Bring up Tony Esposito with an older hockey fan, and they'll probably think of two things: a few games from the 1972 Series, and Esposito losing in the playoffs. Esposito has the stigma of being a playoff underachiever. But was this really true?
Tony Esposito played in 14 playoff seasons in his NHL career. Guess how many times his team lost in the playoffs to a team with fewer regular season points than his own?
The answer is once. Only one time, to the Montreal Canadiens in 1971, mainly because of the outstanding play of their rookie goaltender Ken Dryden. That was, however, the same year of the single most defining moment of Esposito's career, when he let in a shot by Jacques Lemaire from the red line in game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. That helped spark a Canadiens comeback and Chicago ended up losing the Cup.
So Esposito is remembered by many as a bad playoff goalie because he gave up a weak goal in game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals in the only time in his career that his team lost to a weaker playoff opponent. That hardly seems fair.
There is another major reason for his reputation, as well, and that is that he spent most of his career in an expansion and WHA-diluted NHL full of stacked dynasty teams. During Esposito's time in Chicago, there were several great teams - Orr's Bruins, Clarke's Flyers, Lafleur's Habs, Trottier's Islanders, and Gretzky's Oilers. In the playoffs against those teams combined, Chicago was 7-34 during Esposito's career. Against everyone else they went 49-31.
So the Blackhawks held serve against their equals or inferiors but got stomped by the giants. Esposito certainly had more than his share of run-ins with the elite teams as well. In 9 of his first 11 years in Chicago, Esposito's team lost in the playoffs to the best or second best regular season team. In one stretch, Esposito even went 4 playoff seasons without winning a single game. That's not particularly impressive, however a big reason for this was that his average team had just 75 points, and the average opponent racked up 116. Esposito's teams never scored more than 3 goals in a game over that stretch, and an amazing 10 out of 16 times they scored 1 goal or less, meaning that in over half the games Esposito played he needed a shutout to win.
Yet just playing against a stronger opponent isn't completely an excuse if a goalie played very poorly. How does Esposito's individual performance stack up? This is a more difficult question to answer, especially since we don't have official save percentages from those years. Looking at the overall numbers, his GAA went up in the playoffs compared to the regular season, from 2.92 to 3.07. However, I don't believe his playoff performance was actually any worse. Again, the primary reason for the discrepancy was the relative strength of his teams and opponents.
On teams that finished in the top 5 in the league, Esposito had playoff numbers of 36-25, 2.85. Nothing extraordinary, but that winning percentage is well above his career regular season average and his GAA is also lower. On teams that finished outside of the top 5, Esposito was just 9-28, 3.42.
In addition, when he under the biggest spotlight in his career during the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union, Esposito clearly outplayed his teammate Ken Dryden and was right on par with another Hall of Famer in Vladislav Tretiak (series save percentages found here). Sure it is a small sample, but it goes against the belief that Esposito simply folded his tent in the meaningful games.
I am not claiming that Esposito was a great playoff goaltender, simply that he was not a choker. There isn't much evidence that Esposito was a huge difference-maker in the postseason, but it would have been hard to be in his era. Most of the time he and his teammates simply ran up against a juggernaut in the playoffs and were dispatched in a short series. Perhaps a better goalie could have stolen an extra game here or there, but there seems to be little reason to believe that would have significantly altered Chicago's playoff outcomes, other than in 1971.
So if you want to fault Tony Esposito for letting in 20 goals in 7 games against a high-scoring team with 8 future Hall of Famers in 1971, then go ahead. But to claim that makes him a playoff choker is not supported by the evidence. Playoff team success is borderline irrelevant in evaluating goalies, because it depends on so many different factors. It is probably more fair to exclude it entirely, and Tony Esposito is a good example of why that is the case.