Sharks Gameday: Western Conference Goaltending



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Every postseason it seems as if a goaltender manages to carry his team through a series, elevating his game to Dominek Hasek esque levels of brilliance. From Craig Anderson and Jaroslav Halak in 2010 to Jonas Hiller in 2009 to Dwayne Roloson in 2006 and San Jose's own Evgeni Nabokov in 2004, the list gets longer with each passing year.

Some state that goaltending is the toughest position in all of sports, due to the inherent nature of the position. It's a fickle game of inches and milliseconds, where one tiny mistake that puts a goaltender off their angle by the slightest degree can determine a period, a game, a series, a season, and a career. Goaltenders are relentlessly worshipped like deities when they play well, gifts of frankincense and myrrh humbly bestowed at their feet...and yet, on the very next day, become publicly castrated when things go wrong.

There is no doubt that it is the most unfairly maligned, and overly praised, position in all of sports.

The reason I touch upon goaltending today is for a pair of reasons-- for starters, Antti Niemi's run over the 2011 calendar year (and even before then) has been a magnificent one, putting him on pace to be a huge contributor for the Sharks down the stretch as well as the postseason. Niemi has been just about the sole reason for the Sharks turnaround since their six game losing streak, an assertion that is supported heavily by the numbers behind it all. In 2010 he was a huge part of Chicago's Western Conference Finals win over San Jose-- this year, he'll attempt to do the same thing on the other side of the aisle.

The second reason goaltending serves some importance today is the fact that Nashville's Pekka Rinne has stymied the Sharks all season long, and without Patrick Marleau's goal in overtime last night, might as well done it again. Coupled with the fact that Vancouver, who boasts a tandem of Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider that, is on the docket tonight, it only makes sense to highlight some netminders in the Western Conference that have the potential to do what so many others have done in seasons past.

Carry their team to a playoff win without getting much help.

Even save strength percentage is a statistic that can tell us a lot about a goaltender's ability for a variety of reasons. For starters, shorthanded save percentage is something that varies widely year by year-- there's very few (if any) goaltenders who are able to consistently put up staggering numbers in this situation. Secondly, at 5 on 5, the amount of scoring chances relatives to shots against tend to balance out. Some teams are obviously more dangerous than others when pushing the play in the offensive zone, but for the most part, you have a much more consistent body of data to analyze.

Coupled with the fact that a team who goes shorthanded more than another puts his goalie at a disadvantage long-term. A shot against when killing a penalty is more dangerous than a shot against at even strength, which regular SV% does not take into account-- for example, if a goalie faced 100 shots at even strength and another faced 100 shots on the penalty kill we would expect the even strength goaltender to have better numbers.

All that being said, here are the goaltenders in the Western Conference who have produced EV SV%'s over .930 this season:

Western Conference EV SV% Leaders 2010-2011

Niklas Backstrom
MIN 41
Jonas Hiller
ANA 48
Kari Lehtonen
DAL 53
Pekka Rinne
NSH 50
Roberto Luongo
VAN 51 1230 86 1114 .930

This is by no means an exclusive list of goaltenders worth their weight in oversized pads-- Antti Niemi falls just short of the mark with a .929 SV%, and considering his immense struggles in the first two months of the season, the fact that he has reached this mark is a huge testament to his progress to date. Furthermore, Ilya Bryzgalov (.926) and Jonathan Quick (.925) don't crack the top of this list, but are worthy goaltenders in their own right and have the potential to steal a series.

The point isn't so much which goaltender is able to steal a series-- that exists in every single playoff series ever played. In a time frame of six games anyone can catch a hot streak and see the play develop seconds ahead of time. It's what makes the postseason so riveting. But if you're looking for sustained success over the course of a season in order to highlight your "better bets" as to who is more likely to steal a series, this top five list has some notable names.

I've said it once

Kari Lehtonen has always struggled with injuries but is a formidable talent when he's healthy-- his even strength save percentage this season speaks volumes, and his play in the beginning of the season showcased just what he is capable of. Lehtonen may fly under the radar (and a lot of that is due to his injury history), but make no mistake about it, he's a top-flight goaltender who can steal some playoff games.

>> "Pacific Profiles: A Look at the Dallas Stars"

so I'll say it again-- Lehtonen is an extremely dangerous goaltender, and with a Stars team that has given San Jose a lot of trouble this season, that's a playoff matchup that could pose some issues for San Jose.

Jonas Hiller goes without saying, and it will be interesting to see if he can come back from his vertigo symptoms with enough time this season to propel the Ducks into the postseason. The Sharks match up well against the Ducks however, and the roster is vastly different than the one from 2009. The same can be said for Niklas Backstrom to some degree-- he's an excellent goaltender that can win some games on his own, but considering the roster in front of him, the ability to steal a series outright is made a lot more difficult. The Wild are a fringe playoff team right now, and although they have some game changers in Backstrom, Burns, and the perpetually underrated Koivu, the roster will struggle with their lack of depth in the postseason. Nashville is a tough team to play against even if they lack scoring-- Rinne's ability has been seen firsthand by the Sharks this season, and coupled with the blueline in front of him as well as a Head Coach that always manages to extract every last drop of talent from his roster, they're a team that could play the upset card this season.

Which brings us to Roberto Luongo. A lot has been made about his playoff inadequacies (specifically against Chicago), and that has tainted his legacy in the public eye. The postseason is where careers and reputations are made, a fact that continues to keep the superb Tomas Vokoun under the radar.. And while Luongo hasn't achieved that level of social status quite yet, there's a lot here that indicates to me this postseason is going to be a hell of a ride for Big Lu.

For starters, there's no doubt Vancouver is the deepest team from front to back in the Western Conference, if not the entire NHL. Their forward group is stellar and strong down the middle, their blueline has an impact player on every pairing (when healthy, and they're expected to be nearly 100% by the time the postseason comes around). Furthermore, the Canucks finally have a backup goaltender they are comfortable with. Cory Schneider has had a very good season thus far with Vancouver, posting a .927 EV SV%, which removes some of the pressure off of Roberto Luongo. He's still the man, but he doesn't necessarily have to be THE MAN if Vancouver is to win the Stanley Cup. Along with the fact that Henrik Sedin is now serving as team Captain (Luongo held the job for the past two seasons), there's a little less pressure on Luongo to perform.

Cory Schneider gets the start tonight for the Nucks'. Niemi likely gets tapped for the Sharks. Although it may not be the showdown between the pipes both fanbases are hoping to see this season, tonight's game against Vancouver is a huge one for both organizations. The last two games between these clubs have been electric affairs. Tonight has shown no signs of being any different.

Kick the tires and light the fires big daddy. Let's get this one underway.

Prediction: Hockey happens. <3's and shit.