We have all heard the sarcastic sentiment before, and probably said it ourselves from time to time. Any time a time a backup goaltender is brought out to face the Rangers, it’s “time to make him look like a Vezina Winner.” Or just in general, people question why the Rangers make “every backup look like Dominik Hasek.”
With Carey Price stunningly out for the rest of the series, it will be up to backup goaltenders Peter Budaj and Dustin Tokarski – whomever Habs’ Head Coach Michel Therrien chooses to roll with – manning the net for the Canadiens. While it would be a stretch to put Price on par with Lundqvist, it would not be a stretch to call him equally important to his team. Price, like Lundqvist, is the team’s best player and “Reason Number One” why the Habs have made it this far. Budaj and Tokarski both have their strengths, but there’s no mitigating how severe the drop-off in talent there is in goal, no matter whom the Habs go with the rest of the way.
The one point of caution that surely is going to be thrown around is that the Rangers, as previously referred to, “make backup goaltenders look like Vezina Winners/Hasek/God.” Is this actually something that is factual, or is it just something tossed around by an inherently cynical fanbase?
I decided to do the math to see how true it actually is; at least for this season. I’ll present the numbers below, but first let me list some qualifiers on the data, as a good scientist always should.
- I counted regular season games from December until the end of the regular season. I have no idea if October or November would have helped or hurt the numbers, but the Rangers were such a trainwreck overall, they were still figuring out Vigneault’s system, and one-third the roster would be elsewhere eventually. I didn’t feel it would mean much, one way or another, in terms of seeing how this current group of Rangers performs.
- I determined a “backup goaltender” to be any goaltender who, assuming everyone on the roster at the time was healthy, would not be considered the team’s starter. For instance, Darcy Keumpfer might have been the Wild’s “starter” in March, but only because Backstrom and Harding were injured. So I counted him as a backup. Contrastingly, even though Eddie Lack was not the Canucks’ full-time starter the entire season, he was the best goaltender the team had on the roster when the Rangers faced him in March after the Luongo trade. So he counted as a starter.
- I threw out two games against the Hurricanes because their goaltending situation was such a mess this season that no starter was ever truly established.
With that, here are the numbers. Here is how the New York Rangers performed against non-starting goaltender from December until the end of the regular season.
20 Games Played, 3.15 Goals Against Average, .905 Save Percentage
To put that in context, here are season totals for a handful of backup goaltenders around the NHL this season.
Ray Emery: 28 Games Played, 2.96 Goals Against Average, .903 Save Percentage
Peter Budaj: 24 Games Played 2.51 Goals Against Average, .905 Save Percentage
Al Montoya: 28 GP, 2.30 Goals Against Average, .920 Save Percentage
Kevin Poulin: 28 Games Played, 3.29 Goals Against Average, .891 Save Percentage
Anders Lindback: 23 Games Played, 2.90 Goals Against Average, .891 Save Percentage
Essentially, the Rangers did about as well as one should reasonably expect against backups this season. Maybe the data is different when looking at other seasons, but it’s probably a good guess that, long-term, the Rangers’ numbers against backups are similarly acceptable.
So where does the myth of the Rangers underperforming against backups come from? In part, it’s probably a mix of observation bias and cynicism. Rangers fans like to be cynical. Rangers fans also watch the Rangers far more than any other team. So when the Anaheim Ducks look terrible against Dan Ellis it’s not going to reach many people in New York. But when the Rangers get stifled by Carter Hutton and Karri Ramo in back-to-back games? That’s going to become a popular topic of conversation.
There’s also the tremendous influence of flashbulb memory. For instance, very few people can remember what they were doing at 10 am Eastern Time on February 14th, 2000. However, majority of Americans can remember, often in vivid detail, where they were and what they were doing at 10 am Eastern Time on September 11th, 2001. The reason why, obviously, is that for 99 percent of America nothing of importance was happening on February 14th, 2000, whereas one of the most significant events of their lifetimes occurred around 10 am on September 11th. Psychologically, our memory functions in a way that memories surrounding notable, unique, and/or significant events stand out and are more vivid.
Now, transfer the concept of flashbulb memory to hockey. That time that the Rangers score 3 goals on 32 shots against Karri Ramo, in what was a productive but unspectacular game, is never going to stand the test of time. It’s a nice job by the Rangers, but it’s ultimately a mundane event over the course of a long season. That time, however, when Philipp Grubauer made 30 saves on 31 shots in his first NHL start? That’s going to stick out in people’s memories. Because it’s a memorable case of an underwhelming performance. Three years from now when people talk about backup goaltenders I doubt anyone will think of a perfectly good but otherwise indistinct performance against Karri Ramo. The few times a Grubauer or other backup looked like a Vezina candidate, however? That’s more memorable, even if it’s not defining.
As far Budaj and/or Tokarski, who knows what will happen the rest of the series. If the Philadelphia Flyers can ride Michael Leighton, a career minor leaguer, into the Stanley Cup Finals, then surely Budaj, a veteran who won’t be rattled easily, or Tokarski, a previously valued goaltending prospect in the Lightning system who already has minor success at the NHL level, could pull off four wins in the next six games. Still, you have to like the Rangers’ chances. If the Canadiens do succeed, though, then it should not be written up as some sort of voodoo jinx involving the Rangers and backup goaltenders.
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