It seems like every season, the Philadelphia Flyers find themselves faced with a kind of goaltending controversy. The question isn't, "should the backup be playing more because he's been so good," but rather, "are they seriously going to try and win with this tandem?"
Maybe it's force of habit that has so many people questioning whether the Flyers' tandem of Sergei Bobrovsky and Brian Boucher is good enough to sustain a lengthy playoff run. The debate reignited following a March 20 loss to the Washington Capitals in which Bobrovsky allowed three goals on just nine shots and the Capitals won 5-4 in the shootout. Showings such as that one have raised questions about the goalie's consistency, even with some stellar efforts in previous games.
The key question for Philadelphia this season is similar to the one posited above: are Bobrovsky and Boucher good enough to be relied on in the playoffs? Even allowing for the inherent uncertainty in any goaltender's playoff performance, I think the answer is clear: yes.
For starters, consistency is rarely the issue, no matter how often that particular term makes the rounds of various columns. Hockey blogger Matt Fenwick did a great job of explaining that concept a while back, and I could do worse than quote his conclusion:
"Today's lesson in hockey/sports lingo is that more consistent = better. If the coach says the power play needs to be more consistent, then what he means to say (even if it's subconsciously) is that the power play needs to be better. If your team needs a more consistent goalie, what they actually need is a better goalie. And if the Flames can only win their first round series if they play very consistently, what that actually means is that the can only win if they play very well."
Before Jan. 1, Bobrovsky had posted a .915 save percentage, while Boucher's number was comparable at .916. Since that date, Bobrovsky's save percentage is .919, while Boucher's is .917. Steady as she goes there.
But are those numbers comparable to those of Cup-winning keepers? Here is how those percentages stack up against the regular season numbers posted by the 10 post-lockout goalies in the Stanley Cup finals.
Season Stanley Cup Finalist Save % Stanley Cup Champion Save %
2005-06 Dwayne Roloson .908 Cam Ward .882
2006-07 Ray Emery .918 Jean-Sebastien Giguere .918
2007-08 Marc-Andre Fleury .921 Chris Osgood .914
2008-09 Chris Osgood .887 Marc-Andre Fleury .912
2009-10 Michael Leighton .905 Antti Niemi .912
Of the five finals shown above, just three had a goaltender with a better regular season number than Bobrovsky's current mark of .917. Interestingly, virtually every one of these goalies went on to have a better playoff run than they had in the regular season, as seven of the 10 posted a .915 save percentage or better in the playoffs -- the lone exceptions being Emery in 2006-07, Fleury in 2008-09 and Niemi last season.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to look at a goaltender's regular season results and know with certainty which of them can replicate that success in the playoffs. The list above shows precious few elite goaltenders, and a long list of lackluster netminders.
In other words: the Flyers goaltenders are easily in the same range as other Stanley Cup winners and finalists in the post-lockout world, but that doesn't guarantee they will be good enough, because there are no guarantees (witness the lack of Vezina winners in the above list).
The inability to guarantee strong playoff goaltending doesn't leave the Flyers fate entirely to chance, however. Like successful teams before them, they can limit shots against. The following chart again considers the teams to play in the post-lockout Stanley Cup finals, but this time we focus on four measures: shots against per game and shot differential (i.e. shots-for minus shots-against) per game in both the regular season and the playoffs.
Team Season Reg. SA/GM Reg. SD P/O SA/GM P/O SD
Carolina 2005-06 30.5 +0.6 27.0 +1.8
Edmonton 2005-06 25.5 +4.3 31.7 -4.4
Anaheim 2006-07 27.4 +4.1 27.6 +2.9
Ottawa 2006-07 30.2 -2.1 25.2 +3.4
Detroit 2007-08 23.5 +10.9 23.6 +12.9
Pittsburgh 2007-08 30.8 -3.1 30.6 -0.9
Pittsburgh 2008-09 30.3 -1.3 29.0 +3.5
Detroit 2008-09 27.7 +8.5 28.1 +8.2
Chicago 2009-10 25.1 +9.0 29.6 +2.2
Philadelphia 2009-10 28.6 +3.0 29.2 -1.1
Anyone wondering why Osgood doesn't get credit for being the most clutch goaltender of all time only needs to look at this chart: the Red Wings dominate by outshooting other teams by ridiculous margins.
Other teams, however, generally do the same: they out-shoot their opposition and they limit shots against on their own goaltender. The exceptions are both rare and explainable. The 2005-06 Edmonton Oilers, for example, posted poor numbers because they were utterly dominated by Detroit in the first round. Thanks to a phenomenal performance by Dwayne Roloson and the magic hands of players like Fernando Pisani (14 goals, ridiculously high 28.6 shooting percentage), they survived despite being outshot.
The 2007-08 Penguins were a similar story, combining one of the most outstanding goaltending performances of the post-lockout era (Fleury, .933 save percentage) with remarkably good shooting percentage numbers from their talented forward corps.
Finally, the run of the 2009-10 Flyers was ultimately a story of special teams success. With a 21.9 percent conversion rate on the power play, an 85.3 percent success rate on the penalty kill and one of the league's best shooting percentages, they were able to ride out an average performance in net. It's worth noting too that in some ways the Flyers were a victim of their own success while shorthanded -- teams fire more shots while up a man, and while allowing a goal early limits the number of shots against, it doesn't help a team win. Since the Flyers weren't giving up PPGs, they endured more shots, thus skewing the statistic slightly.
Despite those exceptions, there are two more considerations for Flyers fans to fret about. In the post-lockout era, no team has won the Stanley Cup while either a) being outshot or b) allowing more than 30 shots against per game on their goaltender.
The Flyers don't look especially good by those standards. They do outshoot their opponents, but not by a lot -- a meager 1.6 shots per game -- and they allow a lot of shots on their own net (30.1). As a Flyers fan, I'd be more concerned with the number of shots against than I would be with whomever is in net.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Jonathan Willis is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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