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Baker: Shootout savvy goalies will star down stretch

by Ken Baker
If anyone knows how a goalie's performance in shootouts can make the difference in a team making the playoffs, it's Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers.

As any Madison Square Garden fan will miserably recall from 2010 the Flyers, backed by Brian Boucher, stole the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot from King Henrik's Rangers in a nail-biting shootout in the final game of the season. 

Lundqvist's Rangers, at the top of the Eastern Conference standings, most certainly won't be called upon this season to nab a Stanley Cup Playoff spot in a similar post-OT pressure cooker. But, with the No. 8 spot in both conferences as crowded as a Bavarian beer garden in October, odds are that many teams will need their netminders to come up huge in a shootout during the final stretch.

Semyon Varlamov
Goalie - COL
RECORD: 24-20-2
GAA: 2.61 | SVP: 0.912
So which teams will have the edge?

In the Western race, it's Colorado. In fact, so much so that the Avs might want to play conservatively late in the game and hang on for a shootout — as long as starter Semyon Varlamov is in goal.

Varlamov's .917 shootout save percentage is the best in the League. Plus, Varlamov, among the hottest goalies during the past few weeks, sports a perfect 8-0 record in shootouts. His athleticism and unpredictability in these 1-on-1 battles have frustrated shooters all season. Having such a dominant shootout goalie takes pressure off shooters and has given the Avs an edge all season.

Also tough in shootouts out West is Mike Smith of Phoenix. Monster Mike's potent combination of size, agility and patience makes him a formidable shootout foe. While would-be scorers can anticipate his frequent poke checks (and try to carefully park the puck through his sizable five hole), Smith's .711 save percentage in shootouts should worry shooters.

One goalie who surprisingly has not been a factor in shootouts this year is Jonathan Quick. Last season, Quick was the NHL's shootout king, posting a 10-0 record with a League-leading .818 save percentage. This season, however, the Staples Center Superman's save percentage in shootouts has sunk like a chunk of kryptonite tossed off the Venice Beach pier. League sources tell me that Quick's current .659 save percentage and mortal 5-7 record is the result of pre-scouting reports on his tendencies (such as
Mike Smith
Goalie - PHX
RECORD: 31-18-8
GAA: 2.36 | SVP: 0.924
giving space up high) by opponents and the Kings' infamous trouble scoring goals.

Among Eastern Conference goalies battling for the bottom playoff spot, there is no Varlamov equivalent who is dominating these duels.

Teams in the East should be wary of Ottawa's Craig Anderson (.727 save percentage, 5-1 record) -- if he returns healthy from his hand injury. And, despite a recent shootout loss to the Avs, Ryan Miller's record (.676, 5-4) and overall compete level historically makes him a force when the game is on the line in the tiebreaker. 

But the sobering fact for goalies is that shootout scoring is way up (statistically speaking) from 30.59 percent last season to 33.57 percent in 2011-12.

Yes, goalies still have the advantage, but shooters are getting smarter.

And, that cat-and-mouse dynamic will be full of drama in the season's final three weeks. Stay tuned.

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