How Goaltending Is Impacting The Eastern Conference Final

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One player. The randomness of one individual performing above expectations or below expectations is all it takes to turn a small sample playoff series on its head, and one of the reasons the Stanley Cup playoffs are always entertaining.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have out-played the Tampa Bay Lightning pretty thoroughly through five games. Possession numbers, shot clock, and expected goal differentials are all lopsided in favor of the Penguins. The stats where the Penguins trail the Lightning in the series are two of the most important ones: Wins and goals scored. At this point in the series, the better team is trailing because the importance of one specific position: Goaltending.

Regular season heroics are always overshadowed by post season success. This occurs because of the importance we place on the Stanley Cup. It’s why Joe Thornton and Alexander Ovechkin don’t get the full respect they deserve. It’s also why fans confuse what is and isn’t great goaltending, which is an important element in a tournament run. It can upset the balance of things when the difference is lopsided at this position.

The importance of the superstar goaltender has decreased over time. The teams who provide the most insulated environment for their goaltender can gain the ultimate success, as long as their goaltender provides average production.

The Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009 with this formula and when I observed how they were dominating territorial play through the first three games of the series, I figured that they were in a very good position to defeat the Lightning. I assumed that it would take extraordinary goaltending from a returning Ben Bishop or Andrei Vasilevskiy in order for them to lose. There was one flaw in this assumption, it was based on the expectation that Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury could deliver an average performance. This hasn’t happened and it has the Penguins one loss away from ending their 2015-16 campaign.

Continually, the Penguins produce more high-quality offensive chances than the Lightning, yet their efforts are being thwarted in their own zone.

Lightning Vasilevskiy Boyle

Through five games, the Penguins have 36 combined shots with pre-shot movement, which is 12 more than the Lightning. Both teams are managing to limit the opposition’s goaltenders clear sight to only 81% of all shots faced. This proves to be a huge advantage for Pittsburgh when we consider that they have 63 more shots (not counting phantom shots in totals).

This was one of the concerns I had with Murray after the first two rounds. A strong defensive environment is essential to a goaltender struggling with the speed of play and this was a concern because the Lightning are a team that continually moves the puck laterally with speed, the most difficult scenario for a goaltender to have success against.

Through the first two rounds of the playoffs, Murray was facing 89% of his shots with clear sight. These shots allowed him to gather information and formulate an attack plan. To put that in perspective, the Penguins have faced 126 shots through five games, that 8% differential would result in 10 more difficult shots versus the distribution he faced against the Rangers and Capitals.

Pittsburgh’s struggles in goal are exacerbated by the emergence of Vasilevskiy for Tampa Bay. Last season in the Finals, he reminded me of Murray – a netminder not quite ready for the pace of NHL play at the highest level. But, the 2016 Playoffs have been a different story. Vasilevskiy has continually delivered saves on high probability shots and limited the amount of goals on those that are low probability. He has been above average in every aspect with a .960 clear sight save percentage and has consistently thwarted the Penguins slot line efforts with a .769 save percentage.

The Penguins are now in a position where they simply need to peg which goaltender won’t cost them Game 6. It is a tough choice to make. Murray, while effective in his overall sample of the playoffs, hasn’t been able to keep up with the pace of play against the Lightning. Fleury, whose regular season results indicate a goaltender that is fully capable of delivering the average goaltending required, evoked memories on Sunday night of his nightmarish playoff resume since winning the cup in 2009.

It’s a tough choice and it’s easily justifiable on both sides. This coin flip around one player will likely decide the Penguins season.