Vezina talk hot this season

RANDY SPORTAK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:24 PM ET

“How would you like a job where, every time you make a mistake, a big red light goes on and 18,000 people boo?” — Jacques Plante

As much as fans take their frustrations out on the goaltenders around the league, they love to cheer the masked men, too.

This season, the NHL has all kinds of netminders who are receiving plenty of love from the fanatics, and deservedly so.

In fact, this is one of those rare years when the race to be lauded as the best netminder is wide open.

As the NHL season hits the three-quarter point and has broken for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, the race for the Vezina Trophy isn’t the usual competition of three or four.

A case can be made for eight, if not more, goalies who have been front and centre either keeping their team’s Stanley Cup hopes alive, or ensuring their squad is a front runner.

Martin Brodeur

New Jersey Devils

Any discussion involving the NHL’s top goalie has to start with the man whose name is all over the record books.

Brodeur is all over the Vezina Trophy, too, having won it four times in the last six seasons.

Incredibly, he showing no signs of letting up at age 37.

The Devils are atop the Atlantic Division and relying heavily on the winningest goalie in NHL history to do it — as attested to the fact he leads the NHL in games played.

Actually, it seems like he’s thriving.

Despite his unorthodox style — in the butterfly era he remains something of a stand-up goalie who more often drops just one leg — Brodeur is near the top of the NHL in shutouts and wins.

Then again, should that be a surprise since he holds the all-time marks in victories and shutouts.

“The records are piling up. He’s a legendary goalie and he proves it every year,” Pittsburgh star, and Olympic teammate, Sidney Crosby told NHL.com recently.

New Jersey has plenty of offensive punch, especially with the addition of Ilya Kovalchuk to a team that already boasted Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner, but the defence corps is more of a “who’s that?” crew than a who’s who.

Tying it all together, as he has since becoming a full-time NHLer in 1993-94 is the man who has backstopped the team to three Stanley Cup crowns.

Roberto Luongo

Vancouver Canucks

The Vancouver Canucks have gone from being the defence-first, low-scoring team to one of the most prolific in the league.

Despite what you may think, they’re near the likes of Pittsburgh, San Jose, Chicago and Washington in goals for.

Frankly, it’s without a roster full of prolific scorers.

Roberto Luongo does not score and goals, but remains a big reason for that offensive success, which has translated into being in the fight for top spot in the Northwest Division.

He gives the skaters the confidence to score goals because they believe he can be counted on to make the big saves when the time comes.

Curiously, Luongo doesn’t lead all NHL goaltenders in any specific category. To no surprise, though, he seems to be in the top 10 in every category.

A big key to his Vezina Trophy hopes will be how the Canucks fare when they finish their extended road trip after the Olympics.

Even though the torch will be extinguished, Luongo and his teammates will spend nearly two more weeks on the road when NHL action resumes.

Of those six games, five are against Western Conference clubs currently holding playoff positions.

If Luongo can backstop his club to a string of victories, the team’s hopes for a divisional title will be solidified and his chances for a major honour will increase.

Ryan Miller

Buffalo Sabres

The Buffalo Sabres have been at or near the top of the Northeast Division all season.

Ryan Miller is the biggest reason for that perch.

The club struggled heading into the Olympic break, but Miller continues to be a name brought up when water cooler talk turns to Vezina Trophy and even Hart Trophy discussion.

Of the undisputed No.-1 goalies out there, he’s near the top in goal-against average and save percentage for a Sabres team that’s big on grit and determination, but considered to be on the low end when it comes to skill.

The best part about Miller this season is he’s taking a leadership role.

While the Sabres struggled through February, he wasn’t on top of his game and admitted it.

However, he holds the power to chastise his teammates as well as himself and has started to show it.

“If it’s not one thing, it’s another thing,” Miller told the Buffalo News after losing to the Carolina Hurricanes Feb. 11. “If it’s the forwards are off, the 'D' are off and I’m off, it’s all not clicking right now. No one is making up for each other.”

Being the No.-1 goalie for the American team won’t give Miller any rest, but it’s a good bet he’ll be on top of his game over the final seven weeks and keep the Sabres in the mix for a division title.

Should he do it, Miller’s status as a Vezina candidate will be solidified.

Marc-Andre Fleury

Pittsburgh Penguins

Grant Fuhr put together a hall of fame career not by leading the league in categories other than wins.

Marc-Andre Fleury’s game is very similar.

The Penguins are starting to catch fire again after a lull from Christmas through mid-January, which co-incided with a finger injury he suffered, and to no surprise the netminder who was chosen first overall in the 2003 draft has been counted on to be the last line of defence.

It’s easy to look at the Penguins and say they win only because of their offensive stars such as Sidney Crosby — more than 40 goals already this season — and Evgeni Malkin, but the Penguins are like the New Jersey Devils in having something of a no-name defence corps after Sergei Gonchar.

Working against Fleury and his hopes for top goaltender honours are his low save percentage, high goals-against average and lack of shutouts.

However, it’s not a fluke he was named to Canada’s Olympic team.

He may not have gaudy statistics to compare to many of the others in his category, but he can already boast a Stanley Cup title. All he’s done since joining the NHL is win, and you can’t knock that.

Remember, it took a few years for Roberto Luongo to receive recognition and be put in the upper echelon.

Fleury is still a ways away from being considered a truly top-end goalie, but the time is coming closer.

Miikka Kiprusoff

Calgary Flames

Only three goalies have won the Vezina Trophy since 2003: Martin Brodeur, Tim Thomas and Miikka Kiprusoff.

The Flames netminder was lauded in the 2005-06 season, and you can argue he’s been even better this year.

At the start of the season, the Flames were scoring goals, but needed Kiprusoff to shut the door for many of their wins.

For the last two months, though, the Flames have struggled mightily to score goals, but managed to stay in the playoff hunt mainly because of Kiprusoff’s netminding.

Despite being one of the most worked goalies in the league, and being on a team fighting to remain within the top eight of the Western Conference, Kiprusoff has stayed near the top in goals-against average and save percentage.

The club’s struggles which started in January may spell the end of Kiprusoff’s Vezina Trophy chances, but very few of the losses could be pinned on him.

And his teammates know it.

“Kipper is playing great. He couldn’t be playing any better,” captain Jarome Iginla said after his team lost 3-1 to Dallas Feb. 11. “It’s the best I’ve seen him play and he’s had some amazing years, but we’ve got to find ways to score more.”

Kiprusoff made international waves early in the season when he said he’d only go to the Olympics if he was Finland’s starting goalie. He’s unquestionably the best of the country’s lot.

Ilya Bryzgalov

Phoenix Coyotes

It seems only six months ago the Phoenix Coyotes didn’t know where they would be. Not a lot of people figured it would be with the third best record in the Western Conference at the Olympic break.

The Coyotes are far from the NHL’s upper echelon in goals scored, but are right among the league leaders when it comes to goals against, and Ilya Bryzgalov is the big reason for that.

In the top 10 for goals-against average, save percentage, wins and shutouts, Bryzgalov has solidified a Coyotes team which can make the playoffs for the first time since the 2001-02 season.

The hiring of Dave Tippett as head coach, and a more veteran roster has helped the Coyotes climb from perennial bottom feeders to a likely playoff squad, but Bryzgalov ties it all together.

He’s been named among the NHL’s three stars on multiple occasions this season, and among the monthly stars a couple of times.

“He’s been there all year,” Ed Jovanovski told the media after Bryzgalov backstopped his team to a 1-0 shootout win over Nashville on Feb. 2. “On most nights, we count on him to be our best player, and he’s done that.”

The lack of attention given to the Coyotes and the fact they play out west hurts his chances to be a Vezina winner, but if Bryzgalov helps the team earn home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs and shines along the way, he will receive serious consideration.

Craig Anderson

Colorado Avalanche

Last season, the Colorado Avalanche finished 15th in the Western Conference and 28th overall.

When they signed Craig Anderson as a free agent in the off-season, it appeared more a move of giving a perennial back-up goalie with nice credentials that chance he’d dreamed about.

Nobody could have imagined he’d have run with it like this.

Colorado may be the biggest pleasant surprise of the year by hitting the Olympic break neck-and-neck with the Vancouver Canucks for top spot in the Northwest Division.

Anderson is near the top of nearly every goaltending category, despite being on a team with a pair of rookies in Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly as their second- and third-line centres.

What is truly amazing about Anderson’s season is it wasn’t enough to get him named to the American Olympic team, passed over for Ryan Miller of Buffalo, Jonathan Quick of Los Angeles and Boston’s Tim Thomas.

Still, there are no doubts in Colorado their MVP is Anderson, who was originally drafted by the Flames in 1999 and bounced between the minors and the NHL, where he had stints with Chicago and Florida before catching his big break.

“When you have (goaltending) with a young team that makes mistakes like we have, it builds confidence,” coach Joe Sacco told The Sporting News.

Evgeni Nabokov

San Jose Sharks

There is a curse of playing for a top team which scores 50 to 75 more goals than its opposition, lack of credit.

Very few netminders receive praise.

You can’t swing a cat around the NHL without finding somebody who questions the goaltending Chicago or Washington. To that end, San Jose’s Evgeni Nabokov is in the same boat.

Nabokov’s playoff track record certainly leaves his ability to win when it counts open to debate, but his regular-season performances have always been top notch. This year is no exception. In fact, he’s been at the top of his game.

The .928 save percentage he has to this point is better than any other year of his career. Nabokov, who remains the workhorse in San Jose, is right near the top in wins, games played and goals-against average, along with his save percentage.

Plus, there are plenty of cases when Nabokov bailed out his high-octane team when it had been outplayed greatly.

In late January, the Sharks topped Buffalo 5-2 despite being outshot 40-24. Detroit outshot the Sharks 52-26, but San Jose won 3-2 in a shootout. Not only did Nabokov stop 50 shots, but he was perfect in the skills competition.

“We talk about it all the time. He gives us a chance to win every night and that’s exactly what he did,” forward Manny Malhotra told the Detroit Free Press after the Buffalo game.


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