They are the NHL’s masked men; robbers capable of stealing a game, a playoff series and even carrying a team to a Stanley Cup title.
For the teams remaining in the championship chase, it is the play of goalies Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins, Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks, Antti Niemi of the San Jose Sharks and Dwayne Roloson of the Tampa Bay Lightning on which each city’s Cup hopes will hinge.
It is an eclectic group that features two finalists for this season’s Vezina Trophy given to the top goalie, including former winner Thomas and last year’s Olympic gold medalist Luongo.
There is also Niemi, a Stanley Cup winner with the Chicago Blackhawks last year, and 41-year-old Roloson, who may not have the flashy credentials of his rivals, but has demonstrated the ability to backstop a team all the way to the finals.
Luongo, taken with the fourth overall pick by the New York Islanders in the 1997 draft, has always seemed destined for NHL stardom, while the others manning the nets in the conference finals took a more meandering route to NHL jobs.
Thomas was an afterthought when he was plucked in the ninth round of the 1994 draft by the Quebec Nordiques, while Roloson and Niemi were not selected at all.
A battler with an acrobatic, unconventional style, Thomas never played for the Nordiques and through the early part of an unremarkable career bounced around Europe and North American minor leagues.
It was not until signing as a free agent with the Bruins in 2002 that Thomas finally played his first NHL game, stopping 31 shots in a 4-3 Bruins win over Edmonton.
However, Thomas has made up for lost time, winning the Vezina in 2009, a silver medal at last year’s Vancouver Olympics and then posting a career-best goals-against average and setting an NHL record for best save percentage this season.
“One goal, one dream that I thought a lot about was raising the Stanley Cup over my head,” Thomas said. “You can make goals, but you never know whether you’re going to be able to accomplish them.”
Over the past nine seasons, three netminders have won the Conn Smythe Trophy given to the most valuable player during the playoffs, and before the Cup is hoisted next month it is almost certain that at least one of the remaining goaltenders will again be part of the MVP conversation.
Roloson, whose 13-season career has included stints in Calgary, Buffalo, Minnesota, Edmonton, New York and Tampa Bay, heard MVP whispers when he anchored the Oilers’ surprising run to the Cup final in 2006 until he was hurt in Game 1.
Signed as a free agent by Calgary in 1994, Roloson did not play his first NHL game until he was 27. With a series win over Boston, he would be in position to become the oldest starting goalie to lead a team to a Stanley Cup win since a 42-year-old Johnny Bower did it with Toronto in 1967.
“I think the guys who played against him [Roloson] maybe didn’t realize how good he is until he got here, then he stole some hockey games for us,” Lightning leading goal-scorer Steven Stamkos said.
“I think the thing that separates him is his leadership abilities. You don’t see that. He’s obviously a veteran guy in this league who has been to the finals before. He knows how to react,” he said.
Niemi spent most of his career playing in his native Finland until signing with Chicago and leading them to a Stanley Cup win last year in his rookie season.