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The Marc-Andre Fleury Question

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The Caps are about to face the hottest goalie in this year’s playoffs.

Washington Capitals v Vegas Golden Knights Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

For a closer look at the Caps’ opponent between the pipes in the Stanley Cup Final, please welcome special guest contributor Greg Young:

In the first round of the 1998 playoff series between a heavily favored New Jersey Devils team and the 8th seeded Ottawa Senators, former New York Times (and current NBC Sports Washington Capitals beat writer) Tarik El-Bashir framed the goalie matchup as follows:

Martin Brodeur, the Devils’ goaltender, is one of the best. The Ottawa Senators’ goalie, Damian Rhodes, is one of the hottest. Sometimes, more often in the post-season, the hottest goalie comes out on top.

Although it is unlikely he was aware of how prescient this statement was, El-Bashir was reflecting upon an immortal axiom of playoff hockey: the hot goalie usually wins.

Unfortunately for the Washington Capitals, their reward for slaying numerous playoff demons is one of the hottest goalies in playoff history in Las Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Below are the 10 highest save percentages during the playoffs (among qualified goalies), with games played grafted onto it:

Not only does Marc-Andre Fleury have the 10th highest save percentage… he’s also played 5 more games than the next highest goalie on that list!

Fleury also hasn’t shown any weaknesses in the playoffs, as he’s either first or second in this playoffs among qualified goalies on low danger, medium danger and high danger percentages during five-on-five play:

So… this seems hopeless, right? The Capitals are just destined to run into another hot goalie, and this miracle playoff run will probably finish ignominiously.

Except this isn’t necessarily true. Simply put, it seems highly unlikely that Fleury will continue at anywhere near this level for two simple reasons.

  1. Marc-Andre Fleury isn’t this good of a goalie.
    First off, Marc-Andre Fleury—nor any goalie--has never sustained a save percentage that high for any amount of time. In fact, if we just look at the stats from the regular season, we see a picture of a goalie who was closer to the middle of the pack.

This same picture emerges if we zoom out to Fleury’s career stats as he’s averaging a 92.37% 5v5 save percentage. Simply put, Fleury is playing out of his mind and it seems unlikely to continue at anywhere near this degree.

2. Goalies performance is extremely variable.
Further, even among goalies who have been extremely effective during the playoffs, there’s no indication that prior performance is all that indicative of future results.

For instance, two weeks ago Michael Salfino of the Wall Street Journal looked at past “hot goalies” and whether they typically sustain their hot performance. I’ll let Salfino take it away:

The hottest playoff goalies in the first two rounds since the 1989-90 season had a save percentage on average of .942, but those who survived into subsequent rounds saw that average dip to .911—worse than their regular-season group average of .920, according to Stats LLC.

Why is this the case? Four years ago, Neil Paine looked into goalie performance in the playoffs for 538 and found that, frankly, goaltender performance generally is incredibly random, even during the regular season:

Using’s adjusted version of the save percentage statistic, adjusted Goals Against Percentage (GA%-),4 the correlation of goalie performance from year to year is so low that, in practical terms, only 30 percent of the difference we see between a goalie and the league average in any given season actually “belongs” to the goalie himself. The rest is just random.

This is only magnified during the playoffs:

If chance overwhelms skill in an entire regular season’s worth of goaltending statistics, imagine what can happen in the playoffs, when the leading goalies face but 800 shots at most.

In fact, let’s conclude this by reminiscing on the last time the Capitals were in the Stanley Cup finals in 1998. They were riding the hot goaltending of one Olaf Kolzig, who had a remarkable 94.6% save percentage prior to meeting the Detroit Red Wings and was saying “I never really believed I was the hot goaltender. I was a confident goaltender.”

Unfortunately for the Capitals, Kolzig couldn’t keep it up in a four-game Red Wings sweep, allowing 13 goals and posting a more pedestrian save percentage of .920 in that final series.

Here’s hoping the Capitals are on the other end of a goalie regressing into the mean.