NHL Names Finalists for the Vezina Trophy

Henrik Lundqvist won the Vezina last season and is a finalist once again.  (Courtesy of nypost.com)

Henrik Lundqvist won the Vezina last season and is a finalist once again.
(Courtesy of nypost.com)

This week, the NHL announced the finalists for the 2013 Vezina Trophy, awarded to the most outstanding goaltender during the regular season. The three candidates are Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers and Antti Niemi of the San Jose Sharks.

Selected by the General Managers, for the first time in the history of the award, the goaltenders are all European, representing Russia, Sweden and Finland. This post will take a brief look at the key statistics behind their seasons and outline the important role each has played for their team.

Sergei Bobrovsky

Sergei Bobrovsky has been a revelation for the Columbus Blue Jackets.  (Courtesy of articles.philly.com)

Sergei Bobrovsky has been a revelation for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
(Courtesy of articles.philly.com)

After his summer trade from the Philadelphia Flyers, where he was a back-up to Ilya Bryzgalov, Sergei Bobrovsky initially shared starting duties in Columbus with Steve Mason. Before long however, his stunning form had usurped the former number one. The Blue Jackets were galvanised by the play of their brilliant goaltender, confidence filtered through the lineup and his win-streak almost catapulted them into the Western Conference Playoffs for only the second time in their history. Mason has since been traded to the Flyers in one of the more baffling trade-deadline moves, but that’s a discussion for another day. The trade does reveal the Blue Jackets’ thoughts on Bobrovsky’s season however and one would expect to see a contract extension appearing on the horizon for the young goalie relatively soon.

Once moving past the initial surprise at Bobrovsky’s success in the NHL’s version of the void (Columbus), and considering most people were waiting for a dip in form that never came, we find a superb set of core statistics. Playing 38 games with a 21-11-6 record, 2.00 goals against average and .932 S%, Bobrovsky undoubtedly deserves to be a finalist for the Vezina on these alone. His cool net presence works in tandem with an uncomplicated style of play, and for much of this season it looked as though his opponents were shooting volleyballs instead of pucks in his direction. He also conceded the fewest goals of the three finalists with 74 GA, but played five games less than both Lundqvist and Niemi.

Henrik Lundqvist

Henrik Lundqvist strengthens his claim for being the NHL's best goaltender.  (Courtesy of nydailynews.com)

Henrik Lundqvist strengthens his claim for being the NHL’s best goaltender.
(Courtesy of nydailynews.com)

From the surprise element of Bobrovsky, we move to the goaltender no-one is shocked to see amongst the candidates, Henrik Lundqvist. This is the fifth nomination of his career. Current holder of the Vezina Trophy for his exploits with the New York Rangers last season and their eventual loss to the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conferences Finals, Lundqvist actually had a slow start to this season by his standards. His game steadily returned to its usual elite level however, just in time as far as the Rangers were concerned.

It was no coincidence that as Lundqvist began to find his best form, so did the Rangers. They rely heavily on their goaltender, who often produces unbelievable displays which are simply the difference between winning and losing, even more vital this year with their struggles in defence. A series of wonderful performances from Lundqvist, combined with good acquisitions during the trade deadline, proved enough for the Rangers to claw themselves into the postseason. Currently tied at 2-2 in their first round series with the Washington Capitals, the recent single goal victories at home for New York have been after several point-blank stops from Lundqvist.

Playing 43 games during the season, Lundqvist is tied first in total wins with an overall record of 24-16-3. A goals against average of 2.05 and a .926 S% are also testament to his fine play throughout the year. Though his concentration levels are better than most, it is Lundqvist’s ability to make the game-defining stop that distinguishes him from the competition. To prevent the goal that ties the game, or puts the opponent ahead can sometimes be the direct catalyst for a win. This stop against David Krejci of the Boston Bruins epitomises the type of save he produces year after year:

Antti Niemi

Antti Niemi's superb contribution went unappreciated for much of the season.  (Courtesy of bleacherreport.com)

Antti Niemi’s superb contribution went unappreciated for much of the season.
(Courtesy of bleacherreport.com)

Being so far out in the West, in a timezone that the rest of the NHL tend to ignore until the playoffs, Antti Niemi never really gets enough credit for the terrific performances that he produces night after night. With the condensed season, he has been watched even less than usual by teams in the East. Nevertheless, his San Jose Sharks team stunned everyone with a blistering start of seven consecutive wins, then a dreadful February in which they only won two games, before getting hot in March and April to cement their playoff berth. This topsy-turvy season did have one benefit, finally highlighting their goaltender’s immense talents for the world to see. During their most inconsistent spells, Niemi’s game never wavered and he was the rock on which they rebuilt their form.

Playing more total ice time than any other goalie in the league, Niemi put up a record of 24-12-6 in his 43 games. He is tied for highest total wins with Henrik Lundqvist and dealt with more shots against him than the other finalists. Though he finished with a goals against average of 2.16 and a .924 S%, which is slightly lower than the other candidates, when we consider the capitulation of the defence in front of him during February, these numbers are great. Though not relevant to the Vezina argument, his sparkling form has continued into the postseason, where the Sharks dismantled the Vancouver Canucks in the first round, Niemi playing a huge part in the four-game sweep.

Though there are a few goaltenders that may feel aggrieved to have not made the final three, namely Corey Crawford, Craig Anderson and Jimmy Howard, I believe the General Managers’ choices are perfect. Only Howard, who carried an aging and injury ravaged Detroit Red Wings to the playoffs with a 21-13-7 record over 42 games has a legitimate claim. Neither Crawford, working in tandem with Ray Emery or Anderson, hit by injury, played enough total games for a 48-game season. However, they were both exceptional for their teams, Anderson’s goals against average of 1.69 is a statistic to marvel at in particular.

Before I conclude this post, there is one goalie who wasn’t even mentioned as a potential Vezina candidate and I want to set the record straight. Tuukka Rask had a sublime campaign. With the pressure of following Tim Thomas weighing heavy on his shoulders he produced a 36-game record of 19-10-5, a goals against average of 2.00 and a .929 S%. How his season, regardless of the effectiveness of the defence or penalty-kill in front of him, hasn’t been lauded by the NHL is beyond me. I shall however, end what has become a mini-rant on a positive note, the three finalists are all undoubtedly worthy of the Vezina crown, but with Sergei Bobrovsky’s campaign being a one-off in his career thus far, my brain tells me that Henrik Lundqvist could easily defend his title but my heart yearns for Antti Niemi to finally receive the recognition his play deserves. The winner will be announced during the Stanley Cup Finals.

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