This would have been a good time for a save. (Bruce Bennett, Getty Images)

In the ongoing war between statistics and narratives, the battle of the NHL playoffs is continually won by narratives. We’ll ignore for the moment that statistics come with their own batch of narratives, because it’s the type of narrative that gains strength in the playoffs that gets on some people’s nerves.

It’s the playoffs where cliches like “clutch,” “will beats skill,” and “they just wanted it more” have their strongest legs, while a team built for long term success on the back of statistical analysis can get upset due to a run of bad luck or running into a goaltender on a hot streak.

There’s one particular phrase that is mentioned a fair amount in the regular season but really gets going in the playoffs: “timely save.” As in, the goaltender made a “timely save” in that game that allowed his team to win. Or a goaltender failed to make the “timely save,” leading to a loss. It’s one of the most useless phrases in the hockey idiom.

For instance, the NHL’s official YouTube channel labelled this save by Marc-Andre Fleury from game one against the Flyers a “timely glove save.” What was timely about that save, other than that the save occurred at the same time as there was a shot on goal? The score at the time was 3-1 for the Penguins, but that save didn’t make much of a difference in the game other than that the Flyers won in overtime rather than in regulation.

Then there’s this article from Sun Media after game three of the same series, saying that “Fleury couldn’t give them a timely save.” This was after a game where he allowed 6 goals on 28 shots and the Penguins lost 8-4. They didn’t need a timely save out of Fleury; they needed any save.

This also would have been a good time for a save. (Justin K. Aller, Getty Images)

While it is blatantly obvious that those two examples are meaningless, it’s a phrase I hear frequently from commentators and analysts, usually referring to a save at some crucial time of the game. It’s often used in reference to a goaltender that allows a lot of goals, but always seems to make that one “timely save” to give his team the win. Unsurprisingly, these goaltenders usually play for teams that score a lot of goals.

Grant Fuhr was one who got a lot of credit for making that one big, timely save when the team really needed it. There are any number of goaltenders that have been named the next Grant Fuhr for having this quality, including, of course, Marc-Andre Fleury. He has a reputation for coming up with a save “when the team really needs one” or making a save “when it really counts.”

You know when a team really needs a save? You know when it really counts? You know when a save is timely? When there’s a shot on net. I have always found that the best time to make a save is when there is a shot there to be saved.

Certainly, a tough, acrobatic, or impressive save can give a team a morale boost and it’s important for a goaltender to occasionally steal a sure goal. But that doesn’t make a timely save meaningful. A save described as “timely” by a commentator can be undone by a weak goal at an untimely point in the game.

During game four between the Canucks and the Kings, Dustin Brown was awarded a penalty shot while shorthanded and down 2-1 in the third period. Brown made a good move, but Cory Schneider stayed with him and made the save. After the ensuing faceoff, the Canucks went back down the ice and scored the 3-1 insurance goal. Was that an important save by Schneider? Of course. His other 42 saves were also important. Did the Canucks need him to make that save? Of course. They also needed him to make all his other saves, though I suppose he could have made one fewer and everything would have been fine.

The other reason that the phrase “timely save” is so meaningless is that goaltending is essentially a reactive position. A goaltender can’t say to himself Self, the team really needs a save right now. This is the time to make a save, so go out and make a save. The time to make a save is when there is a shot on net and a goaltender has no control over that situation. He can only make a save when there is a save to be made.

What defines a “timely save” anyway? Is it any save made when the score is close? Is it just a nice save when the score is close? If Fleury had saved the first goal the Flyers scored in game one when the Penguins were up 3-0, would that have been a timely save? Or did he only fail to make the timely save when the score was 3-2 and he allowed the tying goal?

It’s a meaningless phrase and I’m tired of hearing it.