Last time we looked at the teams that were in playoff position last year after 17 games, and who stayed there. Today we'll find out why teams that started in playoff position dropped out, and see if the same fate is likely to befall the Oilers.
Columbus: The Blue Jackets were off to their best start in franchise history last year at 11-6-0 after 17 games. In fact, they made it all the way to 14-6-0 in their first 20 before the wheels fell off on their season. So what happened?
In those first 20 games Steve Mason was merely average, posting a 0.902 save percentage and finishing the year with a save percentage of 0.901. No real anomalies there. However, his counterpart Mathieu Garon started that year with a 0.943 SV%, three shutouts in 7 games (plus one relief appearance), and a record of 6-1. His save percentage came back down to Earth in a big way after that, as he finished at 0.901 and with a record of 10-14.
After those first 20 games, Columbus proceeded to lose 5 straight and 14 of their next 20. The Jackets allowed 609 shots on goal in the first 20 games, and those shots resulted in 47 goals against (0.923 SV%). In the next 20 games Columbus allowed 608 shots on goal and they resulted in 70 goals against (0.885 SV%). But things didn't really get dismal until the end of February. Columbus managed just 3 wins in their last 22 games. Their goaltenders allowed 75 goals over span on 648 shots, for a 0.884 SV%. Only Colorado and Edmonton allowed more goals in the West that year.
St. Louis: The Blues were 12-5-3 in their first 20 games last year, but ended up finishing in 11th place in the West. It's much the same story as Columbus. Jaroslav Halak was 10-4-2 to start the year, with 3 shutouts. His save percentage was North of 0.920 ten times in those 16 games. In the entire rest of the year it was above 0.920 17 more times in 41 appearances, and it was sub-0.900 on 17 occasions as well. He won 17 games the rest of the year. Ty Conklin wasn't much relief, finishing with a 0.881 SV% and 3.22 GAA.
Dallas: An average team that nearly made it but fell out on the last day of the season. This team didn't exactly over achieve early on, and they finished about where they ought to have (9th). The fact that they were in the playoff picture early on and fell out was merely because the race was so tight.
Minnesota: Niklas Backstom's save percentage was above 0.930 in 9 of his first 14 starts, and above 0.920 in 11 of them. He had a record of 8-4-2 to start the year. Jose Theodore was 3-2-0 in his first 5 starts for Minny, posting an impressive 0.920 SV%. Both goalies finished the year with identical 0.916 save percentages and Minnesota missed the playoffs. The two would combine for 24 more wins in their next 60 starts.
There are certainly many other factors (injuries, trades, bad luck) that conspire to make a team miss the post season after being so good early on. However, hot goaltending has the uncanny ability to mask the other deficiencies that a team may have, and make that team appear better than it is. None of these goalies finished with abysmal save percentages by the end of the year, but all of these teams (save Dallas) had goaltenders that were playing well above their norm early in the season.
Interestingly, a marginal team like Nashville got into the playoffs on the back of a 0.929 save percentage from Pekka Rinne, and it was Jonas Hiller's 0.924 SV% that pushed Anaheim into the post season as much as anything else (50 goals from Corey Perry didn't hurt though). Phoenix probably didn't belong in the playoffs either, but Dave Tippet's systems and the 0.921 SV% of Ilya Bryzgalov got them through.
Not all playoff teams have great goaltending. Jimmy Howard's save percentage last year was a modest 0.908 and he won 37 games, but that's because Detroit has a very good team.
If the Oilers had average goaltending would they be where they are now? If the answer you're thinking is no, then that means Edmonton is very likely to miss the playoffs because this type of stellar goaltending isn't likely to continue. But these performances from Khabibulin represent a feel-good comeback story, so who cares if it's not sustainable? The Oilers are showing flashes of what they will be, and we all knew that was the best we could hope for coming in.