We may have only scratched the surface of this year's Stanley Cup playoffs, but in the ever-changing hockey world we live in, we've learned quite a bit. One saying that always rears its head when the playoffs comes around is, "you need a hot goalie." But
as Philip Myrland recently wrote for ESPN Insider and Hockey Prospectus, the Vezina nominees in 2010 were all knocked out in the first round. The question is: should teams still build teams around goalies in order to win in the playoffs?
The pre-Lockout style theorywhich some teams are still hanging ontogoes something like: "Get the goalie, we'll figure the rest out later." The othera more accepted viewis to build the toughest defense on the face of the earth, toss millions into several elite scorers and grab any old netminder.
This year, winning hasn't been on the shoulders of the "hot goalie" as much as it has been about how the team plays in front of him. Playoff hockey has become about the league's best defensive playersboth forwards and defensemanclosing down shooting lanes and getting the puck out of their own zone. Perhaps the best example is the Washington Capitals, whose coach Bruce Boudreau flipped his team's high flying style on its head in preparation for the playoffs.
Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth ranked 24th in the NHL in save percentage and14th in goals against average. Yet in the first round against the New York Rangers, the 23-year-old goaltender had a save percentage of .946 and allowed just 1.38 goals per game. Was Neuvirth the dreaded "hot goalie" or was he a product of a playoff-winning strategyone built from the front office down to the bench?
First, the Capitals put three of the top 15 shot blockers in the Stanley Cup playoffs in front of their goalie. Jeff Schultz, Karl Alzner and John Carlson helped the Capitals to combine for the second-most blocked shots of the 16 playoff teams. They also allowed the fifth-least shots on goal and killed off 95 percent of penalties. Anybody can be a "hot goalie" when he doesn't have to face quality shots.
On the other hand, the Tampa Bay Lightning are flying up and down the ice allowing crazy amounts of shots against and yet they've still forced a Game 7 from the Pittsburgh Penguins. At a glance, it appears they have benefited mightily from the feared "hot goalie" Dwayne Roloson, who I wrote earlier this year was not good enough to take the Lightning deep in the playoffs. Roloson is doing everything humanly possible to prove me wrong! The 41-year-old netminder has faced 36 shots per game, the second-most in the playoffs, but has stopped all but 13. That shakes out to a .941 first-round save percentage, second to only Neuvirth, with more than 60 extra shots.
At a closer look, however, Roloson is benefiting from similar play in front to that of the Capitals' netminder. The Lightning are No. 1 in the playoffs at blocking shots, they score 3.50 goals per game and have shut down 96.7 percent of short-handed opportunities. Roloson has been a "hot goalie" but by no means has he stolen victories from the Penguins the way Ryan Miller has from the Flyers.
Both the Bolts and the Caps subscribe to putting the best skaters out there and finding a goalie where they can. The Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup with an average goalie Antti Niemi, and they forced a Game 7 with another inexperienced netminder Corey Crawford. Yet what's been most important to the 'Hawks is the return of shutdown center Dave Bolland, who is plus-6 in just three games and has kept the Sedin twins at bay. The Blackhawks invested their money in a mix of scorers like Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews as well as top notch defensemen Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Brian Campbell. Chicago didn't come back because of a "hot goalie"they fought to a Game 7 by stopping the Canucks' best and putting pucks in the net.
So it appears the "hot goalie" can be any goalie these days. That is, unless we're talking about Ryan Miller. The Sabres goaltender has lived up to his reputation as the best big game goalie in the NHL by shutting out a far superior Flyers team twice. But imagine Miller if his team had more than $10 million in cap space dedicated to defense. Or if nearly $10 million was allocated to only slightly above average scorers such as Jason Pominville and Tim Connolly. In fact, maybe Miller's save percentage would have been higher than .916 this season if the team hadn't elected to let Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder walk. Maybe they would have never had to play a Game 7 if not for a few mistakes.
Sitting across the ice from Miller is Brian Boucher, whominus two goofy goalsis in the midst of one of his famous hot streaks. Boucher won all three games the Flyers won and has managed a .935 save percentage. But the former Coyotes and Ducks goalie has two of the top five defenseman in terms of plus-minus this season in Andrej Meszaros and Matt Carle. He also has Danny Briere scoring goals when needed. Even if he's in top form, if the Flyers can compete with Boucher, who couldn't they compete with?
The post-Lockout theory that just about anybody can win a series in net seems to be holding true in the 2010-11 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs. This series may not tell teams all they need to know, but as Neuvirth and Roloson move on, it could be bad news for Tomas Vokoun and Ilya Bryzgalovoutstanding regular season goaliesas they are expecting big money in the offseason. But why rely on the "hot goalie" when chances are that allocating cap space to top defensemen and scorers will get you into June?
Matthew Coller is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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