Goaltending Is Not The Canadiens' Problem

The difference between an elite goaltender and an outright bad one really isn't that huge. The best goalie in the league is probably going to give you .925, maybe .930 over the course of a season. The worst regular starter is probably going to sit around .900 or .905. That's two or three extra saves on every 100 shots. Over the course of time, like 82 games, that adds up to a lot of extra goals, but in one game or even a seven-game series, it may not be very much at all.

So while there was a huge amount of fretting about Carey Price getting knocked out for Game 2 through a theoretical Game 7 of this Eastern Conference final against the New York Rangers, the actual difference it would make over the course of the series is minimal and speculative, regardless of what the betting lines say.

This is counterintuitive to what is observed when you actually watch the sport. Goalies play the full 60 minutes, and when they make mistakes — or in the case of Henrik Lundqvist last night, stand on their heads — their performances are glaring. When they allow a nondescript three goals on 32 shots, no one really notices one way or the other.


With Price, a top-five goaltender, on the sidelines, it fell to 24-year-old Dustin Tokarski to save the Canadiens from falling behind 2-0 in the series despite playing both at home. He was perfectly all right. He stopped 25 of 27 at even strength, and allowed one of two with his team shorthanded. Two of those shots that beat him were unsaveable; Ryan McDonagh banked a point shot in off a defenseman's pants, and Martin St. Louis placed a one-timer power play bomb so perfectly that two Carey Prices couldn't have stopped it:


Maybe you say Tokarski should have gotten over to stop Rick Nash's goal, or that Price would have done so, but when a poorly defended odd-man rush gives a two-time 40-goal scorer a square mile of space to shoot, few goalies are going to be able to push off and make that stop with any kind of regularity.

At this point in the season, success or failure has so much to do with luck. The Rangers were close to getting eliminated by both the Flyers and Penguins, thanks in large part to their frequent inability to score goals for the first 14 games of this postseason (they only had 34, or 2.4 per game on average) despite the fact that they shot on Steve Mason, Ray Emery, and Marc-Andre Fleury in those series. Meanwhile, their own world-class goaltender — current Conn Smythe favorite Henrik Lundqvist — was stopping pretty much everything, allowing just 29 goals in that same span. In that regard, the Rangers have been terribly lucky to avoid actual good goaltending on a team level, and the feeling was that with Price between the pipes, things would continue to sour for them in attack.

Instead, Price played just 40 minutes in Game 1, gave up four goals on 20 shots, and now will not return for this round. Maybe this is 14 games' worth of tough shooting luck against bad goalies evening out for the Rangers, because you're not typically going to hold Price to an .800 save percentage over any meaningfullength of time. But hell, if previously snake-bit Rick Nash has two goals in six periods against your goaltenders (both were scored against Montreal's backups), you probably were due. So too, was Price, who was beaten by Boston for just 15 goals in seven games, but bailed out by the Bruins hitting the post another 13 times in that same series. He couldn't court disaster like that forever. Pucks were going to start going in.

Well, maybe. Again, how many times has even a mediocre goalie (think Michael Leighton) gotten "hot" and "stolen" a series? Lundqvist has stopped 60 of 63 in these two games, but it hasn't really mattered all that much because New York got up early in both cases and was content to choke the life out of the Habs. It's hard to ask even a world-class goaltender, let alone a Tokarski type, to top Lundqvist's .952 save percentage for this Conference Final.

The good news about this situation falling on the Canadiens, if there is any, is that Michel Therrien's choice of a replacement was easy. Tokarski has no NHL playoff experience, and has only been a decent but not really great AHL netminder for years now (career .910 in 194 games at that level). But he also backstopped his juggernaut Norfolk Admirals to an AHL title two seasons ago, posting a .944 playoff save percentage in the process. He won a Memorial Cup with Spokane when he played in the WHL (.940 for the whole playoffs), and was the starter for a World Junior gold medal winner for Canada in 2009 (a mere .906, but who's counting?). So you can forgive Therrien for saying Tokarski got the start in Game 2 for something as trite as "he's a winner," because judged on that criteria, he has indeed succeeded at every level and generally looked good doing it.

But Therrien also thought he didn't have a choice because Peter Budaj, the team's normal backup, isn't very good. He allowed three goals on eight shots in relief of Price in Game 1, and has a career .903 NHL save percentage. In the playoffs that number drops to an abysmal .843 in just seven appearances, a good 70 points below league average. His starting was therefore a non-starter.

And again, it wouldn't have mattered much. Not in this game and, based on the general closeness between stellar and awful goaltending, not in this series. Stats man Eric Tulsky calculated that after losing Game 1, the chances of the Habs dropping the whole series fell only about four percentage points with Budaj in net instead of Price. All things considered, Tokarski is more or less of the same quality as Budaj. The decline in the Canadiens' likelihood of winning the series was considerably smaller because of Price's injury than because they lost Game 1.

Therrien is now being cagey about who will start Game 3 in New York in two days' time, but he did praise Tokarski's performance in the dominating loss handed to them by the Rangers. Two of the three goals the Rangers scored were unstoppable, and the Canadiens only netted one themselves. In some alternate universe where Price was never injured and everything played out the same, the Habs are still down 2-0.

That's because Montreal's offense's inability to keep up with the Rangers' has been the difference so far. Tokarski or Budaj, or just about any NHL goaltender, is capable of getting just as hot as Lundqvist for any two-, four-, or 10-game stretch, and Lundqvist is likewise just as capable of being terrible over that same timespan. But it's a long way back for Montreal now, because teams that drop the first two at home almost always get eliminated eventually.

You can blame any number of things for these two losses; an inability by the Montreal defense to cope with the Rangers' speed and skill is probably chief among them. There's a pretty good chance, too, that the Habs used up all their luck (for lack of a better term) against the Bruins, and couldn't keep getting bossed around by better teams and still win. But Carey Price coming up with a bum knee is the one that will grab all the headlines even if, on a statistical basis, it's the least of Therrien's problems these days.

Ryan Lambert is a columnist for Puck Daddy, among other places. His email is here and his Twitter is here.