Playoffs are a funny thing. A couple of games have huge significance. Someone like Max Talbot can show up and score two big goals in a game 7 win and make a name for themselves in the hockey community, and someone who plays poorly can damage his reputation for decades to come (I was listening to the radio the other day as old-timer after old-timer called in, reminiscing about the 1971 Stanley Cup Finals and how it turned when Tony Esposito whiffed on a long shot from center ice).
Chris Osgood had a horrific regular season, and then followed it somewhat surprisingly with two excellent months in the playoffs. This disparity has led to many journalistic screeds about Osgood's clutch ability and his ability to "focus when the playoffs come around" and all kinds of similar thoughts, but having a terrific stretch in the middle of average or below average play is not nearly as unusual as people apparently think.
There is a long list of goalies who have played at Osgood's current level for two consecutive months at some point this season. Unfortunately for those guys, they weren't lucky enough to either make the playoffs, or, if they did play in the postseason, to time their hot streak to coincide with their playoff play (with a couple of exceptions, most notably Jonas Hiller).
Osgood finished the playoffs at .926. Given that the average save percentage usually rises in the playoffs, we can get an equivalent regular season amount by adjusting for the difference between a .915 postseason average and a .907 regular season average. Part of the first figure might be that playoff teams have better goalies on average, but I'm not really convinced of that this year.
Let's say .920 is an equivalent regular season rate. I also set 6 games played in each month as a minimum cutoff. This season there were 22 goalies that played 2 straight months at .920 or better. Fourteen of them had a better save rate over their best 2 months than Osgood has in the last 8 weeks.
The complete list is as follows, with the goalie's best 2 month save percentage in parentheses:
Yann Danis (.945)
Tomas Vokoun (.941)
Tim Thomas (.940)
Chris Mason (.940)
Craig Anderson (.938)
Steve Mason (.938)
Jonas Hiller (.936)
Pekka Rinne (.934)
Mike Smith (.932)
Martin Biron (.931)
Ryan Miller (.929)
Cristobal Huet (.929)
Niklas Backstrom (.928)
Roberto Luongo (.928)
Henrik Lundqvist (.925)
Nikolai Khabibulin (.923)
Scott Clemmensen (.923)
Carey Price (.923)
Evgeni Nabokov (.921)
Cam Ward (.920)
Ty Conklin (.920)
Miikka Kiprusoff (.920)
There were a number of others who were much worse in the rest of the season than they were in their two best months, a la Osgood. The best example is the leader of the pack here, the Islanders' Yann Danis.
Danis is a great example of the variance of goaltending. In 14 games over 2 straight months, he stopped 481 of 509 shots for a .945 save percentage. The rest of the season, he was at just .868. I suppose according to the cliches he must have been more mentally tough or he just really bore down or something in January and February than during the rest of the season. I think he probably just wasn't all that good and got hot and lucky for a bunch of games in a row. Fourteen games is two playoff rounds, so Danis could have become a legend if he happened to time that streak to begin with the start of the playoffs on a playoff team. Unfortunately for him he's probably a career minor-leaguer, but he'll always be able to look back fondly on that brief glorious stretch where nearly everything sent his way just seemed to hit him.
The hot streaks were all spread out, some had them right at the start of the season, some had them at the end of the season. I find it hard to believe that any of them were voluntary, or why wouldn't the goalie simply do the same thing the entire way?
All athletic performance is variable to some degree. Goaltending is based on angles and percentages, which makes it even more variable than other athletic endeavours. Hot and cold streaks happen to everybody and they can be quite extreme over short periods of time. Most of the starting goalies in the league had a 2 month stretch like Osgood has had in the playoffs. Osgood was the only one fortunate enough to have his hot streak come when the games started becoming meaningful and with the Detroit Red Wings playing in front of him.
In my view, if Osgood was unusually clutch we'd see more evidence of it in his past playoff career, but his results are decent but pretty close to average. If he is able to turn the switch off and on at will, then he must have curiously left it off for quite a few playoff seasons, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense. That leaves us to conclude that he either learned how to be "clutch" at some point in 2008, or he perhaps more likely just got hot at the right time.
Having said all that, Osgood has been unusually hot over the last two playoff seasons, especially at even-strength. Here are his even-strength save percentages compared to league average for the last two seasons, as well as during the preceding decade. Which one does not belong with the others?
Season: Osgood .913, League .916
Playoffs: Osgood .920, League .927
Season: Osgood .910, League .919
Playoffs: Osgood .948, League .927
If we assume that Osgood's actual skill level in the playoffs is .920, the probably that he plays at .948 over 853 shots, assuming an equal team context, is about 0.1%. In other words, extremely unlikely. Part of that is likely the team, though. I think everyone who watched the games would concede that Osgood got a lot of help from his team last season, but this year he has had to do more on his own.
If Osgood has somehow learned how to be a terrific even-strength goalie in his mid-thirties and only decides to play at that level in the playoffs, then he would certainly be a most unique case. To me that explanation seems both illogical and unlikely.
People seem to get all hot and bothered for some reason when they hear the word "lucky" used to describe the result of a game or an athlete's success, so I'll be charitable and won't go there, but let's just say that Osgood's run of strong play in 2009 was certainly well-timed. Streaks happen, most of the time they defy explanation, all you can do is hope they come at the right time and ride them as long as you can. Good for Ozzy, he was a big contributor to his team in the 2009 postseason, but that still doesn't mean the smart money is on him repeating the feat the next time around.