There is a traditional hockey belief that goaltending wins championships. Even though there have been some specific examples recently of non-superstar goalies leading their clubs to the Stanley Cup finals (Darcy Kuemper last year and Anton Khudobin in 2020), most teams that want to go all the way need a stud goalie as their leader. With that in mind, here are the two best and worst goalies of the first round of this year’s NHL playoffs.
The Best and Worst Goalies of the First Round
Best Goalie to Advance: Akira Schmid – New Jersey Devils
Akira Schmid is arguably one of the biggest surprises of the first round of the playoffs. Despite having a solid regular season (9-5-2 record, 2.13 GAA, and .922 SV%), the Devils elected to start the more experienced Vitek Vanecek for the first two games of their series against the New York Rangers. After two atrocious losses where Vanecek only stopped 82.7% of the shots he faced, New Jersey turned to Schmid to try to right the ship.
Schmid was nothing short of spectacular over his five starts in the first round. Despite allowing five goals in the loss in his second game, overall in the series he was 4-1 with two shutouts. His 1.38 goals against average and 0.951 save percentage led all goalies who played at least two games. He also sported a superb 1.134 GSAx/60. His exceptional play held the Rangers to only two goals during the last three games of the series. Needless to say, if the Devils are going to go far in the playoffs, it will be because Schmid continues at this torrid pace.
Honourable Mention: Jake Oettinger – Dallas Stars (4-2, 1 SO, 2.01 GAA, 0.929 SV%, 0.699 GSAx/60)
Best Goalie to be Eliminated: Igor Shesterkin – New York Rangers
The best goalie no longer in the playoffs just happens to have been Schmid’s opponent in round 1: Igor Shesterkin. Despite the Rangers being eliminated by the Devils in seven games, none of the blame can be laid on Shesterkin’s shoulders. Shesterkin showed why he is the reigning Vezina winner by posting a 1.96 goals-agains average and a save percentage of 0.931. His 1.886 GSAx/60 was the best of all goalies in the first round who played at least 2 games.
At 5-on-5 Shesterkin was even more exceptional, posting a playoff-best 1.27 and 0.955. His only sub-par game of the series was game three when he let in three goals on 23 shots for the loss. The early exit from the playoffs is a real disappointment for the best goalie of the first round and arguably the best goalie in the NHL today.
Honourable Mention: Ilya Sorokin – New York Islanders (2-4, 2.06 GAA, 0.924 SV%, 0.583 GSAx/60).
Worst Goalie to Advance: Stuart Skinner – Edmonton Oilers
Stuart Skinner is a rookie and had an awesome rookie season. He wrestled the starting job away from big free-agent signing (in terms of money) Jack Campbell during the regular season. He went 17-5-4 with a 2.72 and 0.911 down the stretch, making him the no-doubt Game 1 starter for the Oilers. However, despite the success that he has had this season, it is despite his play in the playoffs, not because of it, that the Oilers advanced to the second round.
Skinner’s overall numbers during the first round are all sub-par. He recorded a 3.43 goals against average and a 0.890 save percentage. His GSAx/60 was -0.524, indicating that he allowed, on average, more than half a goal a game more than should have been expected of him. Despite these overall numbers, Skinner was stellar at 5-on-5 (2.20 GAA, 0.890 SV%, 0.275 GSAx/60). To me, this means that if the Oilers intend to have a long run in these playoffs, they are going to have to stay out of the penalty box.
Dishonourable Mention: Vitek Vanacek – New Jersey Devils (0-2, 4.43 GAA, 0.827 SV%, -1.704 GSAx/60)
Worst Goalie to be Eliminated: Andrei Vasilevskiy – Tampa Bay Lightning
Over the past four seasons, Andrei Vasilevskiy leads the NHL in playoff games played for goalies, playoff wins, playoff shutouts, and Stanley Cup wins. He is one of the best goalies in the NHL and a future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. However, in the 2023 playoffs, he was very un-Vasilevskiy-like. In fact, it is hard to argue that his play is not one of the main reasons why Tampa Bay exited the playoffs noticeably earlier than usual this year.
Vasilevskiy’s stats were all among the worst in the first round. Among goalies who played in at least 2 games, his goals against average was 3.56 (16th), his save percentage was 0.875 (17th) and his goals saved above expected was -4.40 (18th). Perhaps his poor performance was due to the sheer number of games (both regular season and playoffs) that he has played in in recent years, but whatever the reason, he allowed a Toronto Maple Leafs team that was outplayed for the majority of the series to beat his Lightning.
Dishonourable Mention: Connor Hellebuyck – Winnipeg Jets (1-4, 3.44 GAA, 0.886 SV%, -0.342 GSAx/60)
Main Image: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports