Every year in the playoffs the fickle hockey gods bestow their favor on at least one team. Last season, Jaroslav Halak became an unbeatable titan for the Habs for two rounds. In 2005-06, the Edmonton Oilers usurped more than one favorite on their way to the Cup Finals. Ditto Calgary in 2003-04. JS Giguere played the chosen one in 2002-03 For Anaheim before they fell to the Devils. And so on.
So far this year, it’s the Tampa Bay Lightning that have been sprinkled with pixie dust. Yzerman’s upstarts have rolled through two favorites, including a sweep of the Washington Capitals, en route to their unlikely third round berth…despite being largely outplayed.
No team was outshot more than Tampa in the first round. In fact, no team remaining in the playoffs has a worse shot differential than the Bolts (-8.8 per game). Tampa’s heavy hitters have been putting up points for sure…but they’ve also spent a ton of time in their own end of the rink. Steven Stamkos (-21 corsi/60), Vincent Lecavalier (-26.79 corsi/60) and Martin St. Louis (-27.91 corsi/60) have watched a lot of pucks bounce off of Roloson so far, and that’s despite some pretty favorable zone starts (all north of 50%). Actually, it’s not just the stars so far – only one semi-regular skater is in the black in terms of possession on Tampa Bay: Marc-Andre Bergeron. And that’s because he plays against nobodies has starts in the offensive zone nearly 75% of the time.
So how are they doing it?
It’s a couple of things, actually. A PP that is shooting lights out and a 41-year old goalie who is pulling a Halak (or Giguere. Or Kiprusoff. Or…).
Tampa’s power-play has scored a league high 12 goals in the post-season thus far, thanks to a 26.7% success rate (best amongst teams still standing). Tampa had a pretty good man advantage during the season, so their effectiveness isn’t grossly out of line. That said, their PP% is a couple of percentage points better than Vancouver’s during the regular season (24.3%) and they topped the league. It’s also a full 6.2% better than what Tampa themselves managed (20.5%).
Of course, the real secret to the Lightning’s success is Dwayne Roloson and his .941 SV%, the best amongst the regular ‘tenders. That number is made even more uncanny by the fact that his ES SV% is actually lower at .934 (still quite good, just not ridiculous). His save rate is pumped up by what he’s done on the PK thus far – three goals against in 75 shots for a SV% of .960 (!!). It goes without saying that that number is unsustainable in the long-run. To put it in further perspective, the highest PK save rate by anyone playing more than 20 games this year was .927 (ironically, by Mike Smith of the very same Lightning team). Most NHL starters short-handed save rate resides around the .850-.890 mark in the league. Probable Vezina winner Tim Thomas stopped 88.9% of shots short-handed this past season for example.
A great PP and a goalie stopping everything. Add in the unlikely emergence of Sean Bergenheim as a sniper (current SH% = 19.7. Regular season SH& = 7.7) and you have Tampa crumbling giants. Lightning in a bottle, as it were.
There’s a sense of karmic justice in Tampa living off of incredibly good goaltending now given the fact they suffered through some of the very worst puck-stopping by Dan Ellis and Mike Smith at the start of the season. That said, they’ve gotten by mostly on prayers and bounces so far and it’s probable their bubble will burst sooner rather than later.