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April 22, 2011
In The Crease
Tim Thomas Doesn't Give B's Big Edge

by Philip Myrland

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Tim Thomas is the heavy Vezina favorite and a potential nominee for the Hart Trophy as league MVP after setting the single-season record for save percentage with a mark of .938. Given that, you might think that no matter how the rest of the Boston Bruins matched up against their first-round opponent, Boston could at least count on superior goaltending.

Yet through three games, things have not gone as expected. Thomas gave up a crucial early goal in each of the first two games against the Montreal Canadiens, struggling with his rebound control, especially in Game 2, when bad caroms turned into Montreal goals. Even in the Bruins' lone win in Game 3, in which Thomas was able to hold his team in against some late Habs pressure, both Montreal goals were sharp-angle shots that slipped between Thomas' pads.

At the other end of the ice, the Habs' Carey Price -- no slouch in the regular season -- has stood tall with a .956 save percentage. A bad bounce while handling the puck led to the Bruins' winning goal in Game 3, yet Price has made a number of big saves to keep the underdog Canadiens in the series. And, through two contests, Boston's so-called advantage in goal has completely failed to materialize. But that shouldn't be too surprising.

Last year's playoffs saw all the Vezina nominees knocked out in the first round, eliminated at the hands of a journeyman (Brian Boucher) and two rookies (Jimmy Howard and Tuukka Rask). All the league's elite goalies were well into their golf seasons by the time Antti Niemi's Blackhawks beat out Michael Leighton and the Flyers in the Stanley Cup finals. Perhaps it's time to accept what the evidence overwhelmingly suggests: Having the better goalie is not an unbeatable advantage in a playoff series.

Goaltending results are highly variable because there are plenty of aspects of the game that are beyond a goalie's control, particularly concerning shot quality. On screens, deflections and one-timers, goalies might have little to no chance to react to the puck and can do little more than hope the shot hits them. Goalies are also often reliant on the team in front of them. Sometimes their squad will give up breakaways and odd-man rushes, and some nights a goalie might have to worry about only a handful of scoring chances all game.

Together, those factors mean that the range of expected goalie performance in a two-week stretch is quite broad. The practical result of that is that, although having the better goaltender is certainly an advantage, it is far from a guarantee, and the weaker goalie quite often will have the better playoff series.

To illustrate the point, look at the overall save percentage for each starting goalie in the Eastern Conference in the regular season, along with their best and worst save percentages over any seven consecutive starts:

Eastern Conference

Goalies, listed from top seed to bottom, along with their 2010-11 save percentage and their best and worst mark over a seven-game stretch during the season.

Name			Overall		Best 7		Worst 7
Michal Neuvirth		.914		.944		.885
Brian Boucher		.916		.943		.885
Tim Thomas		.938		.977		.904
Marc-Andre Fleury	.918		.955		.846
Dwayne Roloson		.914		.933		.868
Carey Price		.923		.963		.860
Ryan Miller		.916		.946		.876
Henrik Lundqvist	.923		.956		.876

In the East, Dwayne Roloson was the only goalie who did not have a seven-game stretch well above Thomas' .938. And although Thomas posted easily the best percentage in each of the three columns, his worst seven-game stretch would still rank behind every other Eastern starter if they put up merely average numbers. This demonstrates a wide range of scenarios that would allow for any of the Bruins' potential playoff opponents to have a better goaltending performance in a playoff series against Boston.

The top netminders in the West aren't immune to upsets, either:

Western Conference

Goalies, listed from top seed to bottom, along with their 2010-11 save percentage and their best and worst mark over a seven-game stretch during the season.

Name			Overall		Best 7		Worst 7
Roberto Luongo		.928		.957		.891
Antti Niemi		.920		.949		.871
Jimmy Howard		.908		.933		.872
Dan Ellis*		.898		.924		.832
Pekka Rinne		.930		.955		.870
Ilya Bryzgalov		.921		.960		.893
Jonathan Quick		.918		.950		.868
Corey Crawford		.917		.944		.883

*Ray Emery has too small of a sample size this year for this analysis to be useful.

Any goalie who posted a save percentage below .900 over a seven-game playoff series likely would be blamed for his team's failure, yet the numbers show that all eight Western Conference Game 1 starters had at least one stretch this season in which they did just that. At the same time, six of the eight netminders showed they were also capable of performing at .944 or better. Whether a goalie gets hot or cold can have a huge impact on a playoff series -- a goaltender with a save percentage of .888 will let in twice as many goals against as someone with a .944 mark.

This point also can be illustrated by looking at GVT (goals versus threshold). Tim Thomas (40.0 GVT) was about 10 goals better than Carey Price (29.6 GVT) over the entire regular season, a significant difference. However, if you take the GVT per-game rates and compress that down to a seven-game series, the result is that Thomas is worth only about two goals more than Price. Safe to say a series seldom turns on just two goals.

But even that small margin probably is overstating the true difference between them when you consider all the other factors that weigh on their save percentages. For example, there's Montreal's propensity to take penalties (the Habs had 62 more opposing power plays than the Bruins), the Bruins' superior team defensive play and the additional fatigue battled by Price in his 15 extra starts. Thomas' outperformance also stems largely from his ridiculous numbers in October. Since the All-Star break, Price actually posted the higher save percentage, .928 to .924.

Goaltending can be a difference-maker in a playoff series, but a look at save statistics over short stretches shows why it is not always the league's best goalies who perform the best in April or May. Everyone is prone to hot and cold streaks, and when two top goaltenders go against each other, either one is quite capable of outplaying the other.

It's easy and popular to credit goalies for series wins or to blame a big-name netminder when his team is eliminated. But in truth, the goalies' role in the playoffs is greatly exaggerated. The only fair way to objectively judge a goalie's performance is over several seasons' worth of play.

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

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

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