Playoffs are all about goaltending

The playoffs are the goaltenders' time of year. They can make a bad team great and a great team bad.

Take last year's first-round series between Detroit and Vancouver, for instance. Dan Cloutier looked great in winning the first two games against the Red Wings in Detroit, but then he let in a soft goal from center ice in Game 3, changing the momentum of the whole series and giving the Wings the chance to win the next four in a row.

Goaltender is by far the most important position at this time of year, because one mistake can end a team's season.

Goalies to Watch
Chris Osgood, St. Louis. Here's a guy who has won the Stanley Cup before -- in 1998 with Detroit -- but he's not playing that well heading into the playoffs. St. Louis is a great team and should make a run at the Cup, especially with Chris Pronger returning to the lineup.

Marty Turco, Dallas. The Stars have a deep, talented team of skaters, but the pressure is on Turco to back it all up. And with a record 1.72 goals-against average this season, he may be able to do it.

Curtis Joseph, Detroit. Backstopping a team that won the Stanley Cup last year behind Dominik Hasek puts tremendous pressure on CuJo. With all the firepower on that team, he is going to get the blame if the Wings fall short of the Cup.

Ed Belfour, Toronto. The Leafs could easily win the Eastern Conference championship, but they could just as easily lose in the first round against Philadelphia.

Roman Cechmanek, Philadelphia. If Cechmanek struggles, the Flyers are going to hear about the fact that they did not get a top-shelf goalie at the trade deadline. They will likely go after one this summer.

Playoff Sleepers
Western Conference: Anaheim Mighty Ducks. This is a team that gets great goaltending from Jean-Sebastien Giguere, plays a defensive system and can score goals with guys like Paul Kariya and Petr Sykora.

Eastern Conference: Washington Capitals. I don't know if people really consider Washington a sleeper, but goalie Olaf Kolzig has been their best player all year, and that is sometimes good news heading into the playoffs.

Likely First-Round Upsets
West: St. Louis over Vancouver. Both teams have goaltending issues, with tons of pressure on Osgood in St. Louis and Cloutier not being 100 percent healthy in Vancouver. But the Canucks haven't been playing all that well leading up to the playoffs, and I think Osgood will respond to the pressure.

East: Toronto over Philly, Washington over Tampa Bay. Belfour has been great all year long and is Toronto's most valuable player. He has the edge over Cechmanek, and the Leafs should win this series strictly on Belfour's back. The goaltending in the Caps-Lightning series is a wash because Kolzig is as good as Nikolai Khabibulin, but the Capitals have more offensive weapons. They just have too many superstars who excel at 5-on-5 and on the power play.

Best First-Round Series
West: Vancouver vs. St. Louis. Both are great hockey clubs and capable of winning the conference title. St. Louis is now fully healthy with Pronger's return, and as I said before, the goaltending matchup is huge.

East: Philadelphia vs. Toronto. These are two of the best teams in the East, and one will be gone after the first round. Both have tons of talent; this will probably be the best of all the first-round matchups.

Best Player Matchups
Marty Turco and Curtis Joseph against the goalies at the other end. All the pressure in the world is on Turco's shoulders because he is in his first year as the starter and is replacing a guy in Belfour who won the Stanley Cup. And if Detroit doesn't win the Cup, CuJo gets all the blame for not being as good as Hasek.

Barry Melrose, a former NHL defenseman and coach, is a hockey analyst for ESPN.