Has Florida Panthers' success in 2015-16 been a result of above-average goalie performances?

Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya have been terrific this season, and the Cats have reaped the rewards in the standings - but have the two goaltenders carried the team?

Roberto Luongo used to take long walks along Vancouver's waterfront to reflect before games. Ron Hextall developed a curve in the handle of goalie sticks so that he could launch pucks farther in his attempt to score a goal (it worked). Gerry Cheevers used to draw stitches on his mask wherever a puck hit it (by the end of his career it was covered). Billy Smith used to hack opposing players who tried to set up in front of his crease across the back of his legs with his stick ("hack" does not begin to describe the velocity of the swing and strike). Ken Dryden took a season off from tending goal for the Montreal Canadiens to do a law school internship. He also wrote several books (all excellent reads by the way) which include this excerpt about playing goalie:

I feel nothing, I hear nothing, my eyes watch the puck, my body moves—like a goalie moves, like I move; I don’t tell it to move or how to move or where, I don’t know it’s moving, I don’t feel it move—yet it moves. And when my eyes watch the puck, I see things I don’t know I’m seeing. I see Larson and Nedomansky as they come on the ice, I see them away from the puck unthreatening and uninvolved. I see something in the way a shooter holds his stick, in the way his body angles and turns, in the way he’s being checked, in what he’s done before that tells me what he’ll do—and my body moves. I let it move. I trust it and the unconscious mind that moves it.

Yes, my friends, these guys who play this position, they are different than you and I. You have to be more than a little "off" to throw yourself in the way of a hard rubber disc flying at you (whether you see it or not) at possibly 100 miles-per-hour or more. And that does not even account for the number of times they are struck in that plastic mask they protect the noggin with. Goalies are different: as in "weird," and somewhat unexplainable. They are difficult to predict, take long periods of time to develop, and drafting and scouting them is more or less voodoo magic. Read virtually any NHL history book and the author is likely to indicate that the team's goalie was strange and left to his own mental games by teammates who had little understanding of them, and/or did not want to knock them off their odd routine. The NHL has marketed this concept for years, including in one of my all-time favorites:

I do not expect the Florida Panthers tandem of Luongo or Al Montoya to attempt any bank heists in the future, (I don't know Mike McKenna well enough to say...I joke, I joke!). The job they have been doing this season- which has been nothing short of fantastic, has led many to claim that the Cats are simply riding hot goalies to the top of the standings until the hot-streak fades. That may have some truth behind it. Portions of Florida's historic win streak this season were the result of the goaltending, no, "if, and, or buts" about it. There is also no question that the system Gerard Gallant and his staff put in place to correct some early season issues helped the Cats goalies play as well as they did. That quality shot suppression system was used very effectively during the winning streak, but less so during the subsequent (and on-going) four-game losing streak.

While there is certainly some magic to goaltenders and their streaks, it is not necessarily all voodoo. The Panthers poor start to the season was not the goalies fault, but during November, if one only looked at the goalies, they could have easily assumed so. Back on November 23rd, we looked at the Panthers at the quarter mark of the season, and had this to say about our goaltending duo:

Both Panther goaltenders, despite the recent downturn, have goals-against-average in the low two range, and save percentages above .920. The team is 9th best in the NHL in save percentage, with a .918 combined.

Thus, it appeared at the quarter mark that the goalie play was a high mark for the team, and it was. Nonetheless, during the month of November, the Panthers goalies posted the following game-by-game save-percentages (also from November 23rd):

The team hit the quarter turn still in the hunt despite goaltending in the month of November that posted save percentages as follows (from 11/4 to 11/21): .839, .950, 1.00, .857, .842, .893, .886, .871, and .949.

Six games of sub .900 save percentages? That would tell the opposite story. But suddenly, during the 12-game win streak that followed, the goaltending was above-average, which we noted in this January 15th piece regarding "the streak:"

The Cats did boast the league's top save percentage after the Vancouver game, with a .928 shared between Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya. That high save percentage leads to an above average PDO (102.6), good for 2nd best in the league.

In the last four games, all losses, the Panthers goalies have posted the following save percentages: .938 (Vancouver), .733 and .905 (Calgary), .935 (Tampa Bay), and .833 (Edmonton). Three games of poor goalie play suggests that the team's goaltenders have slipped. But it's not as easy to diagnose as the numbers suggest. The Panthers have not been nearly as good during this stretch at protecting their house. Against Edmonton at home, the Cats allowed 12 shots attempts by the Oilers from the house (6 of which had to be saved and 2 of which became goals-against). Against the Lightning, Tampa Bay owned Florida's defensive house. Calgary scored 6 goals against the Panthers all from within the Cats' house. Against Vancouver, the Panthers allowed 18 shots from inside their house, 9 of which turned into saves.

So what exactly are we looking at here? Something of a rollercoaster, eh? It's not altogether that complicated though. The Panthers goalie play has been excellent. When the team prevents opponents from shot attempts from high-percentage areas of the ice, the goalie play moves to above average, and when they fail at that, the goalie play ping-pongs around from below average to good. This is not something that the Panthers have a patent on, however.

Consider this fact:

It's no surprise that Montreal tanked after Carey Price was injured. Price carried the Canadiens to the playoffs last season with a 1.96 GAA and .933 SV% while facing an average of 29.59 shots-against per game (and Montreal averaged 30.1 shots-against as a team last season- 21st in the league). Despite the large number of shots they gave up, Montreal had the league's best save-percentage, with a .926. Without Price the team slipped this season to 22nd in the league in save-percentage with a .907, despite moving up to 4th in the league with only 27.7 shots-against per game. Goalie play was carrying Les Habitants.

It is also no surprise that Chicago has rolled off a 12-game win streak, as Corey Crawford has been stellar. The Blackhawks now boast the league's top save percentage, despite being 21st in the league in shots-against-per game (30.4 shots-against-per-game). Crawford sports a .931 SV% and 2.14 GAA. Over his last 5 games, all wins, he has posted SV % of .974, .931, .975, .953, and .919. In those 5 games, he faced enormous numbers of shots: 39, 29, 40, 43, and 37.

I would be remiss if I did not point out at this point that while the Blackhawks gave up 39 shots against to Nashville in their 4-1 domination of the Predators, and Crawford posted a .974 save percentage in that game, only 12 shots-against were in the Hawks house, and only 8 required Crawford to make saves. Only 2 of those 8 shots were from 10' or closer. Shot location important? But I digress.....

Just as it always has, great goalie play drives teams to the top. Washington is in 1st place in the East, yet they are 11th in the league in shots-against-per game (28.9). Braden Holtby has been outstanding. The Caps have the league's best goals-against-per game (2.15) and are tied with the Blackhawks for the top save percentage with a .926. Just how good has Holtby been?

Over his last 5 games, Holtby does not look nearly as good as the season numbers suggest. His SV %'s over those 5 games are: .914, .909, .813, .967, and .885. He has faced shot totals of: 35, 22, 16, 30, and 26- not too bad, other than January 19th against Columbus. Looking at the Columbus game, the Jackets fired an incredible 24 shot attempts from Washington's house. Holtby had to save 10 of those, and another 2 became goals against from that area of the ice. Washington blocked a ton of shots in the house. Against the Rangers on January 17th, the Rangers attempted 17 shots from Washington's house, but Holtby only had to make 4 saves in that area, and gave up 2 goals as well. On January 16th, the Caps lost to the Sabres and Holtby posted a .813 SV% on 16 shots against. The Sabres only attempted 10 shots in Washington's house, and Holtby only had to make 3 saves from that area. Over his last 5 games the Caps outstanding goalie has been less than outstanding, and is being bailed out in the wins and losses department by a team in front of him that leads the league in goals-for per game (3.33).

Tampa Bay has been hot of late, but over his last 5 games, their goalie, Ben Bishop, has been up and down. He has posted save percentage's of .875, .913, .923 1.0, and .963 (against the Panthers- as luck would have it). But he only faced 24, 23, 26, 21, and 27 shots-against in those games (with the Cats throwing the largest number of shots against him with 27). On the season, Bishop has been outstanding, with a 1.97 GAA and .927 SV%.

Clearly, there is a relationship between how well a team plays and how a goalie performs across a broad spectrum of categories. Holtby has been bailed out in the win-loss column by a team that scores more goals than any team in the NHL. Jonathan Quick sees a fewer number of shots against than many other goalies in the league, which helps him excel. Henrik Lundqvist has had a more difficult time carrying the Rangers this season while facing large numbers of shots in his last 5 games (21, 33, 31, 36, 20). Tuukka Rask has faced 40, 30, 21, 36, and 20 shots-against over his last 5 games.

Parity in the NHL has likely amplified the role luck has in success. Put another way, as the league's talent has evened out, and coaches play more system-oriented hockey, it has gotten harder to separate from the pack, and harder to score goals. Wins and losses are ever more the result of lucky bounces, and timely mistakes. But looking at the league's top teams now, they all sport top quality goalies. There is no question that some luck, and an extra dash or two of skill at this most important position drives many teams.

The comparison of game-by-game save percentages to shots-faced and shot location charts are telling the story that goalies are benefitting most prominently from well-played shot suppression. It's no surprise that Crawford got a one-goal-against win against Nashville despite facing 39 shots-against when only 12 of those shots were from high-probability areas of the ice and he had to make saves on only 8 of those.

What does all of this tell us about the Panthers? First and foremost, the critique that the Panthers were relying too much on above-normal goalie play by Lu and Montoya is only partially true (but does have merit). The November vs. December stretches of games show that the Cats goalies had a rough November while the team played poorly in front of them, but put up big numbers as the team tightened up the defense in the slot. The more recent 4-game losing streak, and the corresponding poor save percentages match up perfectly with a period of games where the Panthers were dominated in high-percentage scoring areas of the ice. Second, the Panthers are not altogether different from most other teams in the league in the sense that "hot" goaltending can carry the team through winning streaks.

Florida, Detroit, Chicago, Washington, Tampa, the New York Rangers, Dallas, and Minnesota, have all ridden hot goaltending play at various time this season to wins. The important difference with respect to some of these teams (such as Washington, Dallas, New York and Chicago) is that they score more than the Panthers do, which can bail poor goaltending stretches out of poor win-loss results.

Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya are playing very well.They have given the team a chance to win on most nights since December began, and have stolen wins on many of those nights. But the team in front of them has increased their effectiveness as well, and they need to get back to that tight defensive play if they are going to break out of this current mini-slump. The recent loss to Edmonton showcased what just a few bad turnovers and defensive mistakes can do. The Panthers can amplify their goalies outstanding ability by returning to smart, well-played defense. Aside from that, we can always count on goalies being just a bit "different." To again quote former goalie Ken Dryden:

For there is a life there, and in destiny and romance there is no room for life. Painted as they are with broad brush strokes, vivid and lush, they find shape and pattern only with distance. The person who lives them is too close. He feels sweat as well as triumph. He understands what others see, but feels none of it himself