This is Part 3 of a 3 part series on the Boston Bruins’ 4-0 sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. Today, we sort out the biggest reason why Boston won the series.
Today is the conclusion of the 3-part look into the 2013 Eastern Conference Final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Boston Bruins. In Part 1 of the series, I looked at the team-level view of shot differential and concluded that the Penguins probably performed better than the Bruins. In Part 2, I looked at the performances of individual star players as representatives for their defensive pair or forward line. Games 1 and 2 were fairly even and then skewed by score effects. Games 3 and 4 featured offensive line dominance by the Penguins, and the final game even brought crushing possession performances by the Penguin defense.
The overarching motivation for all this came from an SI article by Allan Muir. He explained how the Penguins failed because they didn’t know they needed to dig deeper. He noted that the “Bruins were a team that thought team would win out,” and that Boston employed a “smothering defense” to deny Crosby and Malkin over and over again.
All that seems to ring hollow now. The Penguins were probably the better team, and the elite stars were all but unstoppable. Sidney Crosby in particular was ruthless, sporting a CF% average of .634 over the final two games. That’s impressive enough, but Crosby also had an offensive/defensive zone start ratio under 36% in Games 3 & 4. There’s no way he was suffocated. He blasted Boychuk-Ference to smithereens.
Yet the Penguins lost and Crosby’s contribution to the series was invisible to the scoresheet. No goals, no assits. The same thing happened to Malkin, Letang, and Neal. How did they reach such a low point? What kind of dark sorcery did the Bruins use to overcome their terrible shot-based play?
The answer is simple, of course. And curiously, it’s a word that Allan Muir didn’t even manage to include in his SI piece. It’s Rask.
All the blame was thrown at the Penguins for failing to perform, and that’s a damn shame. Instead of scolding Pittsburgh for what they didn’t do, the story should be glowing, relentless praise of the Bruins’ netminder. Rask was brilliant, monumental, near-perfect for 4 games (including a double OT game 3), allowing only two goals against one of the top offensive forces in hockey.
Heck, let’s give some more meaning to the two goal total. What did Rask’s save percentage look like for the series?
I mean, it’s sickening. Gross. Rask was unbelievable. Not a single game with a SV% under .963 (or .957 at 5-on-5). Game 3 in particular was astounding, with Rask brushing aside all but 1 of the 54 shots on goal.
This is the kind of advantage a team can get with Rask. It’s not that he’s always going to be near-perfect, it’s that he probably has a greater chance of being better than any other goalie in the NHL.
Eric Tulsky discussed Bayesian goaltender analysis on his SB Nation blog Outnumbered. Briefly, the idea is that we can make an estimate of NHL goalie talent distribution. If we compare individual goalie performances to this known league-wide data set, we can get a forecast of individual talent levels.
We can apply their general approach to six high-win goalies from the past few years. I’m using even strength data from their regular season careers (all available on NHL.com if you filter individual goalie stats by special teams).
Rask continues to look like a standout, but the total shots against matter. Take a look at the Tulsky article again, in particular that table about halfway down. It contains estimates for individual talent level based on knowledge of both a) the NHL goalie talent distribution, b) the save % of the individual goalie, and c) the sample available for the individual goalie. The more we know about the goalie in question (that is, the more shots they’ve faced), the more confident we can be about our conclusions.
Lundqvist has the biggest sample, a .928 SV% with over 10,000 SA. We can feel pretty confident his talent level is in the .925-.930 range, with a pretty small range of error. Note, that doesn’t mean he’s incapable of having a bad game or a great game, it just gives an estimate of what we can expect from Lundqvist long term (ignoring age effects).
Rask fits into the table around the .935/5000 SA box (his actual SV% is a bit higher and SA a bit lower, but this is a reasonable estimate). The SA sample is smaller than Lundqvist or Price, but we still have an astounding result: the best guess for Rask is a .931 talent, and there’s a 95% chance he’s actually somewhere between .925 and .937. Anything in that range is above average relative to the NHL, making Rask a highly valuable asset to his team.
Again, there’s no certainty that Rask will have a dominant performance, but his estimated talent level suggests that he’s likely to outplay other goalies on any given night.
Rask’s ECF performance was certainly above average by even his own standards, so there are two stories to write about him. The first is that Rask is a long-term great goalie, probably destined to be a hall-of-famer. The second is that ECF Rask was out-of-his-gourd brilliant and deserves endless praise for his actions.
Now, some final takeaways from all three parts of the series:
Takeaways: PIttsburgh Penguins
The Penguins at full health and after making some dumb trades at the 2013 trade deadline were still capable of becoming a powerful possession team. This year’s Penguin squad is similar, but has been without the full quartet of Crosby, Malkin, Letang, and Martin for long stretches of this year. If all four are ready to roll in the postseason, the Pens may be able to ramp past their depth problems and become a positive possession group. Add in new additions Marcel Goc (by trade) and Olli Maata (as a rookie), and this is a team that shouldn’t be overlooked or narrated away.
Takeaways: Boston Bruins
The Bruins were thought to be playing well against the Penguins before finally falling to the Blackhawks. We’ve learned that this story wasn’t especially true, that the Bs were outplayed in the final two games of the ECF.
There is no guarantee that’ll happen again, of course. This year’s Bruins are a possession machine, so it will take exceptionally poor play from Boston, or a great performance from an opponent to overcome the Bruins’ level of play.
However, even that might not be enough to finish off the Bs. With the inimitable Tuukka Rask as a last line of defense, Boston is a terror.