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Can the Minnesota Wild Overcome Their Goaltending Woes When Play Resumes?

Photo credit: David Berding (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Wild have made it to the playoffs! Sort of! Technically, the Wild’s five game series against Vancouver won’t count as the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But since it’s an elimination series in a tournament, and Minnesota Sports could use a win, we’ll take it.

Believe it or not, the Wild were a decent team this year. Their defense led the way for them, and they finished with a 53.1 expected goals percentage at 5-on-5. That ranked fourth in the NHL. Their offense ranked a respectable 15th in goals per game. They even flashed some star power thanks to Kevin Fiala.

The fly in the ointment? Their 29th-ranked goaltending. Devan Dubnyk, Alex Stalock and Kaapo Kahkonen had a collective save percentage of just .897. The trio cost the team two standings points this year.

There’s a small amount of optimism that things may turn around in the playoffs. Dubnyk has time to clear his head from a tumultuous year. Stalock was heating up down the stretch. And Kahkonen just received a smattering of AHL awards and has recovered from a hand injury he suffered before the sports world shut down.

But that optimism is outweighed by some sobering realities. Dubnyk been declining over the last three years. Stalock has never shown to be able to hold onto a starting job. And as good as Kahkonen was in Iowa, carrying a playoff team is a lot to ask of a 23-year-old.

Whether you take an optimistic or pessimistic view, the goaltending remains to be a huge challenge to overcome. Can a team with Minnesota’s goaltending struggles succeed in the playoffs? Let’s take a look at the worst goaltending team in the league to make the playoffs over the past decade and draw our own conclusions.

2009-10: Ottawa Senators, Pittsburgh Penguins (.900 save percentage)

Regular Season: Ottawa spent much of the first half being held down by Brian Elliott and Pascal Leclaire. But Elliott took off in the second half, sporting a .921 save percentage from January 18 on. In Pittsburgh, Marc-Andre Fleury had a decidedly down year, prone to severe blow-ups. Thankfully, the offense was more than enough for the Penguins to finish as a 4-seed.

Playoffs: We have our first spot of good news for Minnesota. The Penguins won a playoff series that year. The only caveat was that it came against Ottawa. The goaltending played to a draw with Ottawa going .891 over the six-game series and Pittsburgh prevailing with .890.

The Penguins ran into trouble in the next round against Montreal and a red-hot Jaroslav Halak. Halak stonewalled the Penguins with a .927 save percentage, while Fleury couldn’t raise his game. The Penguins fought valiantly, but were eliminated in seven games.

2010-11: Tampa Bay Lightning (.901)

Regular Season: Dan Ellis and a young Mike Smith were sinking the Lightning’s chances. So they called in the services of a 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson to save the day. And he performed respectably, posting a .912 line over 34 starts. Once the goaltending was somewhat solidified, Tampa’s deep offense powered them to a 103-point season.

Playoffs: Roloson lifted Tampa to a first-round win against Pittsburgh. He stopped 95 percent of pucks in the series, including a 36-save shutout in a 1-0 Game 7 win. He continued his strong play in a sweep of Washington.

But whether it was an extended layover or the workload catching up to the 41-year-old, Roloson couldn’t keep it going in the Conference Final. The Lightning got bounced in seven games by Boston, with Roloson going just .882 for the series. Still, trading for Roloson was savvy, as it got them one game away from a Cup Final appearance.

2011-12: Chicago Blackhawks (.901)

Regular Season: Corey Crawford was sneakily one of the league’s best goalies over the last decade, but 2011-12 wasn’t his year. He had a .903 save percentage through the year, and backup Ray Emery was even worse. The Blackhawks were still a juggernaut, and finished with 101 points despite this. Having Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane will do that for you.

Playoffs: Chicago got bounced in the first round to the Arizona Coyotes. You could look at the fact that five out of the six games went to overtime and conclude that Crawford kept his team in games. In reality, Chicago would have advanced if not for Crawford’s .893 save percentage. The hat tip has to come on the other end, where Tampa castoff Mike Smith posted a staggering .950 line.

2012-13: New York Islanders (.899)

Regular Season: The Islanders rode a 37-year-old Evgeni Nabokov to an 8-seed in the East. Nabokov’s numbers looked respectable enough (.910), but his backups couldn’t be trusted at all. Nabokov had to make 41 of 48 starts and was below league average in fewer than half of his games.

Playoffs: Nabokov couldn’t hold up in the postseason, sporting a ghastly .842 save percentage against Pittsburgh in Round 1. The only reason the series went to six games was because Fleury’s playoff jitters returned.

2013-14: Chicago Blackhawks (.905)

Regular Season: Corey Crawford wasn’t the problem for Chicago this time, as he went .917 in 56 starts. But Antti Raanta and Nikolai Khabibulin were dreadful in backup roles, with Raanta finishing below .900 and Khabibulin hovering around .800.

Playoffs: Like Tampa three years prior, Chicago didn’t have the kind of goalie problem that lingers past the regular season. Chicago dispatched St. Louis and Minnesota in six games each once Crawford could start every game. Crawford went .935 and .926 in the first two rounds but struggled once the Western Conference Final rolled around. Crawford was below .900 in a high-flying series with Los Angeles, and took the loss in a Game 7.

2014-15: New York Islanders (.903)

Regular Season: This year’s Islanders was another instance of a team having one decent starter and nothing else. Halak went .914 in 59 starts, and Chad Johnson and Michal Neuvirth couldn’t be trusted. 59 games of Halak were enough to power the Isles to second in the Metro Division, though.

Playoffs: The Islanders lost in seven games to Washington, but you can’t point many fingers at Halak. He held Ovechkin and company to two or fewer goals in five of those games. And if the Islanders could have mustered more than 11(!!!) shots in Game 7, New York could have advanced.

2015-16: Dallas Stars (.904)

Regular Season: Dallas rode the league’s best offense to the top spot in the Western Conference. And it’s a good thing Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, John Klingberg, Patrick Sharp, and Jason Spezza were there. Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen split goaltending duties, but neither finished with a save percentage above .906.

Playoffs: Dallas’ offense was able to power through Minnesota in Round 1 despite shaky goaltending. But that success couldn’t be repeated in the next round against St. Louis. Dallas pushed the Blues to seven games, but the Stars gave up 20 goals in four losses.

2016-17: Boston Bruins (.905)

Regular Season: Tuukka Rask carried the load for Boston, starting a whopping 63 games. Rask could’ve benefitted from some rest, though, as he had an abysmal second half. From January to the end of the season, he posted just a .902 save percentage. The reason for this overworking was that the alternative was a struggling Anton Khudobin. Boston still managed to finish one point ahead of 9th place to snag a playoff spot.

Playoffs: Rask was able to play solidly in the first round (.920 save percentage), but came on the wrong end of an overtime decision three times. Credit to Ottawa’s Craig Anderson for out-dueling Rask, but there’s not many lessons take from here.

2017-18: Pittsburgh Penguins (.903)

Regular Season: Matt Murray struggled in 45 starts, sporting just a .907 save percentage. Tristan Jarry wasn’t much better, and a cameo from Niemi was enough to bring Pittsburgh’s save percentage down further.

Playoffs: Murray put things together in the first round enough for Pittsburgh to wipe Philadelphia out in six games. A mediocre save percentage wasn’t enough to do the same to Washington in the second round, however.

2018-19: San Jose Sharks (.889)

Regular Season: It’s truly astonishing that this team even made the playoffs. Martin Jones became the first goalie to start 60-plus games with a below-.900 save percentage since Marty Turco in 2008-09. And San Jose still made the playoffs! Aaron Dell was ten points worse than Jones, so no relief was coming from the backup. San Jose neglected to upgrade their situation in net at the deadline, trading for Gustav Nyquist instead.

Playoffs: San Jose got out of the first round thanks to scoring four goals on a five-minute major in Game 7. But that was the second miracle the Sharks needed to advance. The other one was Martin Jones stopping 58 of 59 shots in Game 6. Take out that game, and Jones had a .873 save percentage while getting pulled twice.

Jones posted a much more reliable .916 line to get past Colorado in the second round, but reverted to his usual self in the Conference Final against St. Louis. He gave up 22 goals in six games, including 10 in San Jose’s final two losses.

Lessons Learned?

Looking at this decade-long sample, there are two factors you can look over to determine whether a bad goaltending team has a shot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The first: Do you have a goalie you can (mostly) count on, or do you have two mediocre starters? The 2010-11 Lightning and 2013-14 Blackhawks both had a goaltender who could be trusted, and no depth behind them. That’s a problem in the regular season, but not in the playoffs when you can simply start your reliable guy in net every game. Both of those teams went to the Conference Finals.

The second: Is your offense elite? The Lightning and Blackhawks teams that made it to the Conference Finals ranked seventh and second in the league in scoring, respectively. The 2018-19 Sharks finished first in goals scored. It’s not foolproof (look at the 2015-16 Stars), but it does seem to be necessary.

Neither of these look great for Minnesota. Stalock was the most reliable netminder for the Wild this year, but his .910 save percentage wasn’t much above league average. He has also yet to prove he can hold up starting every game in a seven game series.

And the Wild can’t match those Tampa, Chicago or San Jose teams in offensive firepower. Being middle-of-the-pack is good by Wild standards, but it’s not enough to handle if their goaltending becomes shaky.

Still, Minnesota can topple Vancouver, as anything can happen in a best-of-five series. And there’s even enough here to suggest they can win a round in the official postseason, too. Six of the 11 teams we profiled won in the first round. A seventh took it to a Game 7. It’s definitely in the realm of possibility.

But unless Minnesota gets a surprise performance from either Dubnyk, Stalock or Kahkonen, Minnesota doesn’t appear poised to go much further than the second round.

All advanced statistics provided by Evolving Hockey, all historical data provided from Hockey-Reference.

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