Kings' Jonathan Quick, Ducks' John Gibson at center of Game 7
The battle of American goaltending's present and future highlight Friday night's Game 7 between the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings.
The people of Southern California are being treated to their first postseason series between the local Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks since the Ducks began play in the NHL 20 years ago. It's only fitting that they would get seven games out of it.
Unlike the recently wrapped seventh games in both Eastern Conference series, there hasn't been much controversy or any real drama between the Ducks and Kings. Perhaps the most controversial thing about this series is that head coaches Bruce Boudreau and Darryl Sutter can't agree on which team is the underdog in the series. Both of course think it's their own team. Whatever you can do to motivate the troops, right?
But this series hasn't needed controversy or drama to remain intriguing. Aside from the all-Southern California angle, this series has featured one of the great storylines of the playoffs involving the teams' goaltenders.
Jonathan Quick of the Kings is widely considered the here and now of American goaltending, having won the Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup in 2012, and serving as Team USA's starter at the Olympics this past winter. John Gibson of the Ducks, who is young enough to have never known a world without an NHL team in Anaheim, is considered the future of the country's goaltending. His track record is brief, but features unprecedented success internationally for USA Hockey at World Championship events.
In the three games in which each has played, the future has gotten the better of the present in two of them, with the Ducks winning Gibson's first two starts before Quick put on a show during an eventual 2-1 win for the Kings in Game 6 to force this single-game elimination situation.
It has been rather incredible to watch as Quick has become the gold standard when it comes to postseason goaltending over the past few years, while Gibson waltzed into the playoffs with just three NHL games under his belt and looked like he had been doing this for years.
Now the series shifts to a Game 7, where history and even what happened just days before rarely matters. Both teams and both goaltenders essentially go in with a clean slate -- one win to clinch the series and meet the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference finals.
For Gibson, this is his first experience in an elimination game in the Stanley Cup playoffs. He's going up against Quick, who has won five elimination games this postseason alone while collecting a stunning .962 save percentage in such contests. Additionally, the Kings were in this very same position last year, going seven games against the San Jose Sharks in the conference semifinals. The Kings earned a 2-1 win last May.
The Ducks were eliminated in a seven-game series in last year's first round against the Detroit Red Wings. Jonas Hiller, who started this second-round series for the Ducks before being replaced by Frederik Andersen and later Gibson, came out of that Game 7 with an 0-2 record in that situation and a .903 save percentage. That wouldn't breed much confidence, making Gibson's emergence that much more important.
While Gibson has never been in a Stanley Cup playoffs elimination game, he has a long history of performing exceptionally well in high-pressure situations.
He has been the go-to goalie internationally for the past few years, winning gold at the World U18 Championship and World Junior Championship, where he went a combined 5-0 in elimination games. He also went 2-1 in elimination games at last year's Men's World Championship. This is a kid who has shone brightest under pressure.
Dating back to last season, between the OHL playoffs with the Kitchener Rangers, the World Juniors, World Championship and recently this postseason between the NHL and AHL, Gibson's save percentage has not dipped below .946 in any one event. This is his kind of moment.
Now it's the Stanley Cup playoffs, with the brightest lights, the biggest crowds and the most attention. Up to this point, the 20-year-old has been near flawless in his first six NHL games, registering a shutout in both his regular-season and postseason debuts. Should he find a way to knock off a former Conn Smythe winner and one of the best elimination-game goalies in years, Gibson may go from surprising rookie to cult hero overnight.
After Game 7 on Friday night (9 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network), there will have only been four games between Quick and Gibson, so it wouldn't necessarily be fair to call this a passing of the torch, should the Ducks come out ahead. Besides, Quick is only 28 and still has strong years ahead. But this is definitely a seminal moment in American hockey and perhaps even for the position itself.
The two goaltenders are not only representatives of American goaltending's present and future, they're also representing two very distinct goaltending styles.
Quick is more like a throwback. He is aggressive and relies more on his athleticism, which makes him a potentially high-risk, high-reward goaltender. It's probably going to be rare that Quick has an exceptional save percentage over the course of a full season. His style will bring good games and bad, but he seems to have great success in the postseason. He's the kind of goaltender that might lose you a game here and there, but he can absolutely steal them, too. Most coaches would hedge their bets given that potential.
His career regular-season save percentage is slightly above average at .915, while he has a much more impressive .926 career mark in the postseason.
It's not completely unlike another American goaltender who has since passed the torch in Tim Thomas. Goalies like Quick and Thomas, both of whom backstopped teams to recent Stanley Cup wins, seemingly are becoming increasingly rare in the prospect pipelines. Many up-and-coming goaltenders are getting coached up more and developing more rigid technique. That's basically where Gibson falls in.
The 20-year-old Ducks netminder is of the generation of goaltenders being brought up that rely more on technique over athleticism. Not every save Gibson makes is going to end up on the highlight reels because he uses size and positioning as well as any veteran in the league today. While his technical skill is notable, Gibson separates himself by combining the technique with natural size and athleticism, which makes him tough to beat. That projects as a safer style and perhaps could lead to more success over a longer stretch of time and a higher level of consistency.
Now the two goaltenders from different backgrounds, different paths to the league and different styles are going to hope for very different results in Game 7.
Will Jonathan Quick show the young grasshopper what's what, or will Gibson fully realize his promise far earlier than anyone could have possibly expected? That, among many other reasons, is why this Game 7 will be unlike many of the others and why it should be exceptionally entertaining.
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