NHL playoffs: Stanley Cup Final matchup reinforces NHL's goaltending paradox

The Stanley Cup Final matchup reinforces our understanding of the importance of goaltending in the playoffs, but it might create more questions than it answers.

The correlation between goaltending excellence and NHL success tends to be strong, but it's even stronger than usual this year.

In the 2023 NHL playoffs, the top two goalies by save percentage — Adin Hill (.937) and Sergei Bobrovsky (.935) — have both led their teams to the Stanley Cup Final. It's a statistical quirk, but hardly a shocking one.

What's unusual is the road it took both to get here. Neither netminder was their team's top option when the playoffs began. The Vegas Golden Knights started with backup Laurent Broissot between the pipes with Hill and Logan Thompson injured, while the Panthers were riding the hot hand in journeyman Alex Lyon, who helped carry Florida into the playoffs down the stretch.

Hill got healthy as Broissot floundered, and Florida was willing to ditch Lyon after he went 1-2 against the Boston Bruins with a .902 save percentage. Since the pair took over, the Golden Knights are 7-3 and the Panthers are 11-2.

It's not a surprise that top-notch work in the crease has led to team success for these clubs. Neither team has carried the play through the postseason as Vegas and Florida have combined to average 61.7 shots for and 69.7 against on a per-game basis. They've needed the best goaltending in the postseason to advance.

There are plenty of years where goalies managed to drag teams through the playoffs, but it's surprising that these are the two teams that benefitted from that treatment.

Vegas had four different goaltenders start at least 10 games during the regular season, and Hill entered the playoffs with a career save percentage of .910 with a GSAA of 4.5 in 101 games. During his six-year career, the 27-year-old had mostly been an above-average backup.

Bobrovsky on the other hand came with the pedigree of being a two-time Vezina Trophy winner and a $10 million contract in his pocket. However, he also had a negative GSAA in 185 games since joining the Panthers in 2018-19 (-12.0) and lost his job to Lyon. In his last eight regular-season starts, he posted a save percentage of .871.

Sergei Bobrovsky is the single biggest reason the Florida Panthers are fighting for a Stanley Cup title. (Sam Navarro/USA TODAY Sports)

There's no reason to believe either goalie would catch fire in these playoffs — and there's absolutely no similarity between the two situations.

Arguably the best way to handle your crease is to acquire as many viable goaltenders as possible and hope one emerges from the field the way Hill did. That worked for Vegas, who traded a fourth-round pick for their current netminder in the offseason with no firm expectation he'd take the reigns.

Despite Bobrovsky's struggles in Florida, he's been so spectacular in these playoffs that it's worth wondering if it takes an elite talent of his calibre to reach that level of performance — even over a small sample of games. Since MoneyPuck began tracking playoff performance in 2008-09, his GSAA (19.7) and GSAA/60 (1.318) are the highest marks on record for goalies with at least 10 games played.

The volatility of goaltending has been a team-building issue for years in the NHL, and that makes it extremely difficult to value the position — especially when the salary cap becomes an issue. Clubs that have the most success in the playoffs tend to attract team-building copycats in the offseason, but it's hard to know what to do with this year's results.

This Stanley Cup Final matchup has hammered home the importance of great goaltending, but it hasn't taught NHL teams anything about the best way to get their hands on it.