While NHL teams battle for Stanley Cup Playoff positioning, the men in the bulky gear and bulbous masks are also amid a race of their own -- for the Vezina Trophy.
To win it means more than just bragging rights as the regular season's best goalie -- and perhaps leverage in their next contract negotiation. Since a dominant goalie can carry a team deep into the playoffs, the Vezina race is the League's must-watch subplot because the team whose goalie ends up winning the award almost certainly will have an edge in its Cup quest.
The big V is voted on by the League's 30 general managers, who, at the end of the season, fill in a ballot with their three top picks, in order of ranking, for the goalie who is deemed "the best at this position."
In other words, not the lowest GAA or the lowest save percentage or fewest goals-against (that's the Jennings Trophy) or the most wins. Simply, the best.
Here's my ranking of the current Vezina contenders (and feel free tell me yours below in the comments section):
1) Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers:
Goalie - NYR
GAA: 1.81 | SVP: 0.939
Ask most Eastern Conference shooters who's the hardest goalie to score on right now and they likely will tell you it is the Beast of Broadway. He's got the stats to back it up, and his consistent, hybrid style of play that combines positioning and reaction with such equal aplomb makes it hard for opponents to isolate any flaws.
Unless his perimeter-protecting defense collapses on him, or he suddenly becomes Hank the Tank, he should take the prize.
2) Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators:
This Finn is so acrobatic his crease looks like Cirque de Rinne. Erase the Nashville star's wobbly 5-game stretch early in the season and his All-Star absence, and the play of "Pekks" has been nothing short of a Music City Miracle.
He has logged more minutes and made more saves than any other goalie. More mobile than an iPhone, the fast-footed Rinne (who has single-handedly won more than a dozen games the Preds had no business being in) could slide into first position if Nashville continues its winning ways ... and Lundqvist tires down the stretch.
3) Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings:
The biggest barrier for the Kings' agile wundergoalie is that only two goalkeepers from the far west have ever won the Vezina (Edmonton's Grant Fuhr
in 1988 and Calgary's Mikka Kiprusoff in 2006). But with his unflappable, athletic play behind a hyper-anemic offense (and I'm being nice here) -- and with easily accessible Web video highlights all but erasing the traditional time-zone bias against Westerners -- he could, uh, quickly
make West Coast history once again.
* Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins:
Never count out Thomas. But his Superman heroics during the B's epic win streak have since waned, and he is getting as much attention for his political statements as for his puck-stopping play.
* Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings:
If Howard can come back from his broken finger tout suite
and return to his stellar level of play, he could win a lot of votes.
Plus, if the Wings continue to struggle without him between the pipes, Howard could look even better to voters than he did before his injury.