If the Colorado Avalanche had put out an anonymous-respondent poll at the turn of the new year, asking for fans to rank the goaltenders they’d feel confident icing in the postseason, Philipp Grubauer would have been at the top of no one’s list. He may not have even been second, losing faith in favor of Pavel Francouz for a big stretch of the middle of the season.
Of course, that sentiment has gone by the wayside almost entirely. The German-born goaltender forged through games without some of the team’s top players — including a brief stretch where two of their top three forwards were out — to drag the Avalanche straight into the playoffs. Then, despite going nearly two months without winning a game to kick off 2019, managed to backstop the Avalanche to one of the league’s biggest first round upsets of the spring.
There’s little doubt that he had to be nearly perfect to pull off the series win. Mike Smith, for all his flaws and inconsistencies over a lengthy career, pulled out some huge performances when his team let him down most. Even a mediocre game, as the team learned in the opening matchup of the series, could cost them a precious win.
As he pointed out earlier in the season, though, his goal wasn’t just to be “good enough” behind an offensive powerhouse. In early December, he candidly admitted that he didn’t feel content allowing three goals in a team win; he should be part of why the team won, not a player they won in spite of. And it’s that very mentality that helped the team push past a Flames squad being backstopped by one of the league’s most passionate in-net offerings.
HOW HE GOT IT DONE
Ex-NHLer Theo Fleury was making an anti-analytics point earlier this month when he asserted that playoffs are won by “heart and balls”, but there’s an element of truth to what he said. No major sport relies nearly as much on luck as hockey does, and the playoffs — where one bad bounce can turn an entire series — are the most clear-cut example of that.
As Grubauer showed perfectly, though, it’s not exclusively skill or luck that helps a team advance past the first round.
This save has gone down as the most iconic Grubauer made in the Calgary-Colorado series, topping the boards for looking both desperate and controlled, eye-catching and subtly effective.
A closer look, though, shows that the before and after are as crucial as the save that caught all the eyes itself:
Mr Grubauer, Goalie Nation salutes you pic.twitter.com/EOTp2qT7go— Bob Essensa’s Blocker (@EssensasBlocker) April 18, 2019
We haven’t seen an elite scorpion save in a while, so it’s only natural that fans get excited to see one in a crucial, game-changing moment. But take a look at the details of the save, following by the recovery, to really get a feel for exactly how good Grubauer was on this sequence.
THE FIRST SAVE
We’ve seen goaltenders make desperation saves in just about every game of every series so far — and sometimes, there’s nothing you can do but throw your leg in the air and pray that your pad gets a piece of the rubber.
On a lot of those desperation saves, though, there’s a “Hail Mary” element to what the goaltender does that can’t really be overstated. Torsos flat on the ice, arms outstretched, legs tangled up, the goaltender is SOL if something happens after that first flopping stop.
What separates this save for Grubauer, though, is the impressive upper-body control he exhibits even while lifting the lower part of his pad to make the save. Take a look:
His glove and blocker are being used to hold him up, ensuring he’s still capable of getting back up and into a butterfly or low crouching position if there’s a rebound. That’s the kind of core strength that separates the good from the great, the naturally talented from the ball-busters who do everything they can to gain an extra inch of advantage over the competition.
Then, take a look at what happens as soon as the puck bounces back into play.
THE SECOND SAVE
We’ve all seen the Dominik Hasek style of goaltending, both working for Hasek himself and brutally exposing his successors across the league in the years since he hung up his skates.
There hasn’t been a goaltender quite as good as Hasek’s style, which was once described as “surgically precise flailing” — but they’ve all given it a shot, making a quick windmill save with the pads before launching themselves back across the crease to try swiping at a puck from flat on their stomachs.
As soon as Grubuaer made the first save, though, look at where he ended up for the second shot on net:
If the puck had gone in, people would have certainly blamed the defense — and rightfully so. When a goaltender is making a vulnerable, desperation-based save flat on the ice, it’s up to his teammates to clear the puck while the top of the net is still exposed.
In this case, though, the Colorado defense didn’t have to. Instead, Grubauer had remained so effectively in position to recover on the first save that he was able to get back up, crouching and centering his body to the puck to track it right into the crease on the second shot.
A good goaltender makes the first save, but a great goaltender makes the second one, too. It’s that kind of positioning and recovery that stand out as a big part of how the Avalanche managed to thwart the Western Conference’s most powerful regular season club and move on in short order.
For the second round, the Avalanche are facing perhaps the league’s most mystifying opponents — the San Jose Sharks.
During the regular season, neither starter Martin Jones nor backup Aaron Dell were able to finish the year with a .900 save percentage or better — and the whopping .904 that Jones procured through seven games in the first round isn’t exactly something to write home about.
Still, he was good enough to stop nearly sixty shots as the Sharks forced double OT in Game 6, going from the league’s worst playoff goaltender by a country mile in games 1 through 3 to one that stymied opponents in a shocking reverse sweep of the Vegas Golden Knights.
In theory, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen should make a mockery of Jones, but clearly he’s been effective enough to call that into question. And while Grubauer has taken massive leaps of improvement since the trade deadline, there’s always a risk that he’s still going to be a guy who overthinks his opponents — something that could seriously expose him against a team with smart, savvy skaters like Evander Kane. The question of whether or not Joe Pavelski can play in the second round is still open, but if he returns he’s another lethal net presence; an inexperienced playoff goalie like Grubauer could find himself in trouble if the Sharks captain can return.
For now, though, he did what few believed he could — and now that the Avalanche are out of the first round, everything he does from here on out is a bonus.