If not the most important position on the ice, the goalie is at least the most influential in a team having success on any given night.
This season has been interesting since a number of high-profile goalies – including Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo and Rick DiPietro – have gone down to injury. A couple of youngsters, such as Steve Mason in Columbus and Cory Schneider in Vancouver, have gotten the call earlier than expected and have not disappointed.
Veterans such as Marty Turco, Chris Osgood and Jose Theodore are still looking for their legs, while the jury is out on whether Martin Biron, Pascal Leclaire and Ilya Bryzgalov really are No. 1 goalies.
This week's power rankings, which appear each Tuesday, take a look at each team's situation in goal.
1. San Jose Sharks (22-3-2, Previous: 1) – While there is no question that Evgeni Nabokov will carry the load and carry it well, at least the Sharks know they have a capable backup in Brian Boucher, who guided the team to a 5-1-1 stretch when Nabokov was injured.
2. Boston Bruins (19-4-4, Previous: 2) – Statistically, it's the best goaltending tandem in the league. The healthy return of Manny Fernandez has given the Bruins what they envisioned when they acquired him: a strong 1-2 punch with the late-blooming, battle-to-every-end Tim Thomas.
3. Detroit Red Wings (18-4-4, Previous: 3) – Scary to think where the Wings might be if Chris Osgood was having a better early season. Ty Conklin has played his role as backup as about as well as can be expected, but Osgood will have to be better than his current numbers (a 3.17 goals-against average and .876 save percentage) if Detroit is to repeat.
4. Montreal Canadiens (15-6-5, Previous: 6) – Carey Price has shown no loss of confidence or setback from last postseason's disappointment in the second round against Philadelphia. He's led the team to a top-five goalie ranking early in the season and carried a significant load with backup Jaroslav Halak having made just six appearances.
5. Pittsburgh Penguins (15-8-4, Previous: 4) – Where Dany Sabourin failed in relief of an injured Marc-Andre Fleury last season – leading to Conklin's promotion and excellence in goal – he has flourished this season. And it's a good thing because Fleury has been pretty average to date. Fleury will need to be better, but don't forget it's a banged-up defense he's playing behind, too.
6. New York Rangers (18-10-2, Previous: 5) – Ranking sixth as a tandem before Monday's games, Henrik Lundqvist and Stephen Valiquette are providing the Rangers with the solid goaltending they have come to expect the past four seasons. As good as Lundqvist is this early in his career, he still could do a better job of covering the top of the net.
7. Philadelphia Flyers (13-7-6, Previous: 10) – The Flyers were exactly in the middle of the league before Monday's action, and the numbers produced thus far from Martin Biron (2.94, .901) and those slightly better from Antero Niittymaki (2.44, .918) are just that – average. There are questions whether Biron really is a No. 1, or a goalie who enjoyed a hot run at the right time last season. Time will tell. And what would Philly be without a goalie controversy?
8. Calgary Flames (16-10-1, Previous: 9) – Miikka Kiprusoff has struggled in recent seasons, and fingers have been pointed to the fact he hasn't reported to camp in top shape. That wasn't suggested early this season, but he's produced average numbers (2.88, .899) thus far. Consistency has been lacking, but it's not like the Flames have anywhere else to turn. Rookie backup Curtis McElhinney has appeared only twice. It's Kipper's net, and smart money says he'll figure it out sooner rather than later.
9. Washington Capitals (15-10-3, Previous: 7) – The big question mark heading into the season remains a big question mark: Will Jose Theodore recapture the rookie magic that was lost until he found it last season in Colorado? His goals-against (3.08) and save percentage (.888) are real areas of concern. And it's a big reason why Brent Johnson (2.59, .913) has played almost as much as Theodore.
10. New Jersey Devils (14-8-2, Previous: 11) – We all wondered what would happen if Martin Brodeur missed a significant amount of playing time. Well, the Devils are still finding ways to win as Scott Clemmensen (6-3, 2.32, .922) has emerged as a better option than Kevin Weekes (2-3, 2.87, .903).
11. Anaheim Ducks (15-10-3, Previous: 8) – Jean-Sebastien Giguere and efficient backup Jonas Hiller have played behind a surprisingly erratic defense, but have actually held up rather well despite being under siege many nights. The tandem rank in the middle of the league statistically. But no one doubts Giguere's big-game reputation, and Hiller has impressive numbers (2.09, .933).
12. Chicago Blackhawks (12-6-7, Previous: 14) – In terms of payroll, the Blackhawks have more than $12 million committed this season to Nikolai Khabibulin ($6.75 million) and Cristobal Huet ($5.625 million) – not an ideal situation. But considering how Khabibulin has outperformed Huet, the team probably is happy, to a certain degree at least, that no one plucked him from waivers when he was exposed earlier this season.
13. Edmonton Oilers (13-11-2, Previous: 16) – The Oilers are trying to deal with an awkward situation, carrying three goaltenders for much of the early season. They would love to deal Dwayne Roloson or Mathieu Garon, but it's not going to happen. This could be Edmonton's Achilles heel.
14. Minnesota Wild (15-10-1, Previous: 13) – Very quietly, the Wild tandem of Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding rank behind the Boston duo as best in the league. Obviously, they benefit from Minnesota's tight-checking, disciplined, defense-first system, but both have been stopping shots – the team's .928 save percentage is outstanding.
15. Vancouver Canucks (15-10-3, Previous: 12) – Similar to the Devils but on a smaller scale (assuming the Canucks get Roberto Luongo back as soon as Saturday), losing their top player to an extended injury was Vancouver's one big fear. The difference here compared to the Devils, besides the less severe injury, is that the Canucks are grooming a young goalie and Cory Schneider is getting an early opportunity because Curtis Sanford did not get the job done immediately.
16. Carolina Hurricanes (13-12-3, Previous: 17) – The Hurricanes have gotten pretty used to Cam Ward, and it's hard to give up on a goalie who basically won them a Stanley Cup as a rookie. But Ward's numbers have been pretty average ever since. Michael Leighton provides adequate backup support, but don't look for him to push Ward out the door.
17. Nashville Predators (14-11-2, Previous: 18) – Rookie Pekka Rinne is the flavor of the week, and he's had an impressive run. It's just a snapshot, though, and Dallas castoff Dan Ellis is the man. Overall, the Preds need more pucks to be stopped if they want to contend for a playoff spot.
18. Buffalo Sabres (13-11-3, Previous: 19) – Ryan Miller was given all the organizational backing he could expect with a multiyear contract extension, but he could use a little support from his defense and a little more scoring to take the pressure off needing to stop every shot. Miller has been good, but he could be better and probably needs to be to keep the Sabres in the hunt. Patrick Lalime has been so-so as the backup.
19. Colorado Avalanche (13-13-1, Previous: 15) – Peter Budaj has been spectacular at times, lacking at others. That's more than anyone can say about backup Andrew Raycroft, who has been brutal in just five appearances (3.50, .839). It's up to Budaj to carry the load, but the Avs are sure hoping for more consistency. It appears to be an area in need of an upgrade, as forecast before the season.
20. Ottawa Senators (10-10-5, Previous: 22) – Did anyone think the tandem of Martin Gerber and Alex Auld would rank third in the league this far into the season? It's all thanks to Auld, who has taken the No. 1 role from the incumbent Gerber. Auld's numbers (1.97, .926) are obviously outstanding, proving that goaltending is not the reason for Ottawa's woes.
21. Phoenix Coyotes (12-13-2, Previous: 21) – It's always interesting to see what a goalie does in his second full season as a starter, and Ilya Bryzgalov follows a familiar pattern of not quite living up to what he did the first time around. Bryzgalov's numbers (2.99, .902) are not good enough to get Phoenix to where the Coyotes want to go, especially in the Western Conference's tough Pacific Division. Mikael Tellqvist has provided good relief, but it's up to the starter to turn it up a notch.
22. Florida Panthers (12-12-3, Previous: 25) – The Tomas Vokoun-Craig Anderson duo is one of the better tandems in the league; it just doesn't get enough credit. It's a good thing both aren't afraid of rubber, because it seems the Panthers are surrendering 40-plus shots every time you turn around. Both have good save percentages, but Vokoun would like to lower his 3-plus GAA.
23. St. Louis Blues (12-11-3, Previous: 27) – Keeping this group healthy has been as much of a challenge as keeping pucks out of the net. Manny Legace and Chris Mason are supposed to be the team's Nos. 1 and 2, but the Blues have already employed four different netminders, one of only three teams which have needed to dig that deep on the depth chart. The other problem? The team ranked 24th in GAA after the weekend.
24. Dallas Stars (10-12-4, Previous: 24) – This has been the real head-scratcher around the league. What the heck has happened to Marty Turco? A 3.38 goals-against average and a .876 save percentage? He's been known to have slumps in the past, but this is lasting for a third of the season and enough is enough. Rookie Tobias Stephan isn't going to do more than spell Turco from time to time, so it's really up to the veteran to get his act together, regardless of injuries and distractions.
25. Los Angeles Kings (11-11-4, Previous: 28) – It's a bit of a surprise to see the Kings' tandem of Jason LaBarbera and Erik Ersberg in the league's top 10, but that's where they sat thanks to a decent combined GAA (2.61) and in spite of a soft save percentage (.896). Truth be told, the organization is just waiting for Jonathan Bernier to develop to the point of becoming an everyday NHLer.
26. Columbus Blue Jackets (11-13-3, Previous: 20) – Is there any reason to believe the Steve Mason Era has not begun? The rookie stepped in when Pascal Leclaire got injured, and he's performed up to the potential that many didn't think he might realize until next season or later. Overall, the Jackets have not been getting enough stops, but that was more prevalent before Mason took over.
27. Toronto Maple Leafs (10-12-6, Previous: 23) – Vesa Toskala is solid, but he tends to surrender soft goals, particularly early in games. The good thing is it doesn't seem to set him back much. Then there are times teams can't get anything by him. The bottom line is that a sub-.900 save percentage just isn't good enough, and both Toskala and backup Curtis Joseph need to improve in that department for the team's bottom-five ranking to change.
28. Atlanta Thrashers (9-14-3, Previous: 26) – There's been no answer in goal for the Thrashers, who sport the league's worst group of puck-stoppers statistically. Is it time to declare first-round pick Kari Lehtonen a bust?
29. New York Islanders (10-15-2, Previous: 29) – Joey MacDonald has become a fan favorite, but really his numbers aren't good enough – and who knows when Rick DiPietro is ever going to be able to avoid the injury bug? It's one of the many problems facing the Isles, and probably the biggest.
30. Tampa Bay Lightning (6-13-8, Previous: 30) – Mike Smith has done probably as well as anyone can expect, but he's running out of fingers to plug all the leaks in the dike. Smith could use some relief now and again, but since vet Olaf Kolzig and rook Karri Ramo haven't managed to keep the GAA under 4.00, that hasn't been a real viable option.