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Can Tuukka Rask Sustain His MVP-Caliber Postseason?

If you listen to Boston sports talk radio, you might be convinced that Tuukka Rask is among the worst goaltenders in NHL history, especially when it comes to playoff performance. Never mind the fact that Rask is tied for the third-best career regular-season save percentage1 in league history; never mind the fact that Rask is tied for the fifth-best playoff save percentage in league history. Rask was at the helm of an epic collapse in his first postseason — as a rookie — and a certain cadre of loudmouths have never shut up about it.2

Fortunately for the Bruins, Tuukka — with two Us and two Ks — is actually very good at keeping pucks out of the net. That’s been especially true in these playoffs: Through the conference finals round, Rask ranks first in save percentage, first in goals against average and second in quality start percentage.3 In fact, his quality start percentage is better than all but two of those recorded by Stanley Cup-winning teams. Rask is also one of just three goaltenders to reach the Stanley Cup Final since the 2007-08 season without having recorded a Really Bad Start (RBS)4 during that season’s playoffs.

By any measure, Rask is delivering one of the greatest all-time playoff goaltending performances, far outpacing his opposing goalie in this final, St. Louis Blues rookie Jordan Binnington.

We’ve written (here and here and here and here) about the importance of quality goaltending in the NHL playoffs — if a team wants to win the Stanley Cup, it helps to have that season’s hot playoff goaltender because save percentage accounts for a higher proportion of a team’s success than any other factor. It’s fair to say the Bruins have that goaltender in Rask.

Indeed, Rask has been so exceptional this postseason that among teams that have made it to the Stanley Cup Final in the history of the NHL, only two have gotten better playoff performances from their goaltenders in terms of save percentage than Rask’s .942: Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who posted a .946 save percentage in 2003 with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, and Jonathan Quick, who posted a .946 save percentage in 2012 with the Los Angeles Kings.

Unfortunately for the Ducks, Giguere’s brilliance transformed into mediocrity in the final. After posting a save percentage of .960 in the first three rounds, he saved just .910 of the shots he faced in the finals against the New Jersey Devils. Not awful, and still good enough to be named playoff MVP, but not good enough to lift the Cup. Quick’s story had a happier ending. He entered the final — also against the Devils — with a save percentage of .946, and he posted a rate of .947 in the final. Quick, who was consistent wire to wire, won the Conn Smythe Trophy, and the Kings lifted the first Cup in franchise history.

Though disappointing for Ducks fans, Giguere’s regression wasn’t an anomaly: For qualified Stanley Cup Final goalies since 1995 who had at least a .930 save percentage in the playoffs before the finals, their save percentage dropped by an average of 24 points in the final itself, from an average of .940 to .916.

It’s hard to tell exactly why save percentages fall off a cliff in the Stanley Cup Final — a cocktail of fatigue and better competition surely plays a role — but even the hottest goalies are bound to regress. Who regresses less sharply — Rask or Binnington — might determine which team lifts the Cup.

The postseason heroics of Giguere and Quick indicate that Rask is probably primed to receive some sort of silverware in June. If things go the way they did for Giguere, it’s hard to imagine Rask getting the credit he deserves. But if the Bruins prevail and Rask gets a Quick-like ending, even the Boston sports media will have to acknowledge his accomplishments.

Neil Paine contributed research.

Footnotes

  1. The NHL started recording the stat in 1955-56.

  2. In the 2009-10 playoffs, with Rask between the pipes, the Bruins surrendered a 3-0 series lead — and a 3-0 lead in Game 7 on home ice — to the Philadelphia Flyers en route to one of the worst playoff collapses in NHL history.

  3. To earn a quality start, a goalie must post a league-average save percentage or better; if a goalie faces 20 or fewer shots in a game, he can earn a quality start with a save percentage of .885.

  4. Really Bad Starts was developed by Hockey Abstract’s Robert Vollman and indicates that a goalie saved less than 85 percent of shots faced in a given game. When a goalie records a Really Bad Start, his team has just a 10 percent chance of winning.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.

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