One of the more popular memes from the last few months in sports has been the MVP talk centred around Peyton Manning, a quarterback who didn’t play a snap for his Indianapolis Colts this season, yet drew ironic praise based on how poorly the team played without him.
The Colts, a team that had won at least 10 of its 16 regular season games for every year since 2001, lost Manning complications resulting from neck surgery this season and won just twice, losing 13 straight to start the season.
Why I bring this up is that a similar feeling popped up Thursday night when the New York Rangers played the Chicago Blackhawks on Monday. Goaltender Martin Biron, relieving starter Henrik Lundqvist for just the 14th time on the season, allowed four goals in the first period and three in the first four minutes of play.
Granted, three of those goals were breakaways or partial breaks, and only one appeared to be of the leaky variety, those are the saves that Lundqvist has been making all season, hence why a few jokesters on Twitter were awarding Lundqvist the Vezina Trophy for the league’s best goaltender.
Statistically, Lundqvist has been nails this season. Last season’s Boston Bruins, backed by Tim Thomas in net for most nights, were still a passable NHL team on their way to the playoffs. They had a score-tied Fenwick rate of 50.4%, meaning that the play was more often in the opposing end than not, relieving some of the defensive burden from Thomas. While the Bruins were average in that department last season, Lundqvist has not had that sort of luxury in New York this season: the team is just a 49% score-tied Fenwick team, putting the burden on Henrik more often than not. And he has yet to falter.
Rob Vollman at Hockey Prospectus has developed a statistic to track game-by-game goaltending performance called “quality starts”. “Formally,” he wrote in this season’s annual, “a Quality Start (QS) is assigned under two conditions: when a goalie stops more than a league-average percentage of the shots (typically, that’s 91.2%) or when he allows two or fewer goals while stopping 88.5%”. Tim Thomas is highlighted as having earned a quality start in 72.7% of his starts last season, though I calculated it at 74.5%, the lone caveat being a 7-4 win against Pittsburgh in which he stopped 42 of 46 shots for a save percentage of slightly above .913 on the game.
To complement quality starts, my partner-in-crime (I bring him drinks and hot oil massages) Thomas Drance, a writer for Canucks Army and Pass it to Bulis (everybody in the Canucks blogosphere writes for at least one blog) once tracked “blow ups” (BU) as a game-to-game indicator of how often a goalie played poorly enough to almost guarantee his team won’t win—a BU is defined as a game where a goalie stops fewer than 85% of his shots or allows 5 or more goals on 39 or fewer shots.
Anyway, Tim Thomas only had four of those last season, giving him a BU% of 7.3%. Typically, a good goaltender will be between 10-12% in this regard. You’ll see where I’m going in a minute with this, but the important thing to consider is that Thomas played out of his mind last year, putting up arguably the best season statistically of any goaltender of all time, and won a Stanley Cup, Conn Smythe, Vezina, the whole works. He had an even strength save percentage of .947, leading the NHL.
Is it possible, however, that Henrik Lundqvist could put up better numbers this season?
Lundqvist, who plays a higher percentage of Boston starts (he’s already at 42 starts this season. Thomas topped off at 55 last year thanks to the fact that he has a very capable backup in Tuukka Rask). He leads the NHL in even strength save percentage among starters with .945, slightly lower than Thomas’ clip from last season, but his game-to-game stats may be a little better.
In 42 starts this season, Lundqvist has put up a quality start 32 times, for a 76.1% rate. As for games wherein he has allowed 5 or more, or has stopped fewer than 85% of his starts, there are none. Hank Lundqvist has a clean bill of health as far as blow ups are concerned, and this makes Lundqvist a very dangerous team.
Lundqvist’s .941 save percentage overall will probably regress a little. It’s not so much a good season so much as it is stupid good. Tim Thomas had the best season a goaltender could have a year ago and Lundqvist is matching him shot for shot. As far as stat-geeks are concerned, this will be a very interesting matchup down the stretch.
And, of course, Hank will be forced to start a few more. After a very rough outing by Martin Biron, (one which resulted in a BU being “credited” to the 34-year old journeyman ‘tendy) you have to wonder how many more starts, scarce already, Rangers coach John Tortorella will bestow unto Biron throughout the season. Another burden may be placed on Lundqvist’s back, but over the course of his career, he’s shown the ability to carry the load. Should he sustain his play through April, well, there’s truly something awesome there.