The Stanley Cup playoffs begin tomorrow and over the next two months, anything can happen. There will be upsets, bad bounces, series-turning hits and goals and you will never be sure of what will happen game-to-game. However, there is one thing you can be sure of and that is a pattern of goalies who have played too many games in the regular season who have bowed out early.
From 1999-2000 to 2010-11, a goalie started at least 70 games in a season 41 times and nearly all of them were too worn out to make an impact once the playoffs started. In those 41 instances, the goalies had a combined record of 1,569-1,019-150-211 for a winning percentage of .532 in the regular season. In the playoffs however, that total drops to 116-136 for a winning percentage of only .460.
Actually, 14 times a 70-game goalie missed the playoffs altogether, but in the 27 instances they did get in, 18 failed to make it passed the first round and only four, Martin Brodeur three times and Evgeni Nabokov once, made to at least the conference final.
Obviously, a lot of it has to do with the team they are on. Only two goalies, Brodeur in 2000-01 and Nabokov in 2009-10, played 70+ games and finished first in their conference. Both managed to make it to at least the conference final. However, two-thirds of these goalies were knocked out in the first round, a notable statistic since only half are eliminated in the first round every year.
Of the 22 starting goaltenders in the Stanley Cup final since 1999-2000, only three times has he played more than 70 games in a season and each of those times it was Martin Brodeur, who is far an away the exception to this rule. The average number of starts by a goalie who started the Stanley Cup final in that span is 51.9.
That number is very similar to the average of 52.1 games played by all Stanley Cup-winning goalies since 1975. For a nine-year stretch from 1979 to 1987, no Cup-winning goalie played even 50 games. In the middle of that period was the New York Islanders dynasty, backed by money goalie Billy Smith. In four consecutive Cup-winning years from 1980 to 1983, Smith played in 38, 41,46 and 41 regular season games, respectively, only 51.9% of the Islanders’ regular season schedule. He was able to save his physical and mental energy for when it really matters, allowing him to help the Islanders to a record 19-consecutive playoff series wins.
Bruins netminder Tim Thomas started 55 games this year, just three games above that average, and it was still considered too much by Bruins management. They know that even with a goalie as dominant as Thomas, he needs to get his rest so he can be ready for the grueling two-month journey that is the Stanley Cup playoffs.
And as good as Nashville has become, you really have to wonder about the amount of games started Pekka Rinne played. He started 72 games, second most in the NHL and the most among any goalie in the playoffs. The playoff series record among goalies starting 72 or more games is 16-21, with 10 missing the playoffs altogether. Taking away the ageless wonder that is Brodeur and that record falls to a miserable 3-14.
A backup goalie may not be needed in the playoffs, they are very crucial to the team’s playoff success. A goalie capable of providing 20 strong starts in the regular season can help keep the star ‘tender fresh for when it really matters most.