In-creased pressure

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:51 AM ET

Whenever Cam Ward takes time to gaze down at his rings -- either the Stanley Cup or the wedding version -- he always will be reminded of his dream year of 2006.

As a raw rookie, he led the Carolina Hurricanes to an improbable yet well-earned NHL championship. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. And, that same summer, he married his sweetheart.

"Clearly, it was the best few months of my life," Ward recalled. "It was definitely special. You could not have written a better story."

At that time, Ward crushed all the notions that a goaltender needed experience to capture a Cup. He obviously didn't. Neither did the legendary Patrick Roy during his memorable freshman campaign in which he led the Montreal Canadiens to the title in 1986.

If you follow that logic, it stands to reason, then, that Columbus Blue Jackets rookie Steve Mason should have no problem towing his team on a deep post-season run.

Not so fast. In Columbus, Mason has been the man for most of the season. Fans there are shocked if he gives up more than three goals a game.

Ward's situation in '06 was different. Keep in mind that Martin Gerber also saw post-season action before being felled by a flu-like illness that opened the door for Ward to take the puck and run with it.

"When I look at my success in '06, there really were no expectations of me," he said. "I was fortunate I won my first couple of games. Had I lost those, they would have said the rookie was crumbling under pressure.

"I really think that the way I'm playing now is the best I've ever played. I'd like to think that I'm better than in '06. Even during the playoff run that year, I was pulled a couple of times.

"What the post-season teaches you is what a roller-coaster ride the playoffs are. You can't worry about the previous game. You have to look ahead."

Chris Osgood knows all about that ride.

Less than a year after leading the Red Wings to a Stanley Cup, Osgood struggled to the point where he left the team for a week to refocus, both on and off the ice. He has since rebounded to the point where coach Mike Babcock anointed him the post-season starter over Ty Conklin.

"Our team thrives on big games and so do I," Osgood said. "I've learned over the years that you can't panic in certain situations. The game is so much better than it was 10 years ago. Teams are so much closer. If a No. 7 or 8 seed beats a No. 1 or a No. 2 now, it's not an upset. That's how competitive it is."

Keeping that in mind, here are Sun Media's rankings for the 16 starting goalies poised to make a run at the Cup (with post-season appearances: wins/losses; goals-against averages; and shutouts).

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1. Martin Brodeur, Devils

Playoff Appearances: 169

W-L: 95-74 GAA: 1.96 SO: 22

Sure, there was a hiccup in his play down the stretch. But are you going to bet against the guy who recently passed Patrick Roy as the NHL's all-time regular-season wins leader? After missing four months with an arm injury, he should be fresh.

2. Evgeni Nabokov, Sharks

Playoff Appearances: 59

W-L: 30-27 GAA: 2.17 SO: 6

The Tank has been the home to countless playoff heartbreaks in recent years but don't blame Nabokov. If Thornton, Marleau and Co., finally live up to playoff hype for a change, this Vezina Trophy candidate has the stuff to lead the Sharks all the way.

3. Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers

Playoff Appearances: 23

W-L: 11-12 GAA: 2.57 SO: 2

Whenever chants of "Henrik, Henrik" resonate around MSG, it shows how Lundqvist has managed to reveal the warm underbelly of the normally hostile Big Apple sports fans. Deals well with pressure. Won the 2006 gold medal with Sweden as the successor to national scapegoat Tommy Salo.

4. Roberto Luongo, Canucks

Playoff Appearances: 12

W-L: 5-7 GAA: 1.77 SO: 0

Many predicted the Canucks' season would turn around with the acquisition of Mats Sundin. Instead, they started winning when Luongo returned from injury. Has the potential to put a team squarely on his broad shoulder pads and carry them a long way.

5. Miikka Kiprusoff, Flames

Playoff Appearances: 50

W-L: 23-24 GAA: 2.19 SO: 6

His roller-coaster season has been dizzying: Lukewarm start, sizzling middle, inconsistent finish. But during the 2004 run to the final, there was none better. Looks like one cool cat when he pushes his mask up and leans on the net during breaks, but make no mistake: This Finn is one fierce competitor.

6. Marc-Andre Fleury, Penguins

Playoff Appearances: 25

W/L: 15-10 GAA: 2.30 SO: 3

Tends to belch out juicy rebounds. Stickhandling leaves lots to be desired. At the same time, he took monster steps in helping his team reach the final a year ago.

7. Cam Ward, Hurricanes

Playoff Appearances: 23

W-L: 15-8 GAA: 2.14 SO: 2

Hasn't played this well since his rookie season of 2005-06 when he led the 'Canes to a Stanley Cup and won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP. Deserves serious consideration to join Brodeur and Luongo on the 2010 Canadian Olympic team.

8. Tim Thomas, Bruins

Playoff Appearances: 7

W-L: 3-4 GAA: 2.65 SO: 0

Listen closely and you'll almost certainly hear Bruins fans whining that this ranking isn't high enough for the Vezina Trophy candidate. Here's the skinny: Thomas has played in only one playoff series, and he didn't actually stand on his head in a seven-game loss to the hated Habs last year.

9. Nikolai Khabibulin, Blackhawks

Playoff Appearances: 57

W-L: 31-25 GAA: 2.27 SO: 6

The Bulin Wall had something in common with the Maple Leafs: Neither had been in the playoffs since 2004. Khabibulin, unlike the Leafs, is back now and looking to repeat his feat of five years ago when he sipped from the Cup with Tampa Bay.

10. Chris Osgood, Red Wings

Playoff Appearances: 106

W-L: 59-41 GAA: 2.11 SO: 13

The Rodney Dangerfield of goalies. Gets no respect, especially for a guy who was the starter for two Cup-winning Red Wing teams. Would be ranked higher if not for a lukewarm season. Coach Mike Babcock still chose him over Ty Conklin as his go-to guy.

11. Jose Theodore, Capitals

Playoff Appearances: 45

W/L: 19-24 GAA: 2.68 SO: 1

For a guy whose career appeared to be headed down the toilet not so long ago, he's done a nice job reinventing himself. Can be inconsistent, yes. But if he ever gets on a hot streak like during his Vezina/Hart Trophy-winning season of 2001-02, Ovechkin and friends will be euphoric.

12. Steve Mason, Blue Jackets

Playoff Appearances: 0

W-L: 0-0 GAA: - SO: 0

The NHL's Cinderella story is a shoo-in for the Calder and deserves serious Hart and Vezina Trophy consideration. But he's still a rookie. Carey Price was in this same position a year ago and remember how he wilted in the second round against the Flyers?

13. Martin Biron, Flyers

Playoff Appearances: 17

W-L: 9-8 GAA: 2.98 SO: 1

Biron seems like he's been in the league for decades, so it's hard to fathom that last year was his first trip to the post-season dance. Flyers have the talent pool to be Cup contenders, but Biron's penchant of allowing a bad goal must change for that to happen.

14. Carey Price, Canadiens

Playoff Appearances: 11

W-L: 5-6 GAA: 2.78 SO: 2

Will the real Carey Price please stand up? Will we see the kid who was being compared to Patrick Roy early in the first-round series against Boston last year? Or the struggling goalie who found himself on the bench watching Jan Halak at times this season?

15. Chris Mason, Blues

Playoff Appearances: 5

W-L: 1-4 GAA: 3.45 SO: 0

Backstopped the remarkable turnaround that allowed the suddenly surging Blues to squeeze into the playoffs. Having said that, the Blues are a very young team still looking to cut its teeth in Stanley Cup playoff action. Mason himself has only one post-season victory.

16. Jonas Hiller, Ducks

Playoff Appearances: 0

W-L: 0-0 GAA: - SO: 0

Judging by the ballooned chest protector and shoulder pads that make him look like the Michelin Man on blades, he obviously has stolen a page from teammate J-S Giguere when it comes to equipment. More importantly, he beat out Giguere for the job.


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