The puck stops where?

Usually discussions with coaches contain a lot of “coach-speak,” the noncommittal type of responses that evoke many of the usual clichés.

“You know we need to get better on special teams.”

“I really liked the way we competed tonight; we just needed a little puck-luck.”

“We didn’t create enough traffic in front of their net and didn’t get enough second chances.”

So when you have one of those “what if” conversations that leads to looking at the game or stats a little differently, it can be thought provoking and fun to analyze. Case in point, Bowdoin head coach Terry Meagher has long contended that teams need to have goaltenders with a save percentage of at least .900, and in fact says .910 will have you in about every game.

The discussion came up in reference to the fact that the Polar Bears so far this year have been a very strong offensive team led by Kyle Shearer-Hardy, Jeff Fanning and Daniel Weininger. The concern expressed by the coach is that the team has really focused on the offensive part of the game and needs to commit to the defense a bit more. Of course we came back to the save percentage statistic which coach Meagher thought was an area that Bowdoin needed to improve on if they wanted to go far this season.

I sat down after the call and thought that this year has been a crazy season in terms of game results and the ability of teams to string together victories with any great consistency. What do the goalie save percentages look like for the teams at the top vs. the bottom, and how significant is the statistic overall?

After all, hockey is a team sport, and although the netminder is the last line of defense, there are usually other breakdowns that lead to the Grade ‘A’ scoring chances, so let’s take a look at the goalies in the respective conferences and see how telling the save percentage stat really is.

In the ECAC East, there are only five of 15 goalies who have played at least one-third of their team’s minutes/games played with a save percentage over .910, and just six above .900. There should be no surprise that Castleton, Norwich and Massachusetts-Boston are in the top three in the league, with Erick Cinotti, Alex Dubois and Thomas Speer well above the .910 line. All three teams are at the top of the standings.

Additionally the same three lead the league in goals against average, which probably more accurately reflects strong team defense and goalies that are making the routine and big saves when needed to backstop their team. With everyone in the hunt for playoff seeding, teams like Babson, Southern Maine and Skidmore are going to need to see the their netminder’s percentage move north of .900/.910 in the second half to help their teams to more victories.

Over in the NESCAC conference, all but four of 12 goaltenders playing at least one-third of the minutes have save percentages above .900, and five have SP’s over .910. Ryan Purdy, Cole Anderson and Wes Vesprini lead the way in the conference with two of the top teams covered, and Vesprini and Trinity an anomaly.

Then again, maybe not.

“Wes has been asked to do a lot for this team,” stated coach Dave Cataruzolo. “When he has been on, he has been really on, but we have pressed a lot to score goals, which continues to be a challenge and have often left him to fend for himself; he has done a really good job in keeping things close for us and giving us a chance. Hopefully, we will score more goals in the second half here.”

That may be one of the telling statistics in terms of identifying root causes for lower save percentages — teams that have struggled offensively have pushed forward often, leaving themselves open for odd-man rushes and great scoring chances from turnovers. To be certain, the goalies have needed to be able to make the really big save to keep things close and their team in the game.

Another area that may be creating an impact is the frequency and success rates of special teams. Power play rates have been up this year across both conferences; only Williams has a penalty kill rate over 90 percent. More penalties equals more special teams, and that results in more scoring opportunities where the goaltender truly needs to be the team’s best penalty killer.

“There are probably a lot of factors in why the numbers seem down,” noted Cataruzolo. “Goaltending will always be a big key for success in the game, and I don’t think the level of performance or ability has changed over the past several years in terms of any decline. I think the game situations have created more and better opportunities to challenge defenses and goalies and with goals so hard to come by, teams really need the guy between the pipes to play well and be very consistent all the time.”

Everyone is looking for the little edge each and every game, and if your goaltender can get hot and give his team that kind of lift, then the confidence for all players goes up and pressure to score in bunches dissipates. Just a couple more saves, a couple of points higher on the SP, and teams could see two points in the standings.

All the goalies are ready to rock — drop the puck!