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April 14, 2010
The Goalie Heat Index
Analyzing First Round Goaltender Matchups

by Timo Seppa

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While goals-against average (GAA), wins and even shutouts are reflections of team defense as well as goaltending ability, save percentage is the conventional stat that best isolates a goaltender's individual skill and impact upon a game. Simply put: A good team defense decreases the number of shots on goal against (SOGA), but it's then up to the goaltender to stop as many of those shots as possible.

So which NHL goaltender stands the best chance of making an impact on the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs? And which big name is bound to falter?

Before last postseason, we set out to forecast goaltender performance, as measured by save percentage. Among the predictions that came true: relatively poor showings for New York's Henrik Lundqvist (.906 predicted, .908 actual) and Columbus' overworked rookie Steve Mason (.887 predicted, .878 actual) -- as well as fine showings by future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur (.925 predicted, .929 actual) of New Jersey and playoff neophytes Jonas Hiller (.918 predicted, .943 actual) of Anaheim and Semyon Varlamov (.947 predicted, .918 actual) of Washington.

While goaltender performance can vary greatly over the small sample size of a short playoff run, we can do our best to predict which netminders may succeed or fail. Over the past dozen postseason campaigns, the best performance indicators -- in diminishing order -- have been: career playoff save percentage, current regular season save percentage and current regular season SOGA.

In addition, for very young goaltenders (those under 24 years of age) the current regular season's workload has a very large impact proportionately. That's why 19-year-old Calder Trophy winner Steve Mason's poor performance wasn't the least bit surprising after facing 1,666 shots over the course of the season.

Forecasting this postseason is particularly difficult due to the fact that such a large number of netminders have no previous playoff experience, including six of the projected eight starters in the Western Conference:

Breaking Down The Goalies

A look at all 16 playoff goalies along three metrics and one projected metric.

                         Career       Current     Current      Predicted
Goalie            Team   Playoff SV%  Season SV%  Season SOGA  Save Percentage
Ilya Bryzgalov    PHX   .937         .920         1961         .928 
Jaroslav Halak    MTL   .906         .924         1386         .926 
Tuukka Rask*      BOS     --         .931         1221         .921 
Antti Niemi*      CHI     --         .912          936         .923 
Roberto Luongo    VAN   .930         .913         1915         .922 
Jimmy Howard*     DET     --         .924         1849         .919 
Jose Theodore     WSH   .912         .911         1352         .915 
Martin Brodeur    NJD   .920         .916         2004         .915 
Ryan Miller       BUF   .915         .929         2098         .913 
Brian Boucher     PHI   .904         .899          796         .913 
Pekka Rinne*      NSH     --         .911         1541         .913 
Brian Elliott*    OTT     --         .909         1424         .912 
Marc-Andre Fleury PIT   .916         .905         1772         .912 
Evgeni Nabokov    SJS   .915         .922         2168         .910 
Craig Anderson*   COL     --         .917         2233         .907 
Jonathan Quick*   LAK     --         .907         1927         .903 

*No Playoff Experience

Now let's look at some of the first-round matchups in detail. We'll use a "heat index," showcasing whether a goalie is cold, warm or hot entering these playoffs.

Eastern Conference Heat Index

Washington Capitals (1) vs. Montreal Canadiens (8)

Jose Theodore (Warm) vs. Jaroslav Halak (Hot)

Against a live eighth seed in Montreal, the quality of the Capitals' goaltending may be more than a trivial consideration. While Jose Theodore is better than some detractors make him out to be, he's certainly not as good as a 20-0-3 record since Jan. 13 would indicate. As with last postseason, the young Semyon Varlamov (.928 predicted save percentage) remains an intriguing option, should Theodore falter again.

Jaroslav Halak, the 24-year-old netminder who led Team Slovakia to the Olympic semis, has the profile of a potential giant killer, and he's backed by an underrated squad. Don't underestimate the Canadiens -- even against mighty Washington -- as they are an elite 20-8-5 (.681 winning percentage) with Halak in goal and D Andrei Markov in the lineup. Without a doubt, Montreal should keep Carey Price (.904 predicted save percentage) on the bench.

New Jersey Devils (2) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (7)

Martin Brodeur (Warm) vs. Brian Boucher (Warm)

On the short list of the best goaltenders of all time, Martin Brodeur has a better save percentage in the playoffs (.920) than during the regular season (.914) over the course of his career. To avoid a second straight first-round upset, Brodeur will need to boost his level of play, as the rival Flyers have had his number this season, scoring 20 goals en route to winning five of six games against the Devils.

Though Brian Boucher, Philly's goalie-left-standing, has the worst save percentage of the playoff starters, his decent enough save percentage over 22 career playoff games and modest workload bode well for success. If only the Flyers would remember how to put the puck in the net, Boucher might play well enough to give Philadelphia a shot at eliminating its pals from up the Turnpike.

Buffalo Sabres (3) vs. Boston Bruins (6)

Ryan Miller (Warm) vs. Tuukka Rask (Hot)

He's the front-runner for the Vezina Trophy, and he almost single-handedly willed Team USA to gold in Vancouver. Would anyone be surprised if Ryan Miller carried Buffalo far into the postseason? That said, Miller has been a mediocre playoff performer over 34 career games and he has faced a whopping 2,245 shots between the regular season and the Olympics.

Without 22-year-old Tuukka Rask, the Bruins would have already cleaned out their lockers for summer vacation. Rask will need to be scorching hot to carry Boston -- with the league's worst offense -- past the underrated Sabres, regardless of their edge in the season series.

Pittsburgh Penguins (4) vs. Ottawa Senators (5)

Marc-Andre Fleury (Warm) vs. Brian Elliott (Warm)

Pittsburgh rode the highs and endured the lows of the enigmatic Marc-Andre Fleury all the way to the Stanley Cup last season. A stronger career playoff performer (.916) than career regular-season performer (.907), the 25-year-old Fleury has more postseason games under his belt than all but Brodeur and Nabokov among this season's relatively inexperienced crop of playoff netminders.

Starting the season behind Pascal Leclaire on Ottawa's depth chart, Brian Elliott eventually won the starting role by default over the severely underachieving newcomer. Boasting personal winning streaks of six and nine games this season, Elliott could carry the Senators on a modest run, but defeating the star-studded and playoff-hardened Pens seems a tall order.

Western Conference Heat Index

San Jose Sharks (1) vs. Colorado Avalanche (8)

Evgeni Nabokov (Cold) vs. Craig Anderson (Cold)

Exhibit A: An .890 save percentage as the Presidents' Trophy-winning Sharks were knocked off by eighth-seeded Anaheim in 2008-9. Exhibit B: An .853 save percentage for Olympic co-favorite Russia, including giving up six goals in 24 minutes in the elimination game. Sure, Evgeni Nabokov has been among the handful of best goaltenders in the NHL, but he inspires zero confidence in the big games.

Craig Anderson was the story of the NHL over the first month of the season, going 10-2-2 for October. The career backup held up admirably in a season where he more than doubled his previous highs in games played and shots against. After he was asked to face more SOGA than any netminder this season, you have to think that there are going to be ramifications from such overuse.

Chicago Blackhawks (2) vs. Nashville Predators (7)

Antti Niemi (Hot) vs. Pekka Rinne (Warm)

Cristobal Huet is taking the backseat at playoff time again, this time to 26-year-old Finnish rookie Antti Niemi. Niemi boasts seven shutouts in only 38 games, and finished the season on a six-game winning streak. Huet's lousy regular season aside, his .917 career playoff save percentage makes him worth a roll of the dice in relief of Niemi, should the need arise (.918 predicted save percentage).

A four-game losing streak to open the season is in the rearview mirror for 27-year-old Pekka Rinne, who has four-, six- and seven-game winning streaks to go along with seven shutouts this season. Should the Finnish netminder stumble, Nashville should keep in mind that backup Dan Ellis (.937 predicted save percentage) has excellent postseason numbers, albeit over a small sample of games.

Vancouver Canucks (3) vs. Los Angeles Kings (6)

Roberto Luongo (Hot) vs. Jonathan Quick (Cold)

Though many fans remember Roberto Luongo's spectacular meltdowns of five and seven goals against in Game 2 and Game 6 of last year's Chicago series, they tend to forget that Bobby Lu gave up only 14 goals combined in his eight other postseason games. Perennially underrated for a great netminder, Luongo gives the Canucks an excellent chance to make some noise in the Western Conference.

Los Angeles has ridden Jonathan Quick hard. In fact, the 24-year-old faced nearly as many shots as Martin Brodeur, which is saying something. It was a puzzling strategy, as the Kings had highly touted Jonathan Bernier idling in the minors for most of the season. Were Quick a year younger, we'd peg him for a horrendous .864 save percentage in the upcoming playoffs due to that workload. Now that's cold.

Phoenix Coyotes (4) vs. Detroit Red Wings (5)

Ilya Bryzgalov (Hot) vs. Jimmy Howard (Hot)

Ilya Bryzgalov is our top choice for impact goaltender in this postseason, with multiple factors in his favor: an excellent .937 save percentage over 16 career playoff games, a fine .920 regular season save percentage with eight shutouts, and a reasonably managed workload. Bryzgalov is hot going into the playoffs as well, having won 10 of his last 14 games.

Calder Trophy co-favorite Jimmy Howard is one reason why the Detroit Red Wings are the hottest team in the NHL since the Olympic break -- Howard has won 15 of 19 games in that span. Ideally, you would have liked to have seen Chris Osgood take on more starts to save some wear on the 25-year-old rookie, but the Red Wings needed Howard in net just to make it to the postseason.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Timo Seppa runs the statistical hockey site Ice Hockey Metrics. Follow Timo on Twitter at @timoseppa.

Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Timo by clicking here or click here to see Timo's other articles.

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