Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Razor-Thin Edge of a Winning Reputation

If you ask hockey fans who is the best goalie in the league, you'll probably usually hear a handful of names listed before Cam Ward enters the conversation. But ask instead which goalie they would want if they were playing in game 7 of the Cup Finals, and don't be surprised if you'll hear Ward mentioned in the first 2 or 3 names.

Why is that? Simply because Cam Ward has a reputation as a winner. He won a Stanley Cup, he has a Conn Smythe, he's only lost one playoff series in his career. And if you get into an argument with a Hurricanes fan about their goaltender, it usually doesn't take long at all for them to break out Cam Ward's career record in game sevens: 4 wins, 0 losses.

That is an impressive statistic, to be sure, but like any win/loss record it is dependent on Ward's teammates and opponents. The reality is that Cam Ward was very, very close indeed to being 0-2 in his career in game sevens.

In his first career game 7, Ward allowed Jochen Hecht to bank in a shot from behind the net with 5 seconds left in the second period to give Buffalo a 2-1 lead. In the entire 2006 playoffs, teams leading after two periods were 60-9, but Ward's Carolina teammates scored three times in the third to bail out their goaltender and advance to the Cup Final, where the 'Canes again won in seven games.

In 2009, Carolina went to game seven in the first round against New Jersey, and again found themselves trailing in the third period. This time the outlook was even bleaker, with New Jersey leading 3-2 at home with less than 90 seconds remaining before Jussi Jokinen and Eric Staal combined to stun the Devils and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Excluding that game, teams were 59-2 in the 2009 playoffs when leading after two periods, which shows just how miraculous the 'Canes comeback was.

If not for two terrific comebacks, Cam Ward would be 0-2 in game sevens and nobody would have the impression that he was a particularly clutch goalie. That is not to say that Ward had no impact at all in those comebacks; clearly another goal or two against would have made much more difficult for his team to pull off the improbable. Nevertheless, it is an entirely reasonable counterfactual to suggest that with a bit less help Ward could easily have had not just no Cup and no Smythe, but not even a single game seven victory to his credit.

The game seven argument is also fairly meaningless because it represents such a small sample of Ward's career. Win/loss record aside, it is correct to say that Ward has performed well in game sevens (1.85 GAA and .932 save percentage), but we don't have to go very far to find examples of important games where Ward didn't manage to get the job done. Twice he has played the final game of the season in "win and you're in" situations, and both times he gave up four goals in a Hurricanes loss that eliminated them from playoff contention. Ward also gave up five goals in a world championship final loss on Canadian ice in Quebec City in 2008. These performances show that his performances in must-win games are far more variable than the "4-0 in game sevens" narrative implies.

Cam Ward is a very good goalie, and his recent performance has been trending solidly upward (.919 save percentage over the past three seasons). Is he unusually clutch in pressure situations? I think we still have to simply wait and see.


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I LOL'D!!!!

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

Please avoid excessive profanity and personal shots in the comments, please.

dejesus54 said...

Is Cam Ward truly be one of the top 2 or 3 names mentioned for a hypothetical Game 7? Totally agree with the rest of the post, just wasn't aware for various reasons (he plays in Carolina, his one Cup win was 5 years ago, he's Cam Ward) that others were actually overrating him on the level of an Osgood or a Brodeur.

Who else would be in most people's top 2 or 3, in your opinion-- not your rank, but the "conventional wisdom's" (now that Osgood is retired and Brodeur is pretty much too old and injured to overrate)? I would think Fleury trumps Ward in terms of widespread overratedness, though other than Tim Thomas, I can't really think of anyone else who would even have enough of a consensus to make a top two or three across enough different lists.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

You're right that there isn't a consensus of who would be the top 2-3 playoff goalies, just as there isn't really a consensus over the best X number of goalies overall. I didn't mean to imply that everybody would rate Ward that highly, just that there are some people (the casual fans who differentiate entirely between regular season and postseason play and rate goalies based on wins and Cups) who would put Ward a lot higher on a list of playoff goalies than they would for the regular season. And yes, the same people would very probably overrate Fleury as well.