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An exercise to flatten fluctuations in optimism: historical cases of below-average goalie performance, yet winning the Cup

Just finished watching ANA-DET and got caught up in thinking about two things that have been topics of discussion here and elsewhere recently. The first is goalie performance in the playoffs and the second (related) are factors that contribute to playoff success. (Also, I need a bump in optimism. If you are already optimistic, check out these sweet line graphs that illustrate "hotness" entering the playoffs. How can you not like them?)

I had said recently that I liked how this year's team was generating more pucks to the net (Fenwick For/60) than any other Sharks team with the exception of the team from 2010-2011. (Note: I think the behindthenet.ca statistics have been updated to reflect the final game since I wrote that fanpost). Plus, Niemi is playing ballsawesome.

As Snark points out (in the comments), goalie performance in the playoffs is volatile in small sample sizes and shouldn't be trusted on its own. Well, fair enough. A fanpost by holidaypark suggested the combination of Fenwick Close%, even strength SV%, and PP/PK% to think about predicting playoff performance. Though preliminary (and pretty high up the "grandness" scale of theorizing), it was helpful in thinking about the following scenario:

Suppose Niemi is below-average during these here playoffs in 2013. What would the Sharks need to look like as a team to compensate? If this first week consists (as it probably will) of me squirming in the fetal position on the couch mumbling cmoncmoncmoncmon because Niemi's SV% has fallen off the cliff, what possession and special team numbers can I find to self-medicate make myself feel better?

Here's an outline of the steps I took to answer this question:

(1) Determine what historical cases exist of goalies playing below average in the playoffs, but their teams still finding high levels of success. (2) Determine what these teams' possession and power play numbers were and eyeball compare them to the Sharks regular season sample of 2012-2013. (3) If differences seem great, freak out. If differences seem reachable, freak out less. (I thought of making a decision tree for this, but it seemed superfluous.)

So, I dragged out data from the past 5 years from NHL.com on goalie playoff performance. There were 122 player-years total, covering 872 total game starts (thus 436 playoff games in the 5 year sample). I summed the total shots and saves and divided to get an average SV%. This--it is true--covers all time on ice, regardless of score or man-advantage. Goalies in this 5 year playoff sample stopped 91.5% of all shots on goal in all situations.

Now, of the Cup-Winning teams, did any of the primary goalies have a SV% of less than 91.5%? For the last two years, we have Jonathan Quick at 94.6% and Tim Thomas at 94.0%. Those two won 16 games on their own. The next two were exactly what I was looking for. Antti Niemi at 91.0% and Marc-Andre Fleury at 90.8%. Both also won 16 games on their own. Lastly, Chris Osgood was at 93.0% and won 14 games en route to the 2008 Cup.

Goalie SV%
Quick 94.6
Thomas 94.0
Niemi 91.0
Fleury 90.8
Osgood 93.0

Table 1. SV% for last five primary goalies for Cup-winning teams.

Step one done. Step two. I looked at the playoff possession and power play statistics (since penalty kill statistics rely on the goalie to some degree, I set them aside for the moment). I plucked behindthenet.ca stats on Chicago 2009-2010 (22 games) and Pittsburgh 2008-2009 (24 games).

For simplicity, I'm presenting data for these teams (1) in Close 5v5 situations, in terms of Fenwick%, goals for and against, and shots for and against, to get a sense of how they are performing during tight moments in the playoffs where there's no room and you still need to possess the puck, and then (2) in 5v4 situations, looking at goal and shot generation.

Close 5v5 FEN% GF/60 GA/60 SF/60 SA/60 5v4 GF/60 SF/60
CHI 09-10 PLOF 55.44 3.13 2.11 32.00 25.19 7.40 48.30
PIT 08-09 PLOF 52.40 3.06 2.55 30.26 25.42 7.70 53.30
SJS 12-13 REG 52.41 2.48 2.02 28.29 26.47 6.60 58.10

Table 2. Comparing puck numbers between two Cup-winning teams with below-average performing goalies and one current playoff team that might have a below-average performing goalie.

Eyeball test discloses the following points:

1) These two Cup-winning teams are scoring at lot of goals (>3 GF/60) in 5v5 Close play. Like more goals/60 than the best goal-generating Sharks team in comparable situations in the past 5 years (Sharks 2009-2010, 2.91 GF/60).

2) Related to 1), these two teams also generated more shots on goal/60, though the Sharks team Fenwick is almost identical to the Penguins 2009 Cup team. (On a total nerd note: the difference between 55.4% and 52.4% in Fenwick% looks like about three more Fenwick For events and two less Fenwick against. There is some preliminary stuff here, but this needs more attention to understand more precisely what's going on.)

3) The power play was running at a higher success rate for the Cup teams than the Sharks, though the Sharks were getting more pucks at the net.

This means that if Niemi has a below-average run (that is, a drop from his season SV% of 92.4% in all situations to a SV% < 91.5%) the team may not be out of luck. If the Sharks can continue to possess the puck, they just need to convert a little more often in Close 5v5 and on the power play. Consider this statistic: the Sharks SH% in 5v5 play this season was 6.68%. If we get a SV% of 91.5 and a PDO of 1000, this would actually entail a SH% improvement. I point this out to argue that this is not beyond the variation we might see for teams that can possess the puck in the 48-game stretch we have just completed. In short, to compensate for a lower SV%, we need a bump in SH%. Without it, a deep playoff run is unsustainable. Fortunately, such a bump is definitely reachable, and should not be entirely unexpected.

Ahh. I feel better now.

[Final FYI: feel free to interpret this entire post as a Niemi reverse-jinx.]

This item was created by a member of this blog's community and is not necessarily endorsed by Fear The Fin.

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