Conference Final Goalies: Vets Oust Rookies

Marc-Andre Fleury and Braden Holtby

Both the Western Conference Final and the Eastern Conference Final were interesting in this year’s NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, notably because of the goalie matchups in both series. Marc-Andre Fleury and Connor Hellebuyck faced off in the West, with Braden Holtby and Andrei Vasilevskiy meeting in the East. The most interesting takeaway is that both the veteran goalies, Fleury and Holtby, led their teams past the playoff rookies Hellebuyck and Vasilevskiy for a berth in the Stanley Cup Final. Here’s a look at the details of each series, and all four goalies who were a part of them.

The Western Conference Final saw a showdown between the red-hot Vegas Golden Knights, who had only lost 2 games thus far, and the formidable Winnipeg Jets, looking to put a stop to it. Leading the Knights in their first year in the NHL was veteran goalie and three-time Stanley cup champion, Marc-Andre Fleury. On the other end of the ice was unexpected Jets starter Connor Hellebuyck, who made a name for himself this season. In just 5 games, including a pair of wins on the road in the Winnipeg whiteout, Fleury was victorious, continuing the Knights historic run for the Cup. Hellebuyck, on the other hand, was sent home packing.

So, what was the story of that series, and how did both goalies perform? The Winnipeg Jets took the first and only win they would get in Game 1 of the series on home ice at Bell MTS Place, a 4-2 win. After that game, Vegas turned it on and left the Jets on their heels, who lost 4 games in a row. As for the goaltenders, there was a stark difference in their performance. Fleury continued his strong play and won 4 straight games for the Knights. They weren’t “gimmes,” either. In each of the 4 games, Fleury made 30+ saves, and allowed no more than 2 goals in each outing. For Hellebuyck, Games 2 through 5 weren’t as impressive.

Connor Hellebuyck allowing breakaway goal against Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault
Connor Hellebuyck allowing breakaway goal against Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault

In the entire 5-game series, Hellebuyck faced 30+ shots only once, and had a save percentage above .900 in just 2 of the 5 total games. To add, in 3 games in a row (Games 2, 3, 4), he allowed three goals. Despite the deep, high scoring offense of the Winnipeg Jets, it’s hard for any team to win in the playoffs when they have to score more than three goals every game. Hellebuyck finished the 2018 Playoffs with impressive stats, sitting at 9-8 for 17 GP, with a 2.36 GAA, .926 SV% and 2 shutouts. However, it wasn’t enough to get past Fleury and the Vegas Golden Knights.

The Eastern Conference Final was just as if not more exciting than the showdown in the West. It was a battle between two perennial, yet differently built, contenders, in the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning. The Caps, led by their stalwart goaltender Braden Holtby, had lower expectations than usual this season, but exceeded them all– and then some. Tampa, on the other hand, had higher expectations than ever this season, and managed to fall at the hands of Washington.

How did the grizzled vet Holtby and the young, first-year Lightning starter Andre Vasilevskiy fare in competition? Washington came out flying, perhaps unexpectedly, and had themselves a 2-0 series lead, seemingly having a stranglehold on the series. However, the Bolts stormed back with three straight wins, turning the tables rather quickly. In those 3 games (Games 3, 4, 5), Braden Holtby allowed 3+ goals, swapping roles with Vasilevskiy who allowed 4 and 6 goals in Games 1 and 2. In Game 6, the Caps were able to secure a win and force Game 7, in Tampa.

Vasilevskiy stopping a shot from Washington forward Jakub Vrana
Vasilevskiy stopping a shot from Washington forward Jakub Vrana

Vasilevskiy allowed just 2 goals in 4 straight games (Games 3, 4, 5, 6), yet saw his hard work pale in comparison to Holtby’s. Holtby posted back-to-back shutouts in Games 6 and 7, with 24 and 29 saves respectively, to punch his ticket to the Stanley Cup Final. For his first year as the full-time starter in the playoffs, Vasilevskiy finished this season with pretty good numbers to show for it. In 17 GP, he was 11-6, and posted a 2.58 GAA with a .918 SV%.

In both the West and the East, veteran goaltenders with something to prove ousted young up-and-coming stars in Connor Hellebuyck and Andrei Vasilevskiy, who both happen to be Vezina Trophy nominees for the best goaltender in the NHL. Marc-Andre Fleury and Braden Holtby will meet in what seems like the hundredth playoff series against each other, with both of them having tremendous stats to date. Fleury’s nearly perfect record of 12-3, with a 1.68 GAA and .947 SV% plus 4 shutouts will face Holtby’s equally impressive 12-6 record, with a 2.04 GAA and .924 SV%, and 2 shutouts. Any way you put it, goalies have owned the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and it comes down to the vets to steal a championship for their team.

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