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Fleury or Vokoun...Does it Matter?

The power of perception as it relates to Pittsburgh's goaltenders, why Dan Bylsma has one hell of a problem on his hands, and why it looks like he's making it worse.

Fleury,, I'm glad we've got this guy.
Fleury,, I'm glad we've got this guy.
Justin K. Aller

With the Bruins cracking open a six-pack of whoop-ass last night, equitably distributing the damage between each of Pittsburgh's goaltenders, that most feared of postseason crises has reared its head: the goaltending controversy.

So, Marc-Andre Fleury or Tomas Vokoun...does it matter?

At the outset of this series, I would say "of course it matters. Tomas Vokoun is a better goaltender than Marc-Andre Fleury." Even now, I'm reluctant to put a huge amount of weight on a two game sample size. If Vokoun was a better goaltender as of Saturday morning, there's really no reason to think differently. But goaltenders tend to be more prone to variance than other positions...or at least, perceived variance. If you have a save percentage of .910, you're a league average goaltender. If you have a save percentage of .900, you're probably bound for the AHL, unless you have the good fortune to have a contract with Paul Holmgren's signature on it. If a goaltender faces 1500 shots per season (50 games * 30 shots per game), stopping 1365 secures your starting job. Stopping 1350 sends you to desolate, hope-stricken ruins like Hershey or Wilkes-Barre. That's about 2 additional goals every 3 weeks, separating good goaltenders from lousy ones.

Vokoun is better. His career save percentage is .917. In the playoffs, it's .925 (admittedly, through just 20 games). Both are well above the numbers of Marc-Andre Fleury. And yet, in the playoffs, those small samples get magnified as if placed under an electron microscope. Coaches don't have the luxury of looking at the long view. So if you give up 3 goals on 12 shots, and your team is playing like they're much more interested in hitting the golf course, you're a bum, even if you were a rock star just a week and a half before. More disconcerting for Dan Bylsma might be the post-game interviews after last night's game. I listened to Vokoun's interview on SiriusXM's Hockey This Morning, and Vokoun sounded like a man who had completely lost his confidence. (I can't find an audio link to this, unfortunately.) Maybe I'm misinterpreting him, or maybe he'll snap out of his funk with a good night's sleep, but if you think you're a bum, you play like a bum. Perception becomes reality.

Okay, what's Plan B? Well, Fleury is Playoff Proven. He's a Money Goaltender. If you fail to put those capital letters at the start of those phrases, Craig Adams will sneak into your house at night, beat the shit out of you and then drink all the beer in your fridge.

In reality, the myth of Fleury is surpassed only by the myth of Chris Osgood (a prime contender to become the "Worst Hall of Famer Ever"). But hockey talking heads tend to ignore fancy things like statistics, even easy ones like save percentage, in favor of their predetermined narrative. The fact that Fleury has been a league average goaltender for his career, and an absolute train wreck in the playoffs for the last four years, doesn't count as much as his runs in the 2008 and 2009 playoffs. And that 2009 playoffs run, where he won the Cup? His save percentage was .908. No matter; Fleury is perceived as a Money Goaltender, so he is. Q.E.D.

The "Fleury as Money Goaltender" myth is based primarily on his heroic play in the 2008 playoffs, when his save percentage was .933. It's an insane outlier; for his career, his playoff save percentage is .903. Take out 2008, and his career playoff save percentage plummets to .891. Yikes! His regular season save percentage, for his career, is a respectable .910, and would go up a bit if you discount his first two years, which were sub-.900. With many players, you could hand-wave this away with the words "sample size", but he's got 80 playoff games under his belt now. I think we have enough data to strongly consider the possibility that Fleury suffers against better competition. That isn't unusual, but it would seem to be the antithesis of the chimeric beast known as a "Money Goaltender".

Of course, even apart from his comically overblown reputation, Fleury didn't exactly distinguish himself last night either. When Brad Marchand ripped a wrister over Fleury's glove hand, the Penguins' brief rally was snuffed out. So much for that. Any chance Tom Barrasso's stayed in shape?

The problem with a goaltending controversy, in this case, is that it puts a hell of a lot of weight on one position, when in fact the Penguins have sucked in pretty much every aspect of the game. Their defense is giving up wide-open shooting lanes. The team as a whole is making turnovers like they have a second job as pastry chefs. Their forwards are seldom getting decent shots. Their star players are frustrated. A coach can only do so much when the entire team is in meltdown; Bylsma tried to shake things up with Fleury last night, and it did nothing. Short of an injury to a key player, the first two games could not have gone worse for the Penguins. Ultimately, if Pittsburgh is going to come back and win this series, they're likely going to have to do it despite their goaltenders, and not because of them.

The best thing Bylsma could do is to stand behind Vokoun, pump his tires (thanks Roberto) and send him out there for game 3 and say "you're our guy, go get 'em". It does not appear that's going to happen; Bylsma was mum in the press conference about who was going to go. If you're backing your starter, you do it early and often and put the controversy to bed. Thus, if I had to guess, I'd say they're going with Fleury.

But if they don't start scoring goals, and stop turning the puck over, no, it won't matter whether Fleury or Vokoun is between the pipes.