Every year, there usually is a team that goes deep in their respective playoffs on the back of their goaltender. To a point, it's expected; it's hard to win any games with poor goaltending, after all. However, there's usually a playoff team that owes a significant part of their continued playoff success to their netminder playing out of their mind. For example, both Boston and Tampa Bay fans are very appreciative of how ridiculous Tim Thomas and Dwayne Roloson have played to get their respective teams into the Eastern Conference Finals that begin tonight. (Aside: If you're in the ILWT Playoff Challenge, then go read this and make your picks for the Conference Finals now.)
This is most definitely true at other levels of the game. Right now, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoff finals are underway between the Saint John Sea Dogs and Gatineau Olympiques. A big reason why Gatineau is hanging in there against New Jersey Devils prospect Maxime Clermont. The 2010 sixth round draft pick has been absolutely ridiculous in the QMJHL postseason and it's worth noting.
As a quick background, Saint John has been a steamroller in the Q in 2010-11. They had the best record in the league at 58-7-3. Seriously, they only didn't win 10 games all season. In the playoffs, they dumped Cape Breton in 4 games, Victoriaville in 5, and Lewiston in 4. That's right, they have lost a combined 11 games going into the 2011 President Cup finals. The Sea Dogs are loaded with "name" prospects both yet to be drafted (e.g. Jonathan Huberdeau, Zack Phillips, Nathan Beaulieu) and drafted (e.g. Simon Despres, Stanislav Galiev, Jacob DeSerres, Devils prospect Eric Gelinas). They have been, in a word, dominant.
While Gatineau were no slouches in the season (record: 43-17-8), they had a tougher time of it in the postseason. Their first round against Rimouski was done in 5 games, and 3 of Gatineau's wins came in overtime. Their second round against Drummondville didn't feature any games decided by overtime, but Gatineau had to make up a 2-0 deficit in the series. They won in 6 games. Their third round against Quebec was more dramatic, as they had to come from a 3-1 deficit in the series to win in 7. A key reason why the Olympiques have been able to advance has been the stellar play of Clermont. Take a look at his stats (all from the QMJHL site) between the season and the playoffs, and pay special attention to that save percentage.
|2010-11 Season - Maxime Clermont
|2010-11 Playoffs - Maxime Clermont
(Note: OTL for the season breaks down to 4 shootout losses, 1 overtime loss. 2 of his 30 wins came in the shootout. In the playoffs, the OTL is just, well, a loss in overtime.)
During the season, 89.6% was good for twelfth among all goalies in the Q who have played at least 1,632 minutes. This put Clermont just ahead of Francis Lacerte based on his combined season performance, and Lacerte . It's just below average of the top twenty goaltenders in save percentage (89.7%), but all the same, Clermont did decently enough during the season. The surge to 92.5% is not only massive, but enough for Clermont to lead all goalies in the QMJHL playoffs in save percentage. That's clear evidence of someone "turning it up" in the playoffs.
What makes that more impressive was the fact that Clermont wasn't the original starter for Gatineau in the playoffs. In the first two games against Rimouski, Lacerte got the start, stopping 25 shots in a shutout in Game 1 and stopping 23 out of 25 in Game 2. By the stats, the choice to go with Lacerte made sense. After being acquired by the Olympiques, he had a save percentage of 90% in 24 games with the team - a better rate than Clermont. The first two games of the series seemed to back up the decision. Yet, Lacerte got shelled in Game 3 by allowing 2 goals on 6 shots and was replaced by Clermont. Not that Clermont did any better, he got the call for Game 4 and then he never looked back.
Breaking it down game-by-game, Clermont hasn't slowed down as the playoffs went on. If anything, he has rose to the occasion. Until their Game 5 loss, Saint John has placed at least 33 shots on Clermont per game. The Sea Dogs absolutely shelled him in Game 2 with 40 shots, where Clermont stopped 38. In a double-overtime epic, Saint John piled even more rubber on the Devils prospect, forcing Clermont to make 60 saves - which was necessary since, you know, the game went to double overtime. Clermont is backstopping the biggest challenge the Sea Dogs have faced all season in the Q. That's not just big, it's enormous. It's simply incredible.
That all said, I wouldn't start penciling Clermont in as the Devils' goalie of the future. This is more indicative of Clermont getting hot, which is great on it's own and for Gatineau's chances at a big upset. Yet, it's not really sustainable in the long term. A 92.5% save percentage in the QMJHL playoffs isn't going to mean much next season or when he becomes a pro.
What Devils fans should appreciate is that Clermont made the most of his opportunity in the first round to become the starter on his team again, he's handled a lot of high pressure situations and remains a big reason why the Olympiques are in the President's Cup Finals, much less giving them a chance to hang with a dominant Saint John team who has been firing lots of pucks at him. To me, all of that speaks well of Clermont's character as it does of his talents; and I don't see how that's anything but positive for his development.
Clermont's playoff run has been incredible either way. Gatineau will host Saint John in Game 6 on Sunday night; the Olympiques are down 3-2 after winning Game 5. If nothing else, I wouldn't completely rule out Clermont and his team from winning that one. After all, they have plenty of recent experience of win-or-go-home situations from their last two playoff series. Best of luck to Clermont and the Olympiques tomorrow night.