The Chicago Blackhawks are up 1-0 in the Western Conference finals going into Game 2 against the Los Angeles Kings Wednesday night, thanks in part to the outstanding performance of their goaltender, Corey Crawford.
The notion that the NHL playoffs are about which goalie catches fire at the right time has been repeated to the point of cliché. But that doesn’t make it untrue. As I wrote at the beginning of this year’s playoffs, save percentage is more important than shots per game, shooting percentage or shots allowed. Strong play in net may be highly unpredictable in the sense that we don’t really know which goalie is going to rattle off a dominant run, but it’s also hugely important for a team seeking to hoist the Stanley Cup.
We can measure how “hot” an NHL goalie has been in the playoffs by comparing his postseason performance (measured by save percentage) to what we would have expected from his previous statistics and the strength of the teams he’s faced. To approximate a goalie’s current talent level, I modified baseball’s Marcel projection system to predict hockey goaltending save percentages. I used a weighted average of the goalie’s previous three regular seasons, with a little regression to the mean incorporated as well. Then, using Hockey-Reference.com data on playoff games going back to 1988, I plugged the goalie’s talent level and the regular-season shooting percentages of the teams he faced during the playoffs into a formula attempting to predict how well he would play in a given playoff game.
The difference between this expected performance and the goalie’s actual performance is “hotness” quantified, and we can even convert that number into a goals saved above replacement (GAR) figure using the league average save percentage within a given postseason.
This year, a couple of goaltenders have emerged as the clear-cut top candidates for the title of “hottest of the playoffs.”
The Blackhawks’ Crawford has delivered about 8.6 more GAR than expected. He’s posted a .933 save percentage; we would have predicted a mark of .912. His save percentage was only a little bit better than average during the regular season, and while his current foes, the Los Angeles Kings, shot poorly during the regular season, Chicago’s prior playoff adversaries, the Minnesota Wild and the St. Louis Blues, were both above-average shooting teams.
Also vying for the title is the New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist, who has produced 8.4 more GAR than expected during these playoffs. Lundqvist’s previous record suggested he’d be very good in the postseason, but he’s gone up against a tough slate of accurately shooting teams. The Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers both shot the puck well in the regular season, and the Pittsburgh Penguins were the fifth-best shooting team in the NHL. Against all of them, Lundqvist has a .934 save percentage, compared to an expected .915.
The goaltenders for the other two of hockey’s final four teams haven’t been quite as hot. Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens has contributed only 2.3 more GAR than expected, putting up a .919 save percentage against an expectation of .913. And he’s out for the remainder of Montreal’s series against the Rangers with an injury. Price’s backups, Dustin Tokarski and Peter Budaj, have collectively put up 5.1 fewer GAR than expected, thanks to a combined save percentage (.836) about 84 percentage points lower than we would have predicted. In the Western Conference, Kings goalie Jonathan Quick has essentially played right to expectation with a .912 save percentage. That’s been good enough for the Kings to get the job done (if barely), but it won’t win him any hot goaltending awards.
It bears repeating, though, that all of this is retrospective. Crawford and Lundqvist have been outstanding so far, but there’s a fickle corollary to the hot goalie theory: Today’s hot goalie isn’t guaranteed to be a success tomorrow.