The Neutral Zone: 2010 Vezina Trophy Picks

Once a regular sight in Sabre country, the Vezina will likely make its way to Buffalo and into the arms of Ryan Miller (Richard Rath/Flickr).

Ilya Bryzgalov- Bryzgalov’s eight shutouts were second in the league to only Martin Brodeur and, fittingly, the emergent Russian netminder Bryzgalov is taking the place of perennial nominee Brodeur.   On 42 occasions, Bryzgalov posted a sub-2.10 goals-against average, providing remarkably reliable play between the pipes all season for the stunningly successful Coyotes.  Phoenix enjoyed the winningest campaign in franchise history and most of their triumphs flowed from the net outward.

Despite a marginal .06 goals per game increase, the Coyotes became the league’s most improved team  as their goals against average dropped from 3.04 to a stingy 2.46 behind Bryzgalov and outstanding backup Jason LaBarbera.   As the Coyotes’ grew into Dave Tippett’s defensive system, Bryzgalov simultaneously shook off the shakiness of past season and transformed into a stabilizing force.  He seldom allowed a soft goal and offered little in terms of a weak spot for opponents to fire at over the course of the season.

Bryzgalov’s numbers represent a improvement in his focus, but more importantly they demonstrate his intangible effect on this low-profile, high-percentage squad.  In front of Bryzgalov, the Coyotes bloomed into a sound, north-south squad whose success in simplicity was rivaled only by the Nashville Predators this season.    Check out this sequence where Bryzgalov makes an outstanding glove save and then recovers to quell the attack with his mitt once more:

Miikka Kiprusoff- Right until the bitter end, Miikka Kiprusoff remained the lone reason the Flames were relevant this season.  His performance in the third period of a critical four-point game against Colorado not only resuscitated Calgary’s chances to get into the postseason, it nearly comprised the entire highlight reel of the 2-1 contest.  Tested all night and faced with the slimmest of margins to keep his team’s season alive, Kiprusoff first turned aside a rising shot from the most prime real estate on the ice by Ryan O’Reilly.  The stabbing glove save showed off one of Kiprusoff’s greatest assets, which is arguably the best glove hand in the league.  Moments later, Kiprusoff wowed his teammates and left Avalanche winger Chris Stewart a mumbling, head-shaking mess as he denied a bid along the goal line with a powerful push across the crease and full extension of his left pad to salvage the season.

His lateral movement and lightning-quick pads were in full effect during a a superlative season that ended before its time.  Not only was his uplifting performance a microcosm of his season, the 12-4 shot disadvantage in the third period and meager two-goal support were representative of what Kiprusoff had to work with all year.  Of their 42 losses, including 32 regulation defeats, the Flames scored two goals or fewer in 35 of those games.  They won ten more contests with that meager level of support, nine of which were Kiprusoff masterpieces.

Persevering through underachievement and high turnover on the roster, all Kiprusoff needed was a late lead to win.  Like Ryan Miller in Buffalo he was a fantastic closer, as the Flames posted a 33-2-3 record when leading after two periods.  His play was consistent, timely, inspirational, and often spectacular.  His teammates, his coaches and his opponents routinely described as him as a top goalie in the league if not the top goalie in the league, but video is worth a 1,000 words and this save surely left Scott Nichol talking to himself:

Ryan Miller- Miller’s Vezina candidacy justification reads more like a case for the Hart Trophy.  Among goalies with 40 or more decisions, he led the league in save percentage and goals-against average.  He backstopped an underpowered offense and a defense anchored by a 20-year-old rookie to a division title and 41 wins of his own.  When leading after two periods, the Sabres never lost and in overtime Miller came up with nine wins.  Carrying the goaltending tradition of six-time Vezina winner and Olympic medalist Dominik Hasek, Miller has begun a formidable legacy of his own.

While the Olympics are not a part of NHL award considerations, Miller’s very participation as well as the heavy load he carried for Team USA undoubtedly add to the heft of his late-season accomplishments.  Following the Olympic break, Miller had sub-.900 save percentages in only two outings and a goals-against average above 3.10 only once en route to an 11-5-1 record.  Proportionate to the three times he was pulled all season, Miller was only yanked once, a sight that had to confuse onlookers as he allowed four or more goals just six times this year and not once after the break.

Miller has not only consistently posted the best numbers and arguably had the most success with the least support, he has also played his best hockey as the pressure mounted and the stakes rose.  Below, Miller displays his one-man show capability by stopping Rangers sniper Marian Gaborik as four Rangers overwhelm a lone Buffalo defender.  He also showcases his athleticism with a spectacular sequence to keep the Sabres in a game against the second-place Ottawa Senators.