Vezina finalists: Systems of a downer in best goalie race?

The image above was a rarity this season: The puck crossing the line against Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins.

Thomas led the NHL with a 2.10 GAA, a .933 save percentage and finished one win behind fellow Vezina Trophy nominee Niklas Backstrom (37 ... in a row?) for sixth overall in victories. The Bruins goalie also made many a puckhead smitten by conjuring up the spirits of Billy Smith and Ron Hextall with some aggressive physical play around the Boston net.

Thomas and Backstrom are the veterans in the Vezina final three this season; but Steve Mason of the Columbus Blue Jackets is no doubt the newsmaker. Trying to become the first goalie to win the Vezina and the Calder in the same season since Eddie Belfour back in 1991, Mason was second to Thomas in GAA (2.29) and led the NHL in shutouts with 10.

All three are worthy candidates, no question. But there's also that lingering quibble with all of them, in that they each play for a team that implements a defense-oriented system.

One needs only to look at Manny Fernandez's numbers to know that there wasn't much drop-off when he played behind Claude Julien's system and defensemen like Zdeno Chara. Backstrom had the benefit of former Minnesota Coach Jacques Lemaire's smothering style. Mason's credentials have been debated all season as the product of a system.

For arguments' sake, Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks, Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators and especially Cam Ward of the Carolina Hurricanes didn't necessarily have the support three finalists had.

None of this should disqualify Thomas, Backstrom or Mason. None of this should diminish their stellar numbers. But the "system" argument is a snipe at any goalie who benefits from his team's philosophy; ask Martin Brodeur about that, as he took that hit before and during his run of trophies.

Breaking down the field for this year's Vezina Trophy ...

Why Niklas Backstrom deserves the Vezina: In Backstrom's case, you have another argument for what makes a system work. For years, the argument for Brodeur was that his skills set made the Devils' defensive style as successful as it was.

Minnesota went 3-9-1 without Backstrom between the pipes; what does that tell you about his value?

Yet despite that system, only Miikka Kiprusoff (2,155) faced more shots than Niklas Backstrom (2,059); the Wild keeper put up stellar numbers (2.33 GAA and .933 save percentage) facing plenty of rubber. Most impressive.

Why Steve Mason deserves the Vezina:  Should one grade with a rookie curve? That's an issue in voting for Mason, considering that the kid was promoted and starting tossing shutouts like Warren Spahn; back-stopped the Blue Jackets to their first postseason appearance.

It could be argued that as accomplishments go, Mason made more history than the other two finalists.

He's got the numbers to win the award (2.29 GAA, .916 save percentage), and unless the Leagues GMs believe those 10 shutouts are due to the BeeJays' system, that's a hell of a round number for a rookie to post.

Plus, playing 46 out of 50 games down the stretch was extraordinary for a kid in a postseason push.

Why Tim Thomas deserves the Vezina: The 35-year-old earned his contract extension with the B's by being the backbone of their defense. Chara certainly deserves his Norris Trophy accolades as the rock on the Boston blue line; but he occasionally leaves the ice, while Thomas is between the pipes for the full 60 and then some. The Bruins surrendered a League-low 190 goals; Thomas was as much a factor in that as any other player.

But beyond the numbers, his leadership for the Bruins was a key: the aggression, the consistency, the emotional lifts when the team needed them en route to the conference lead. Maybe that intangible has no place in a Vezina conversation, but it's certainly part of Thomas's résumé.

Thomas should win the award, getting Eastern Conference support and a general respect for leading the League in two of the four goalie glamour stats. But Mason pulling the upset wouldn't be a surprise, and it wouldn't be a crime, either.

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