On Thursday night, Vitek Vanecek won his 30th game of the season for the New Jersey Devils, and it was the first time since the 2011-12 season that a Devils goalie had won 30+ games in a season. That year, Martin Brodeur backstopped this team to 31 wins and its last Stanley Cup Finals appearance, so if you like to follow omens, that is a good sign.
But the best sign Thursday night was how strong Vanecek played. According to MoneyPuck, Vanecek was expected to give up 3.003 goals against in that game against New York, but of course only gave up the 1. Saving a whole 2 goals above expected is fabulous and the mark of an elite game by a goaltender. On the season, Vanecek is only at 3.8 goals saved above expected in all situations, so this was a real bounceback performance for the person that was the #1 goaltender for most of this season for NJ.
The truth of the matter is that once the postseason begins, many times the team that advances does so because they have a hot goalie who just dominates a series. The Devils arguably lost the Cup in 2012 in this exact way, as Jonathan Quick was out of his mind for the entirety of that playoff run for Los Angeles, a team that just squeaked in as the 8 seed. If the Devils want to get far in the playoffs this year, something that is absolutely within their grasp, they will need strong goaltending to make it happen, as they are going to be playing against some of the best goaltenders in the NHL on their path to the Stanley Cup.
When you look at the first round, the Devils will most likely be seeing Igor Shesterkin, but they have the off chance of seeing Ilya Sorokin. Regardless, honestly, both goalies are stellar and have had better years than Vanecek has had. Rangers fans love Shesterkin, and he has ranked 9th this year in goals saved above expected, coming in at 16.0 after the game Thursday night, where he managed to save 1.26 goals above expected, as the Devils only scored 2 goals on 3.26 expected goals. He is obviously a good goaltender, and if he gets redhot for that first round, it won’t matter that the Devils have the better skaters (they do). The goalie will make all the difference, especially if Vitek is only mediocre in net. It will be a quick exit in the worst way possible.
However, as good as Shesterkin is, he’s only the second best goaltender this year in New York. If the Devils do manage to eke out a division win and play the other New York team in the first round, they will see Ilya Sorokin who has been the better NY goaltender by far this season. Through 56 games played, he has 32.8 goals saved above expected, over double what Shesterkin has. The only goalie in the NHL with a better GSAx number this year so far has been Juuse Saros for Nashville. The Isles might be a worse team overall than the Rangers, but they have the better goaltender, and if Sorokin is hot, the Devils will be looking at only 1 or 2 goals most games during that series. And that means, of course, that Vanecek will need to be on top of his game, and then some, if the Devils are going to win that series and move on.
The good news, of course, is that Thursday night was the preview, and it was a good one at that. The Devils as a whole were playing pretty poor hockey leading up to that game, going 2-4-2 in their previous 8. But when it mattered, when they were about to be caught and potentially lose home ice advantage in the first round, not to mention any sense of dignity, the team stepped up, Vanecek stepped up in particular, and they held strong. Vanecek saved a couple of goals above expected, which was fantastic, and the Devils are now 4 up on NY and only 1 behind Carolina, although the Canes do have a game in hand. When it truly mattered, and when something was on the line, we saw the performance we needed to see, and that felt very good. If Vanecek can look like that for much of the playoffs, this team can go somewhere knowing they are going to have strong play between the pipes keeping the puck out of the net. Of course, it will also rely on the defense and skaters preventing high danger chances and playing sound hockey in front of him. If they are not defending, there will be only so much Vitek can do. But assuming they continue to play well overall, if Vanecek can play like that once the playoffs start, or even just somewhere close to what we saw on Thursday, good things can happen and probably will.