Saturday, May 1, 2010

Special Teams Variance

In the playoffs you never know how a team or a goalie is going to perform on special teams. Call it a streak, a slump, luck, randomness, variance, or whatever you want, guys run hot and cold and just because you're going one way in one series or even one game doesn't mean it will carry into the next.

Ask Jaroslav Halak. After stopping 50 out of 50 shots taken by the Washington Capitals' power play, the league's #1 ranked unit during the regular season, Halak made just 1 save on 5 shots while shorthanded against the Pittsburgh Penguins in game one of their Eastern Conference semifinal.

The range of even strength save percentages among goalies who have played in at least 4 games these playoffs is .878 to .967. If we drop off the outlier on the top end (Brian Boucher's .967) and the bottom end (Brian Elliott's .878), the range is just .894 to .944, which is not very far at all off of the range of results during the regular season (.896 to .937, counting only goalies who played in at least half of their team's games).

Contrast that with the results on the penalty kill so far. They range from Elliott's awful .667 to Halak's aforementioned 1.000. Halak wasn't even the only guy who has been flawless so far on the PK (Tuukka Rask stopped all 23 shots he faced while his team was down a man), and the next guy up from Elliott was Roberto Luongo at just .730. That means you can drop the top and bottom and still get a range of .270. The regular season range was .853 to .919.

We would expect more variance on the penalty kill just because of the sample size, but we should probably also expect an additional spread in results because of the team factors. Since all a team's games come against the same opponent in each round, a good PK unit up against a weak opposing power play should make life much easier on its goalie, and vice versa. Strength of opposition should therefore be more variable than it is during the regular season where the games are spread around against all levels of opposition, albeit with some divisional effects in play.

At even strength goalies face more shots, and they are likely to face shots from a larger group of players, given that teams will run 3 or 4 lines consistently at even strength and then shorten the bench on special teams. This probably helps reduce the randomness.

It's hard to rate goalies based on special teams play. Was Halak unbeatable in round one because he was terrific, or because the Habs power play was doing such a great job of coverage, or because the Washington shooters were just a bit off? Probably elements of all three. Similarly, did Roberto Luongo play poorly on the PK in round one, or was it more a case of his teammates being mediocre and the Kings playing great? Or is it all just one big roulette wheel of puck luck?

The point is that nobody knows what we will see in the next round. Don't bet on the hot hand, because he might already have gone cold, and if you have a skill guy who is shooting blanks (Alex Semin comes immediately to mind) then keep running him out there because pretty soon the tide is going to turn. The trick is for the team to stay alive in the interim, something that Semin's teammates weren't able to do. Only good teams win the Stanley Cup, but they still need to get some bounces and breaks along the way.

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