Pat Holden contributes regularly to Russian Machine Never Breaks. His work has also appeared on The Washington Post and ESPN.com.. You can follow him on Twitter at @pfholden
As Jaroslav Halak proved in the Spring of 2010, and has been proven countless times throughout the history of the NHL playoffs, a hot goalie can steal a playoff series. On the flip side, a bad or underwhelming series by a goalie can be enough to send a team to the golf course earlier than anticipated. While not particularly awful, Ryan Miller’s pedestrian 2014 playoff performance for the Blues comes to mind as an example of this.
In other words, in news shocking to no one, goaltending can be a huge difference maker in the NHL playoffs.
As the Eastern Conference playoff pictures becomes clearer, there are two teams that are considered legitimate contenders, based off of the standings and strong puck possession numbers, that may have trouble advancing deep into the playoff due to the play of their goalies. These teams are the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders.
From war-on-ice.com, here’s a look at the unadjusted and adjusted 5v5 save percentage of the starting goalies for the eight teams currently sitting in a playoff position in the East.
The bottom left is a concerning place to be. This is where you’ll find Ben Bishop of the Lightning, Jaroslav Halak of the Islanders, and Jimmy Howard of the Detroit Red Wings. We’ll get back to Howard shortly, and why his placement here is maybe not as alarming.
Ben Bishop is pretty clearly the weakest goalie of the bunch here. His unadjusted save percentage of .916 is not only last among the 8 goalies shown, but is 16th among the 16 starters for teams who would qualify for the playoffs if they started today, as well as 21st of the 26 NHL goalies who have played 1800-plus minutes this season.
Bishop was phenomenal last season, finishing fourth in the NHL is save percentage. But Jon Cooper’s current confidence in his goaltender is unfounded. Bishop has been mediocre, at best, this season. Tampa’s saving grace here could be their superior shot suppression, as they are the third best team at suppressing opponent shot attempts, allowing just 48,9 shot attempts per 60 minutes of 5v5 play.
The New York Islanders should also be concerned about their goaltending, as Jaroslav Halak hasn’t been much better than Bishop this season. On top of this, the Islanders aren’t nearly the shot suppression juggernaut Tampa Bay is, as they rank 17th in the NHL, allowing 54.3 shot attempts against per 60 minutes of 5v5 play.
While there might be cause for concern over goaltending in Detroit, Jimmy Howard gets a bit of a free pass here. As you can see in this 20 game rolling save percentage chart via War on Ice, his play has been superior to the other two goalies, and his late season dip could be related to him missing significant time due to injury.
Both the Lightning and the Islanders have reasons to be concerned about their goaltending. This isn’t to say that these teams can’t advance deep into the playoffs this Spring. As Arik Parnass astutely points out, hockey is a game of probabilities.
While neither team’s goaltending issues are impossible to overcome, a deep run by either of these teams is certainly made less probable by their issues in net.