by the Philadelphia Flyers last summer, forced to wait until November to find another NHL job with the Edmonton Oilers and then traded to Minnesota at the NHL Trade Deadline, it's hard to believe Bryzgalov will be back in the spotlight for the right reasons when the postseason starts.
But with a 6-0-3 record, three shutouts and a .929 save percentage in 10 games with the Wild, he not only solidified a playoff spot but also an NHL future beyond this season. Of course, that could change with how the entertaining and enigmatic Russian performs, on and off the ice, in the playoffs.
Ben Bishop, Tampa Bay Lightning -- Bishop already has exceeded expectations in Tampa Bay this season, earning Vezina Trophy buzz by backstopping a young Lightning team back into the playoffs. But that performance merely raises expectations for the playoffs, where reputations can be cemented or sent spiraling in the other direction.
Bishop and the Lightning are too early into their evolution to think it could spin too far the wrong way in just one postseason, but with his goals-against average up more than half a goal to 2.83 since the Olympic break, there will be pressure to reverse that trend.
6. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens -- Price has proven what he can do and earned some benefit of the doubt with his near-perfect gold-medal showing behind a stingy Canadian team at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. But memories of his late-season and playoff meltdown last year remain for some, and being the goalie on perhaps Canada's only entry into the Stanley Cup Playoffs ensures armchair goalies from coast to coast will be critiquing every butterfly slide he makes in these playoffs.
The chances of another postseason stutter seem slimmer, though, since Price reined in his positional game under new goalie coach Stephane Waite this season, eliminating the over-aggressive puck chasing which plagued Price in the 2013 playoffs.