WASHINGTON (AP) — Michal Neuvirth, Thomas Greiss and Martin Jones were sitting on the bench as playoff backups a year ago. Jeff Zatkoff and Matt Murray were in the minors.
Yet all five goaltenders have been difference makers in the first round of this year's Stanley Cup playoffs.
Neuvirth has singlehandedly gotten the Flyers back into their series, Thomas Greiss has been a rock for the Islanders, Jones beat his former team to lead the San Jose Sharks into the second round and Zatkoff held down the fort before Murray returned from injury to get the Penguins back on track.
"They've bounced around, they've been traded, they had to do their due diligence behind other goalies that are high caliber," analyst Justin Goldman of the Goalie Guild said. "Just the patience that they've had, continuing to grind it out day in and day out and then when they get that opportunity, making the most of it, that's what puts them in that upper echelon. That's what makes them playoff performers."
Neuvirth's emergence has had the biggest impact. A lower-body injury limited him to two games since March 4 before replacing Steve Mason with Philadelphia trailing the Washington Capitals 3-0 in the series, yet Neuvirth has stopped 75 of 76 shots, including all 44 on Friday, to force a Game 6 on Sunday.
"He gave us life," Flyers captain Claude Giroux said. "We were down 3-0 and at home he played really solid and Game 5, it's more than solid. He was on his game. He's been like that all year for us. We're happy he's on our side."
The Capitals drafted and developed Neuvirth before trading him to the Buffalo Sabres when it was clear that Braden Holtby was their goalie of the future. The Sabres traded him to the Islanders for journeyman goaltender Chad Johnson before Neuvirth found a new home with the Flyers on a two-year deal.
He's back in the playoffs where he has been at his best. Counting the Ontario Hockey League, American Hockey League and NHL, Neuvirth is 15-1 in playoff series that he starts at least three games.
"I just like playing in the playoffs and like playing under pressure," Neuvirth said. "I know I could play good in the playoffs and (I'm) just playing with confidence and belief in myself and (I) trust what I do."
Hextall described Neuvirth as a "calming influence." The same can be said of Greiss, who has taken the reins for the Islanders since Jaroslav Halak went out with an injury and whose .938 save percentage is a major reason New York leads the Florida Panthers three games to two.
Greiss is on his fourth NHL organization and has never before been relied on like this.
"He has mostly been a backup in his career, and he is getting a shot now and he's playing great hockey," Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell said.
Jones played good enough in his first playoff series in the NHL to help the Sharks knock off the Los Angeles Kings in five games. San Jose coach Peter DeBoer complimented Jones as a goalie who never gets rattled, which is just what that team needed.
The Sharks saw enough in Jones to trade for him and make him the starter, but after years behind Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles, he had to get the job done after a strong regular season.
"I don't think you really know what you have with a starting goalie in the playoffs until he's had the success," Goldman said in a phone interview Saturday. "You can project and you can predict and you can do the statistical analysis all you want, but until he's thrown into the fire and he's put in that situation, he's had a chance to prove in real time what he can do, he's still going to be a little bit of an unknown entity."
Murray and Zatkoff weren't unknown entities based on their successes in the AHL, but Pittsburgh would've liked to have had starter Marc-Andre Fleury against the Rangers. Instead, Zatkoff made 35 saves to win Game 1 and Murray got victories in Games 3, 4 and 5.
The 21-year-old Murray was stellar down the stretch for the Penguins, but like with Greiss and Jones, no one really knew what to expect from him in the postseason. The experience of being handed the net late in the season helped.
"I don't think anyone can predict the situations he's been thrown into," Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said. "It's a lot to be thrown at a young goalie. I think he's handled it really well. He's shown a ton of poise. He's got confidence in himself and he's really competitive. I think that's allowed him to play the way he has."
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