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Trio makes this golden era for California goalies

by Ken Baker /
When it comes to earthquakes, floods, and just-shoot-me traffic, we all know California is king, but now we can add another notable item to the Golden State's royal list: goalies.
With three world-class NHL goalkeepers now plying their trade in California (Jonas Hiller, Antti Niemi and Jonathan Quick), the country's most populous state is also the most populous state of superstar goalies (sorry, New York and Pennsylvania, but it's true!).

But which of these three top-notch keepers is California's best right now?
Jonathan Quick
Goalie - LAK
RECORD: 4-0-1
GAA: 0.96 | SVP: 0.967
Hiller (6-foot-2), Quick (6-foot-1) and Niemi (6-foot-2) are all big-bodied goalies prolific at employing an efficient, cover-low butterfly style. And each 20-something, even in the infant stages of what should be long careers, has posted League-leading stats. A closer look reveals the masked members of this puck-stopping posse are not equals in the crease.
Niemi, 28, possesses one significant thing the other two do not: A Stanley Cup ring. He became the first Finnish goalie to win the Cup after a 2010 playoff season in Chicago filled with enough saves to fill any goalie's career highlight reel.
And Niemi's 2010-11 performance after signing with San Jose after that dream run landed him among the League's leaders with a 35-18-6 record and 2.38 GAA.
Even so, Niemi, who has been saddled with a knee injury since training camp and has only played in two games, is the least technically sound of the three Cali-keepers. He's the least mobile, employing a kind of lumbering standing shuffle, and he can struggle to re-position on rebounds while down on his knees. Also, the placement of his glove -- tight and low to his hip -- often leaves him vulnerable to high-glove goals.
Glove-side gimmes are the last thing Hiller, 29, has to worry about. News that the Switzerland native's hands are lightning fast has traveled among League scouts like a yodel echoing through the Swiss Alps. As for his bottom coverage, Hiller simply is the best goalie I have ever seen at executing the butterfly, and also the best at pushing side-to-side from that knee'd position since Patrick Roy popularized the method.
Jonas Hiller (Getty Images)
An All-Star last season before sitting out the final quarter because of vertigo-like symptoms, Hiller has nearly erased concerns about his health and already this season has exhibited net dominance scarier than Halloween. Hiller's size, mobility, reaction speed and his ability to track the puck is a lethal combination for opposing shooters and that's a big reason why, into his fifth season, he has a .921 save percentage. He just makes it hard to beat him (which, duh, is the whole point of being a goalie).
Not far up the I-5 Freeway from Hiller is Jonathan Quick, who, if anything, wins the prize for having the most fitting surname for a goalie who darts around his Hollywood crease quicker than a lunchtime Botox injection.
Being L.A.-based, I have the frequent pleasure of seeing Quick, the third-stringer behind Tim Thomas and Ryan Miller on the 2010 U.S. Olympic team, play and practice and I'm consistently amazed at how powerful his skate pushes are.

That's the obvious skill that makes him stand out. More subtle and less sexy of a talent is his ability to simply make himself big and square to the puck, which is a quality that goes hand-in-hand with his ability to move fast enough to get in position to perfectly cut angles.
Because of Niemi's comparative technical flaws and sluggish start this season, the fight to be named Caifornia's crease king is, right now, a two-man race.
On paper, Quick and Hiller have stats so close -- and so influenced perhaps more by dynamic team circumstances than their own individual talent -- that I've thrown the stat sheets into the proverbial trashcan. I was tempted to keep things calm and honor Swiss native Hiller by staying neutral and just calling it a tie. Instead, I'm going to honor the Golden State and trigger an opinion earthquake and declare Quick the California King. Why? Because Quick has something Hiller does not: A pesky prince. That royal pain is Kings backup goalie Jonathan Bernier, who is hungry and capable enough to push Quick to be his best night in, night out.
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