Despite losing on home ice on Monday, the San Jose Sharks are three wins away from advancing to the Stanley Cup Final for just the second time in franchise history. For a franchise that has been consistently disappointing in the NHL playoffs, a Stanley Cup would provide some much needed redemption. The Sharks lifting the Cup would also be strange by playoff hockey standards: Teams generally don’t succeed in hockey’s second season with subpar goaltending.
There’s little doubt about San Jose’s offensive prowess — the Sharks have scored the second-most goals in the playoffs, and they tied for the second-most goals in the regular season — but deficiencies on the defensive side of the puck, and especially between the pipes, have been a recurring problem. The San Jose goaltending tandem of starter Martin Jones and backup Aaron Dell was abysmal during the regular season, leading the team to a dead-last ranking in save percentage (.889). To be fair, Jones has been better in the postseason, but he is by no means the playoffs’ hot goalie. His playoff save percentage is .905 — an improvement over his regular-season mark of .896 to be sure, but hardly the stuff of world-beaters.
There is a certain mystique attached to the premise of the hot goalie in the NHL playoffs. Save percentage accounts for a higher proportion of a team’s success than any other factor, so it follows that quality postseason goaltending is compulsory if a team wants to win the Stanley Cup in June. The narrative — that these hot playoff goalies appear from the ether — is sexy, but the reality is that most of them build a solid-to-excellent body of work during the regular season and carry that solid-to-excellent form into the postseason.
As such, it’s rare to see a team win the Stanley Cup after enduring a regular season of poor goalie play. Since the lockout, only the 2005-06 Carolina Hurricanes and the 2009-10 Chicago Blackhawks won the title with below-average goaltending during the regular season. Even then, Carolina goaltenders finished close to the middle of the pack in 2005-06 — but just six teams in 2009-10 got worse regular-season save-percentage performances from their goaltenders than the Hawks did.
All this leaves the San Jose Sharks in something of a historical bind. Since the league began recording the stat in 1959-60, no Stanley Cup-winning team has finished last in regular-season save percentage — not even when the league consisted of only six teams. The Sharks are just the third team in the 14 seasons since the lockout to qualify for the playoffs after finishing in the save percentage basement. And not since 1992-93 — an era of the NHL during which it was somewhat unclear whether teams actually put goalies in front of the net — has the eventual Stanley Cup winner posted a worse regular-season save percentage than this season’s Sharks.