Roberto Luongo and postseason breakdowns

Cam Charron
September 20 2011 08:12AM

We are just three days into training camp, and already the 9-5 media is filling time on sports talk radio with a made up Vancouver Canucks goaltending controversy. The Kurtenbloggers, fresh in the noontime spot on Vancouver's TEAM 1040 radio, discussed at length whether Roberto Luongo was capable of winning a Stanley Cup, and whether or not Cory Schneider should be given a chance to compete for the starting job.

As of 12:22 Pacific Time on Monday, 83 per cent of fans on the TEAM 1040's website who voted in their daily poll agreed that "Yes, Cory Schneider should be given a chance to compete for the number one job." The arguments the Kurtenbloggers discussed included Schneider's improvement and success over a small sample of NHL games, but also the perceived mental anguish that Roberto Luongo suffers on a night-to-night basis in the NHL playoffs, and his propensity to "melt-down" and give up buckets of goals in "big games".

Let's face it: the goaltending issue that the Canucks faced in the Stanley Cup Finals was at the other end. Tim Thomas was a brick wall measuring about 7' by 5' in the Cup Finals. Luongo, admittedly, was pretty average over the course of seven games. In his 25 playoff games last season, Luongo won 15 games and had a .914 save percentage. In the first 25 games of the regular season, Luongo also won 15 game and had a .914 save percentage. Calling Roberto a regular season goaltender or somebody who has troubles in the playoffs is not just wrong, it's a fundamental misunderstanding of the ratios at play. Sample size is a big issue when evaluating goaltenders, and this perspective needs to be kept.

Luongo's best games this postseason were Game 7 against the Chicago Blackhawks, Game 5 against the San Jose Sharks and Game 5 against the Bruins. Those were all games in high-leverage situations and vital in their respective series, and yet the Canucks only won those games by a single goal each - two of them in overtime. Much of Luongo's perceived postseason failings (despite never having suffered a first round loss) stem from the fact that his forwards appear to give up in front of him.

To show this, I'm going to bring up the last two Cup-winning goaltenders: Tim Thomas of the Bruins and Antti Niemi, the goaltender formerly of the Blackhawks who now starts for the San Jose Sharks.

First off, here are the percentage of games where a goalie gave up at least 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 goals.

GA Thomas Luongo Niemi
1+ 88% 92% 95%
2+ 58% 71% 83%
3+ 37% 42% 60%
4+ 21% 25% 35%
5+ 7% 12% 8%

As you can see, Luongo is not all that far off from Thomas. In one of every four of Luongo's playoff games he'll allow four or more goal against. The frequency with which Luongo gives up four goals (or more) is only slightly higher than the rate for Tim Thomas. Niemi, who I don't view as a good goalie even though he has won a Stanley Cup, seems to be much more prone to 3+ and 4+ goal "meltdowns".

The 5+ statistic seems to swing a little more towards the anti-Luongo camp, but 12% doesn't imply a meltdown every series, more like one every two, but that's not all that much greater of a rate than Thomas or Niemi. I will add that this chart shows just how lucky the Bruins are to have Tim Thomas: He allows one or fewer goals 42% of the time.

No, the worry I have with the 5+ statistic comes with the guys in front of Roberto Luongo. Even if a team allows 5, you can still win 6-5 or 7-5. Luongo has not had such luck. Here is a list of each goaltenders' winning percentage when they have allowed that amount of goals:

GA Thomas Luongo Niemi
0 1.000 1.000 1.000
1 0.769 0.833 1.000
2 0.667 0.706 0.778
3 0.286 0.300 0.600
4 0.333 0.250 0.273
5+ 0.333 0.000 0.333

The issue here is that the Canucks are 5-20 (.200) when Luongo has allowed three or more goals in a game over his playoff career. It seems that the Canucks have been extremely reliant on Luongo to keep them in games. (Niemi is .417 at 3+ GA, and Thomas is .313). Consider that Antii "knows how to win" Niemi allowed 21 goals in his six games in the Stanley Cup Final in 2010 - but you'll never hear him called a "choker" - not because of how he played, but because his team scored 25 goals in the finals.

Roberto Luongo can win a Stanley Cup. His "meltdown" propensity is largely a fan-perception issue, and if the Canucks forwards are on the right side of variance, those apparent meltdowns will certainly appear less meltdowny.

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Cam Charron is a BC hockey fan that writes about hockey on many different websites including this one.
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