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THN.com Blog: Under-the-gun goalies

Ryan Miller will be under pressure to get his Sabres back into the playoffs this season. (Getty Images)

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Ryan Miller will be under pressure to get his Sabres back into the playoffs this season. (Getty Images)

It’s generally accepted that no one is under more pressure in hockey – or in any sport – than the goaltenders. The relentless intensity; the magnification of any mistake; the responsibility that comes with being your team’s last line of defense…it’s a big burden to carry, both physically and mentally. So it goes without saying that the NHL’s 30 starting goalies are under the gun from the start of Game 1 until their season comes to an end.

But some goalies scrutinized more than others. Here are the 10 NHL netminders who have to deliver the goods in 2009-10:
 
1. CRISTOBAL HUET, Chicago
After signing a four-year, $22-million deal a year ago, Huet is finally the go-to goalie in Chicago. And there’s no Nikolai Khabibulin around as an insurance policy (one that paid off handsomely last season); behind Huet is unproven 26-year-old Antti Niemi, with all of four NHL games to his credit. The Hawks had great success with Khabibulin as their backstop last season; now it is Huet’s turn.
 
2. RAY EMERY, Philadelphia
By now, everyone knows Emery’s story. Poor work habits and a bad attitude combined to chase him out of the NHL last season and he served a one-year penance in Russia’s Kontinental League. Now he’s back and the salary-capped Flyers have given him $1.5 million to be their No. 1. It’s a great situation for Emery as he joins one of the league’s top teams and a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. He got to the final in 2007 with Ottawa; it would make for a great story if he’s able to go from persona non grata to NHL champion in one short year.
 
3. CAREY PRICE, Montreal
Price’s 2008-09 recap: Whatever could go wrong, did. After a strong first half, Price – and the rest of the Canadiens – collapsed under the weight of centennial expectations last season. And the young goalie bore the brunt of Habs fans’ ire, to the point that he was practically booed off the ice at the end of the season. The good news is he’s young, rested and motivated to make amends. GM Bob Gainey’s free agent overhaul should make the team more defensively capable, which will benefit Price. The fifth overall pick in the 2005 draft has the pedigree, but does he have the maturity, focus and dedication?
 
4. PASCAL LECLAIRE, Ottawa
The Senators are desperately hoping their years of searching for a bona fide No. 1 goaltender are behind them. Leclaire, drafted eighth overall in 2001 by Columbus, has had a bumpy entrance into the NHL due to his propensity for injury. But he compiled a 24-17-6 record in 2007-08 for the non-playoff Jackets, including a 2.25 GAA and .919 save percentage. More importantly, he impressed the Sens with his quickness during the pre-season, giving the team some much-needed confidence in its goaltending.
 
5. STEVE MASON, Columbus
What can he possibly do for an encore? It’s unlikely Mason will surpass last season’s heroics, when he was called up from the American League and joined the Blue Jackets after starter Leclaire went down with an injury in mid-October. Mason then went on to capture rookie-of-the-year honors and was in the conversation for the Vezina and Hart Trophies. His 10 shutouts led the league and his scant 2.29 GAA was among the best. This season, he’s got to do it all over again – and this time, everyone’s expecting it.
 
6. TIM THOMAS, Boston
Pressure? What pressure? All Thomas has to do is repeat last season’s Vezina Trophy-winning performance – spurred by a league-leading 2.10 goals-against average and .933 save percentage – that helped lift Boston to the top of the Eastern Conference. With a defensively sound team in front of him, there’s no reason for the 35-year-old netminder to backslide.
 
7. JOSE THEODORE, Washington
If he wants to hold on to the No. 1 job, Theodore is going to have to earn the trust of his Capitals teammates and coaching staff. He didn’t have it last season; at least, not with coach Bruce Boudreau, who benched Theodore after he lost Washington’s first game of the playoffs. Rookie Semyon Varlamov came in and sparkled and Theodore – who was the NHL’s Vezina and Hart winner in 2002 – was banished for the rest of the post-season. He’s in the second year of a two-year, $9-million contract and Theodore needs to come up big if he wants to be viewed as a starting NHL goaltender.
 
8. MARTY TURCO, Dallas
Turco probably wants to take an amnesia pill and forget all about last season. It was a write-off for the long-time star Stars stopper, as it was for the entire Dallas team. His GAA (2.81) was among the worst in the NHL and his save percentage (.898) was among the very, very worst. At 34, he’s not over the hill, but he can’t afford another down year like 2008-09; a good start would be a big help.
 
9. VESA TOSKALA, Toronto
A porous Leafs defense and a groin injury foiled Toskala last year. It got so bad that new-ish GM Brian Burke called him out in the press for lackluster practice habits and Toskala went from Toronto’s MVP in 2007-08 to sitting on the sidelines (due to his injury) for the final two months of 2008-09. And now, he’s got hotshot Swedish netminder Jonas ‘The Monster’ Gustavsson pushing him for playing time.
 
10. RYAN MILLER, Buffalo
As goes Miller, so goes Buffalo. The Sabres are a bubble playoff team with Miller in net; without him, their weaknesses and lack of depth are exposed. Buffalo was 34-18-6 with Miller in goal last season – and 7-14-3 without him.

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Sam McCaig is The Hockey News' senior copy editor and a contributor to THN.com. His blog appears every weekend and his column, From The Point, appears regularly.

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