One of the most common goaltending cliches is, "It's not how many saves you make, it's when you make them." Colour commentators tell us this over and over again in their rush to credit goalies for wins or blame them for losses, and many hockey fans agree with them. Not every save is the same, they say. Saves that keep a team in the game or allow them to hold on to the lead are more important, and what happens when the game is already decided really doesn't matter so much.
Following that logic, a clutch goalie will make a higher percentage of saves when the score is close, giving their team a "chance to win". As such, we would expect them to have much better numbers in close games than in garbage time.
After the 2011 postseason, I don't think the people saying this kind of stuff really believe what they are saying. Either that or they simply don't recognize it when they see it. The reason for that claim is simply this: Strictly based on the above definition of clutch play (a goalie who performs better when the score is close than when it isn't), I doubt there are many goalies who have ever had more "clutch" numbers over the course of a single playoffs than Roberto Luongo in 2011. Yet, needless to say, Luongo didn't exactly get a whole lot of praise as someone who "made the key saves at the key times."
First, let's look at Luongo's stats at the series level:
Series tied: 7 wins, 1 loss, 0.97 GAA, .968 save %
VAN up 1: 6 wins, 4 losses, 2.56 GAA, .909 save %
VAN up 2+: 2 wins, 5 losses, 4.59 GAA, .868 save %
The Canucks never trailed in any series throughout the playoffs, and a big reason for that was their ridiculous goal prevention record when a series was tied. Luongo was particularly sharp in opening games, posting 3 shutouts in 4 tries.
On the other hand, when the Canucks went well out ahead of their opponents in the series they repeatedly suffered meltdowns. That's not particularly admirable, but the same logic that rates some saves are more key than others could be applied to rate some games as more important than others. And, if you do that, then any reasonable definition of those "key games" would have to include games where the series was tied, since a team that always wins when the series is tied could never be eliminated.
For the sake of comparison, here are Tim Thomas' numbers:
Series tied: 7-4, 1.39, .955
BOS up 1: 1-3, 3.11, .909
BOS up 2+: 2-0, 1.00, .967
BOS down 1: 4-2, 2.84, .921
BOS down 2+: 2-0, 1.50, .961
With the series tied or their teams up one game, Luongo's numbers were better than Thomas'. The main difference was that Thomas was great at closing out the Flyers series and he was also great in the two games where the Bruins faced 0-2 deficits.
Let's move on to the game level. Here are Luongo's numbers broken down by game score:
Lead by 5: 0 saves, 1 shot, .000 save %
Lead by 4: 0 saves, 1 shot, .000 save %
Lead by 3: 18 saves, 19 shots, .947 save %
Lead by 2: 56 saves, 60 shots, .933 save %
Lead by 1: 154 saves, 164 shots, .939 save %Tie game: 257 saves, 276 shots, .931 save %
Down by 1: 84 saves, 92 shots, .913 save %
Down by 2: 24 saves, 32 shots, .750 save %
Down by 3: 41 saves, 45 shots, .911 save %
Down by 4: 14 saves, 17 shots, .824 save %
Down by 5: 2 saves, 3 shots, .667 save %
Down by 6: 0 saves, 1 shot, .000 save %
What's obvious from that chart? If the game was close, Luongo made a high percentage of the saves. But if it was a blowout, then everything went in. Down by 2 or more goals, Luongo had an .827 save percentage on 98 shots, which is almost unbelievably bad. In garbage time, Luongo made very few saves at all - with either team leading by 4 or more goals, he stopped just 16 out of 23 shots for a mere .696 save percentage. If I was a member of Vancouver's coaching staff, I'd be somewhat concerned by that number and what it could indicate about Luongo's compete level. That said, if it is only "when you make the saves" that counts, then his performance in blowout games should be considered meaningless anyway.
Copper 'N Blue also tracked scoring chances for all of Vancouver's playoff games. Because it is possible for goals to be allowed on non-scoring chances (which Luongo did four times in the Nashville series and six times in the playoffs overall), I calculated scoring chance save percentage as (scoring chances against minus goals against) divided by scoring chances against.
Lead by 5: 2 chances, 1 goal, .500 save %
Lead by 4: 1 chance, 1 goal, .000 save %
Lead by 3: 5 chances, 1 goal, .800 save %
Lead by 2: 29 chances, 4 goals, .862 save %
Lead by 1: 76 chances, 10 goals, .868 save %
Tie game: 127 chances, 19 goals, .850 save %
Down by 1: 50 chances, 8 goals, .840 save %
Down by 2: 19 chances, 8 goals, .579 save %
Down by 3: 26 chances, 4 goals, .846 save %
Down by 4: 5 chances, 3 goals, .400 save %
Down by 5: 2 chances, 1 goal, .500 save %
Down by 6: 1 chance, 1 goal, .000 save %
The numbers are pretty similar, although Luongo's numbers with the lead come down slightly relative to his trailing numbers, likely because of score effects. With the Canucks leading, the opposition took 2.2 shots for every scoring chance recorded. When Vancouver trailed, the ratio dropped to 1.8. Still, the overall conclusion is the same: Luongo's problems were not with the game close or Vancouver in the lead, but rather with the Canucks trailing by more than one goal. And in blowout games he apparently wasn't even trying (7 goals against on 11 scoring chances with either team leading by 4 or more).
Not surprisingly, Vancouver did a lot better in close games than in blowouts. Excluding empty net goals, they were 12-4 in games decided by one goal, 2-0 in games decided by two goals, and 1-6 in games decided by three goals or more.
Having said all that, let's compare Luongo's save percentages by score to those of his Stanley Cup goaltending counterpart, Tim Thomas:
Score within 1 goal: Luongo .931, Thomas .940
Up by 2 or 3 goals: Luongo .937, Thomas .944
Down 2 or 3 goals: Luongo .844, Thomas .957
Luongo was knocked for his ability to hang on to leads, especially during the Nashville series after giving up a couple of late tying goals, but his numbers while leading actually weren't too far off what Thomas was putting up for Boston. With the score close, Thomas again had an edge but not nearly as much as one would think based on their overall numbers. By far the biggest difference in performance between the two goalies was that Luongo was blown out repeatedly and did far worse when his team fell behind by two goals or more.
Did Luongo's awful play in blowouts have much of an effect on Vancouver's win/loss record? Maybe, maybe not. It would certainly be possible to argue that the Canucks would have been unlikely to come back in those situations anyway, especially with how anemic their offence was at times during the playoffs. On the other hand, Boston came back twice from two goal deficits, once again Montreal and once against Tampa Bay. If Thomas hadn't made the saves in those situations, the Bruins would quite possibly have never have made it to the Finals.
To me, the implications of these numbers are pretty clear. On one hand, you can choose to cling to the "key saves at key times", "the only thing that matters is clutch play" logic and praise Roberto Luongo for elevating his game in key situations with the score close in last year's Stanley Cup playoffs. Alternately, you could consider that most of the game is a "key situation", realize that effort and desire don't correlate perfectly with success, and understand that most goalies have the mindset to keep the puck out of the net at all times. That would cause you to reject the "key saves" logic, and instead rate goalies based on their overall performance. In that case, you would be perfectly entitled to knock Luongo's playoff performance, particularly relative to that of Tim Thomas.
That's assuming people are being logically consistent, however. In reality, there isn't an awful lot of logic involved in either hockey fandom or hockey reportage. When most people say "clutch goaltending", they usually simply mean "good goaltending". If not that, then they mean "goaltending behind excellent teammates". Another tactic is to move the goalposts, narrowing the sample size to focus on a few particular games (e.g. game sevens or Stanley Cup Finals games) as the only ones that qualify for the "clutch" distinction. I disagree with that logic since a team that didn't win in the earlier rounds would not have made it to the Finals at all, and similarly without winning three out of the first six no team would still be alive to participate in a game seven.
I've been in the camp that focuses on overall performance all along, so I'm not defending Luongo here. I think that throughout the 2011 playoffs, factoring in both his good and his bad games, Luongo was pretty ordinary. I do think that his play was better in close games, and I'm quite confident that if there was a hockey metric similar to baseball's win probability added, Luongo would rate much better according to that than he would based on overall save percentage. Whether that is a significant observation depends on your perspective on clutch goalies.
At this point I think it's also impossible not to accept the theory that Luongo has a higher-than-normal propensity to melt down when things turn against him. I used to agree with Tyler Dellow that it was essentially media narratives driving the perception, but the repeated blowouts involving Luongo and the above save percentage splits by score make that position tough to hold. I would still argue that Luongo's overall career playoff performance is reasonable relative to his true talent level, but has he ever had some forgettable single game performances on the way.