Canucks, Bruins reach Final with stellar goaltending

VANCOUVER -- Last year's Stanley Cup Final featured a trio of goaltenders that could be described at the time as anything from unknowns to journeymen -- Chicago's Antti Niemi and Philadelphia's duo of Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton.

During the offseason that followed, some teams used that as evidence that a genuine No. 1 goaltender was no longer necessary for winning the Stanley Cup.

Evgeni Nabokov, coming off his third consecutive 40-win season and one of the League's top goalies over the past decade, wasn't re-signed by the San Jose Sharks and was forced to ply his trade in the KHL when no other team offered a contract to his liking. The Sharks, a team built to win a championship now, decided to go with a tandem of Niemi and Antero Niittymaki to start the season.

The Blackhawks, who were up against the salary cap after winning the Stanley Cup, decided Niemi's price tag was too expensive and inked Marty Turco to a one-year, $1.3 million deal before entrusting the defense of their title to rookie goaltender Corey Crawford.

The Flyers hitched their wagon to rookie Sergei Bobrovsky after signing Leighton to a two-year deal in the offseason.

Less than a year later, the Bruins and Canucks have taken that trend and blown it out of the water.

Boston's Tim Thomas and Vancouver's Roberto Luongo are two of this year's three Vezina finalists. They carried their teams to the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, which will get under way Wednesday night with Game 1 at Rogers Arena. Luongo appeared in 60 games this season; Thomas played in 57. Last year, Cristobal Huet's 48 appearances for the Blackhawks were the most of any goalie in the Final, but he played just 20 minutes during the entire playoffs.

While some teams were choosing to shore up areas of their team around their goaltenders, GMs Peter Chiarelli of Boston and Mike Gillis of Vancouver made sure a long time ago that they wouldn't have to worry about their goaltending situations now. Chiarelli signed Thomas to a four-year, $20 million contract in April 2009 while Gillis locked up Luongo for the rest of his career, giving him a 12-year, $64 million deal in September 2009.

Those are bountiful, long-term investments in a position some teams didn't deem worthy of it as recently as 11 months ago. Gills didn't get into any specifics about the goaltending philosophies of other teams, but made it clear he believes having the big name between the pipes is a key to success.

"I don't know how you win in this League without great goaltending," Gillis said. "I don't know how you get in the playoffs without great goaltending and I don't know how you win. I'm not sure how others feel about it, but in our situation, we were compelled and eager to get him signed because we felt he was the best opportunity for us to win.

"I still feel Roberto -- no disrespect to Tim because he's a great goaltender -- was the best goaltender in the League. We made a commitment to him as our No. 1 goaltender for long-term because we felt that way. We watch him practice every day. We watch his work ethic. We watch his dedication to the game. We felt at the time and continue to feel that he's the best goaltender in the League."

Chiarelli chalked up this summer's change in goaltending strategy simply to GMs seeing what worked and using it as their new blueprint.

"Sometimes teams try to copy the Stanley Cup Finalists," Chiarelli said. "We've seen teams without star goaltenders before win Cups. Timmy's a terrific goaltender and a clutch goaltender. I wouldn't call last year a fluke. You'll probably see it again at some point. But you're going to be more certain to have a proven goaltender. I think history will show that."

Luongo has been outstanding since he was benched for Game 6 of the conference quarterfinals against the Blackhawks. Since that game, he's 9-4 with a .935 save percentage. Against the Sharks in the conference final, he stopped 87 of 91 shots in Games 4 and 5 when the Canucks were being dominated at even strength.

It's one thing as a defenseman to play in front of a good goaltender, but Christian Ehrhoff said it's another thing to play in front of a great goaltender like Luongo.

"It makes your life easier because you know if you make a mistake, he's going to help you out," Ehrhoff said. "It eases your mind. You always have to have confidence in your goalie, otherwise you're going to play too hesitant."

Confidence certainly isn't a problem for Luongo, who said he's looking forward to the confrontation with Thomas.

"Tim has had an unbelievable season, probably the best in the League," Luongo said. "It's a good challenge for me. I focus more on opposition players, but at the same time, you want to look at the guy on other side and try to go save for save."

Luongo plays the more traditional butterfly style, while Thomas will take off his skate and throw it at the puck if he felt that was his best opportunity for preventing a goal. Not only are they different technically, but Thomas' response when he was told Luongo wanted to go save-for-save with him proved they have different mentalities as well.

"I'm pretty sure Roberto's not going to get too many shots on me this series," Thomas said. "So I'm going to be worried about the people getting shots on me. That might be his approach. My approach is to try to stop the puck as much possible. I don't pay that much attention to the other goalie."

Luongo said he received a text from his brother that did a terrific job of summarizing Thomas' unique style.

"Battlefly is the best way to describe it," Luongo said. "There is no rhyme or reason for how he stops the puck, but he definitely gets the job done. I think for us as a group it is going to be important for us to realize even if we have a chance to score, we need to bear down and realize he’ll do whatever it takes to make a save and put any part of his body in front of the puck."

Thomas, just like Luongo, has a 2.29 goals-against average in 18 playoff games. The 37-year-old from Flint, Mich., who had to rip away the No. 1 job from Tuukka Rask early in the season, delivered a 24-save shutout against the Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals to get the Bruins to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1990.

Thomas allowed four goals or more three times last round, something that probably can't happen if the Bruins are going to beat Luongo and the Presidents' Trophy-winning Canucks.

Just like Gillis showed with Luongo after his struggles in the first round, Chiarelli has complete faith in his No. 1 goaltender.

"I would characterize his game for these playoffs as outstanding," Chiarelli said. "I've seen the comments after these games, justifiable so, where he may have let in two or three soft ones. You're going to see goals here or there, but he's a competitive kid. Every time he'll come back and there will be a clutch time at the end of the game where he'll make two or three terrific saves that will win the game for us. He wants to win."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo