A hot goaltender can change the complexion of a series or even of an entire postseason. Top seeds can be upset, with underdogs advancing deep into the playoffs, as when Jaroslav Halak and the eighth-seeded Canadiens upset the Capitals and Penguins in 2010. And a netminder having a season -- and postseason -- for the ages can carry a good team to the grail that is the Stanley Cup, as Conn Smythe winner Tim Thomas did for the Bruins in 2011.
Before each of the past three playoffs, Hockey Prospectus and Insider set out to forecast goaltender performance, as measured by save percentage. Halak and Thomas were our second- and first-rated netminders the past two postseasons, so we've fared pretty well.
That said, goaltender performance can vary greatly in the small sample size of a short playoff run. In fact, we've seen how performances can vary greatly even from season to season with recent examples like Brian Elliott and Mike Smith. We do our best to predict which netminders may succeed or fail, with indicators like career playoff save percentage (modified this postseason to include only data from 2005-06 forward), current regular-season save percentage and current regular-season shots on goal against. Here's how the 2012 playoff field breaks down.
The Goalie Heat Index
Ranking the playoff goalies based on projected playoff save percentage (Note: "Playoffs" save percentage is since 2005-06).
Rank Name Team Playoffs Current SOGA Predicted
1 Tim Thomas BOS .935 .920 1659 .927
2 Jaroslav Halak STL .923 .926 1211 .923
3 Braden Holtby WSH N/A .922 192 .922
4 Craig Anderson OTT .933 .914 1917 .919
5 Jimmy Howard DET .919 .920 1496 .917
6 Mike Smith PHX .958 .930 2066 .917
7 Roberto Luongo VAN .917 .919 1577 .915
8 Corey Crawford CHI .924 .903 1507 .914
9 Ilya Bryzgalov PHI .917 .909 1554 .913
10 Martin Brodeur NJD .913 .908 1472 .911
11 Henrik Lundqvist NYR .909 .930 1753 .910
12 Marc-Andre Fleury PIT .910 .913 1768 .907
13 Jonathan Quick LAK .900 .929 1863 .907
14 Pekka Rinne NSH .908 .923 2153 .904
15 Jose Theodore* FLA .898 .917 1502 .902
16 Antti Niemi SJS .904 .915 1865 .901
Let's look at some of the first-round matchups in detail. We'll use a "Heat Index," showcasing whether a goaltender is expected to be cold, warm or hot in these playoffs.
Eastern Conference Heat Index
No. 1 New York Rangers vs. No. 8 Ottawa Senators
Goalies: Henrik Lundqvist (Warm) vs. Craig Anderson (Hot)
The best goaltender in the NHL since 2005-06, Lundqvist, finally has a strong enough team around him to legitimately dream about a Stanley Cup. And apart from an unremarkable end to his season, signs are good for Lundqvist, as well. Despite posting "only" eight shutouts this season compared to a career-high 11 in 2010-11, King Henrik was much more consistent, posting a personal-best .930 save percentage. Lundqvist also faced only 1,753 shots, the fewest since his rookie season. Typically a lesser playoff goaltender, perhaps due to the wear of the season, we could see the 29-year-old Swede at the height of his game.
Once upon a time the best backup in the NHL, Anderson has become a middle-of-the-road starter, as he was this season for the Senators. Ottawa is an intriguing matchup for the Rangers, having taken the season series against them, so a big series from the 30-year-old Illinois native could help seal the upset. Anderson played well in the 2010 postseason, but it's the only six games to judge him by.
No. 2 Boston Bruins vs. No. 7 Washington Capitals
Goalies: Tim Thomas (Hot) vs. Braden Holtby (?)
Time will eventually catch up with Thomas, but the fact is, he's darn good -- he has been and probably will be for another season or two. The two Vezina wins and the Conn Smythe weren't the aberration. His injury-affected 2009-10, still a solid season, was the aberration. There's no reason to think that Thomas couldn't be the story of this postseason -- again.
With Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth out, the Caps turn to the 22-year-old Holtby, by far the youngest starting netminder in the playoffs. The track record is short in the regular season and nonexistent in the NHL playoffs. So, while the formula likes what it sees, the best prediction we're comfortable making is that Holtby will be an enigma in the postseason. There is one favorable component for Holtby, however. Even when you add in his AHL workload (1,076 shots), Holtby endured a lesser barrage than all but one other postseason netminder. He should be relatively fresh.
No. 3 Florida Panthers vs. No. 6 New Jersey Devils
Goalies: Jose Theodore (Cold) vs. Martin Brodeur (Warm)
If there ever was a team that needed spectacular goaltending to make it to the finals, it's Florida. As in 1996, when John Vanbiesbrouck's .932 save percentage in 22 games carried those Panthers through three rounds, these Panthers need a similar performance, because they're a pretty fluky third seed, let alone playoff team. Then again, we're talking Jose Theodore or Scott Clemmensen in net, though there's been no official word yet. We projected Theodore as the starter, but even if it's Clemmensen, don't expect any miracles here.
It's the twilight of future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur's storied career. With a strong second half, Brodeur rallied to a .908 save percentage, holding off a further decline from last season's .903. The 39-year-old veteran has taken a step back in postseason performance of late as well -- .913 since the lockout compared to .919 overall.
No. 4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 5 Philadelphia Flyers
Goalies: Marc-Andre Fleury (Cold) vs. Ilya Bryzgalov (Warm)
Stop me if you're heard this before: Despite their scary-good lineup featuring all-world talents Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins -- in my opinion, the best team in hockey right now -- are going to win or lose by Fleury. Yes, despite the adulation he receives from the Penguins' faithful and portions of the mainstream media, Fleury is average at best. Or perhaps a better description would be "hit and miss." If the mercurial Fleury is good enough often enough, this powerhouse lineup could still win it all.
After seasons of bargain-basement choices in goal, the Flyers altered their course 180 degrees in the offseason, making a big-dollar, long-term commitment to Bryzgalov. With a history of good and bad regular seasons -- you never know which Ilya you're going to get -- the quixotic Bryzgalov followed up an abysmal half season (third worst player in NHL by GVT) with an elite half season. Confused yet? Now coming off a heel injury, it's a real crapshoot what we're going to get from the Flyers' netminders. Let's just hope it's not the ridiculous carousel of goalies, like last postseason.
Western Conference Heat Index
No. 1 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 8 Los Angeles Kings
Goalies: Roberto Luongo (Warm) vs. Jonathan Quick (Cold)
Here we go again: Is Luongo a choker? No. Overall, he's been an above-average postseason performer in addition to being one of the handful of best goalies since the lockout. That said, he's picked some unfortunate moments to melt down. The good news for Canucks fans is that their backup, Cory Schneider -- who would have rated third in our projections -- could very well take over the starting role, and that he's good enough to carry the Canucks to a championship.
It's no secret that the offensively impotent Kings wouldn't have been in the playoff picture without the heroics of Quick between the pipes. In the past, Quick may have been overrated, compiling wins despite middling stats. This season, there's no doubt he's been the real deal. While our projections have him near the bottom of the table, it's fair to point out the smallish sample of 12 career playoff games, coming off high regular-season workloads for a relatively young netminder.
No. 2 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 7 San Jose Sharks
Goalies: Jaroslav Halak (Hot) vs. Antti Niemi (Cold)
After turning the playoffs on their ear in 2010 by nearly single-handedly eliminating the Presidents' Trophy-winning Capitals and the powerhouse Penguins, Halak returns to the playoffs with the surprising Blues in 2012 … or at least, you'd think with that postseason pedigree that it would be Halak. With Brian Elliott banged up to start the playoffs, the Blues will ride Halak to start the series -- and the numbers back the choice. But don't bet against Elliott keeping the crease hot if he gets the nod at some point.
Like Fleury, Niemi has a championship ring. He's even got a higher career save percentage than the Pens' goaltender. Yet while MAF has a cadre of supporters who claim that he's an elite netminder -- apparently the cachet of the No. 1 overall pick and/or playing for the Penguins -- Niemi is never thought of in that light. And in this case, the masses are right. Appearing in a whopping 40 playoff games in just the past two postseasons for Chicago and San Jose, the 28-year-old Finn has proven to be a below-average netminder.
No. 3 Phoenix Coyotes vs. No. 6 Chicago Blackhawks
Goalies: Mike Smith (Hot) vs. Corey Crawford (Warm)
While the Blues' Brian Elliott had an amazing and unexpected season with his new team, his performance was trumped by the Coyotes' new No. 1, Smith, who put up a .930 save percentage and 2.21 GAA while facing more than twice as many shots. Although the two netminders are Exhibit A and Exhibit B for how much goaltender performance can vary from season to season, Smith proved that he could keep up the level of performance during the course of 2,066 shots against (third in the NHL). His previous playoff experience is limited to appearances in three games for Tampa last postseason, so we won't put much stock in that.
Crawford proved to be solid in net in an epic seven-game series against the Presidents' Trophy-winning Canucks in 2011; he certainly shouldn't take any blame for the eventual loss in that series. The Blackhawks hope that's the goaltender they'll get against the Coyotes, not the well-below-average puckstopper they had between the pipes this regular season. But if Crawford struggles, don't expect miracles from backup Ray Emery, a mediocre all-around performer despite a finals appearance with Ottawa in 2007.
No. 4 Nashville Predators vs. No. 5 Detroit Red Wings
Goalies: Pekka Rinne (Cold) vs. Jimmy Howard (Hot)
With the Predators on the hook for $49 million and seven years, much was expected from Rinne, who already had been considered one of the league's top netminders prior to signing the big contract. While the 29-year-old Finn led the NHL with 43 wins, the flip side is that he faced a league-leading 2,153 shots. Even if Nashville advances, the workload may start to take its toll. Also consider that Rinne has been a mediocre performer in 18 career playoff games, despite regular-season success.
Though they have a track record of winning despite mediocre goaltending -- the name Chris Osgood comes to mind -- it's fair to say that the Red Wings hope that Howard stays healthy after overcoming finger and groin injuries that sidelined him for several weeks in February and March. As always, the Western Conference is uber-competitive, and a recently sputtering Detroit squad needs a hot Howard if it's to make a deep playoff run.
A version of this story originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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