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Goalies may be key to playoff runs

With the start of the NHL playoffs less than two weeks away, several teams have already clinched playoff berths and appear in good shape heading toward the postseason. But there are concerns about the quality of their goaltending, which could impact how far they go into the 2010 playoffs.

In the Western Conference, the San Jose Sharks are poised to finish first overall for the second straight season, but Sharks fans are nervous about the performance of starting goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who has struggled since the Olympic break.

While posting a 40-16-9 record with a 2.44 goals-against average (GAA) and .921 save percentage (SP) for the season, over the past month Nabokov's numbers have been less impressive, including a stretch that saw him win only three of nine games.

He's finished the month with a 6-7 record, a 3.24 GAA and a save percentage of .889, hardly the kind of performance of a starting netminder expected to backstop a team to a Stanley Cup.

The Vancouver Canucks are close to locking up the third overall seed in the Conference yet starting goalie Roberto Luongo's performance in March has generated some concern.

Like Nabokov, Luongo has good overall numbers for the season (38-21-3, 2.46 GAA, .916 SP, 4 shutouts) but average numbers in March. Despite a 7-4-1 record, Luongo's save percentage was an ordinary .902 and his goals-against an inflated 2.99.

He recently admitted to feeling mentally fatigued following a loss to lowly Edmonton, likely a result of playing several high-intensity games for Team Canada at the Olympics. Luongo did look sharp in his club's 4-1 win over the Phoenix Coyotes, kicking out 32 shots for the win, but it might be worthwhile for the Canucks to perhaps give him some additional rest prior to the playoffs.

At least the Sharks and Canucks can pin their hopes on two reliable starters rebounding from a poor month. The Chicago Blackhawks don't have that option.

Despite sitting second overall in the Conference, the Blackhawks, considered by many observers to be Cup contenders, struggled in March with a 6-7-2 record, in part because of their shaky goaltending.

Veteran Cristobal Huet had a horrible month, with a 2-3 record, a bloated 4.12 GAA and a horrible .833 SP, losing the starter's role in the process. Rookie Antti Niemi has played better but only marginally so, going 3-3-2 with a 2.73 GAA and .897 save percentage prior to his 4-0 victory over the Minnesota Wild on March 31st.

Goaltending was considered the Blackhawks weak link this season and with Huet now relegated to backup status and Niemi struggling with his consistency, the 'Hawks championship dreams this season could be in serious trouble.

In the Eastern Conference, the Washington Capitals, New Jersey Devils and Pittsburgh Penguins have secured three of the top four spots in the standings but they also face some goaltending concerns.

Capitals starter Jose Theodore played well in March, with a 7-0-1 record (all seven victories were consecutive), 2.61 GAA, .916 SP and a shutout. After a shaky first half where he split the goaltending duties with Semyon Varlomov, Theodore has played well in the second half.

But his critics will continue to point to his inconsistency and inability to carry a team past the second round. With Varlomov struggling to regain his form after being sidelined for over two months by knee and groin injuries, Theodore should be the Capitals' main man between the pipes this spring.

In Pittsburgh, Marc-Andre Fleury was one of the key factors in the Penguins' consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup Final and last year's championship so he'll be expected to elevate his game this spring.

Fleury's stats for 2009-10 are comparable to his numbers last season. His 2.65 GAA is just under last season's 2.67 and his 35-19-6 record is nearly identical to last season's 35-18-7 performance, while his save percentage has dipped this season to .906 from .912 last year.

His number for March (6-3-2, 2.67 GAA and .899 SP) pale in comparison to those of last March, where he went 9-1-2, with a 1.87 GAA and a .930 save percentage.

Fleury's a proven playoff performer, but he'll need to step up his game if the Penguins hope to successfully defend their title.

New Jersey Devils goaltending legend Martin Brodeur is once again having an outstanding season. The 37-year-old has reached the 40-win plateau for the eighth time in his career, currently leading all goalies this season with 41 victories. He's second in shutouts with seven and has once again posted solid goals-against (2.34) and save percentage (.914) numbers.

Still, it's been suggested the Devils haven't advanced beyond the second round in recent years due to over-playing Brodeur during the regular season, leaving him with little left in the tank come playoff time. That wasn't the case last season as Brodeur missed most of the season with a biceps injury. He did play well against the Carolina Hurricanes as the Devils were eliminated in the first round of the 2009 playoffs but looked decidedly ordinary in the closing moments of Game Seven, giving up weak goals that cost his team the series.

Brodeur's shaky play for Team Canada in the Vancouver Olympics cost him the starter's job to Roberto Luongo and continues to feed speculation he might be getting too long in the tooth to come up with the kind of big game playoff performances he used to deliver.

It remains to be seen if that's the case. His numbers in March (7-4-2, 2.50 GAA, .908 SP) suggest the long grind of the season hasn't slowed him yet, but it could be worthwhile for the Devils to give him some rest leading up to this year's playoffs.