The reactions to the Vancouver Canucks round one victory over the Chicago Blackhawks were many and varied. There were two particular reactions, however, that were such polar opposites that they bear investigating. For every person who cried out “The Canucks have defeated the Stanley Cup Champions!” there was an equally loud voice saying “The Canucks barely managed to beat the 8th seed!” The Blackhawks were simultaneously hailed as one of the best teams in the NHL and derided as a weak team that backed their way into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season.
So which is it? Who are the real Blackhawks? Were the 2010-11 Blackhawks a terrible team with remnants of past greatness still clinging to them or were they a great team that for some reason had a terrible regular season? Should the Canucks feel proud for defeating the Blackhawks or should they feel shame at their narrow escape?
We poked copious amounts of fun at the Blackhawks in our eulogy over at Puck Daddy, with one of our main targets being their lack of depth after the Summer dismantling of the Cup winners. Unfortunately, some of that “lack of depth” managed to score several goals on the Canucks during the first round and the goalie who replaced Niemi completely stonewalled the mighty Canucks offense. To be sure, the team that the Canucks faced in the first round certainly didn’t look like an 8th seed.
One of the keys to the series was “the goalie who replaced Niemi.” At the start of the season, that goalie was supposed to be Marty Turco. The former all-star and Olympian was signed to a cap-friendly one-year, 1.8 million dollar contract to be the starter in Chicago and give young Corey Crawford a chance to ease himself into the NHL as a backup after 5 years in the AHL. Crawford’s road to the NHL bears a strong similarity to Cory Schneider’s, though Schneider won’t be supplanting Roberto Luongo any time soon, whereas Crawford replaced Turco using the sneaky tactic of being better than him.
So here’s one of the biggest differences between the Blackhawks that barely squeaked into the playoffs and the Blackhawks that took the Canucks to the brink of elimination: in the regular season, Crawford started 67% of Chicago’s games. In the playoffs, he started all of them. The real Blackhawks had Corey Crawford in net.
Turco posted an 11-11-3 record with a 3.02 GAA and a lowly .897 SV%, the worst totals of his career. Crawford, on the other hand, had a 33-18-6 record with a 2.30 GAA and a solid .917 SV% in his rookie season. Crawford’s winning percentage over an 82-game season would result in 104 points for the Blackhawks, challenging for first place in the Central Division with the Detroit Red Wings, rather than squeaking into 8th spot in the Conference.
It’s not as simple as that, of course. Ignoring that Crawford obviously can’t start every game of the season, there are other issues. It’s entirely possible that the Blackhawks simply played worse in front of Turco, especially considering Turco got the bulk of his starts at the beginning of the season, when the ‘Hawks could be expected to have a bit of a Cup hangover. Perhaps the Blackhawks gave up more shots or played more poorly on the penalty kill.
The theory in the statosphere is that the most controllable statistic for a goalie is his even-strength save percentage. Goals against average can be driven up by a poor team giving up more shots and shorthanded save percentage is similarly dependent on the quality of skaters and system in front of the goalie. Turco posted a .905 even-strength save percentage, giving up 59 goals on 623 shots. If you replace that with Crawford’s 0.924 even-strength save percentage, that number drops to 47 goals. That drop of 12 goals against is equivalent to 0.414 goals against per game.
Now what difference does this make? How does 0.414 goals per game change who the Blackhawks were? First, Turco had three overtime losses: one fewer goal against and those three losses become wins. Four of Turco’s eleven regulation losses were decided by one goal: one fewer goal against and those games go to overtime. And finally, Turco was pulled twice this season, both times after giving up four goals against. In one of those games, the Blackhawks scored 4 goals and in the other, they scored 5 goals. Starting Crawford in place of Turco with that kind of goal support could have made a big difference.
At the very least, running with Crawford as their starter from the beginning of the season would have gotten the Blackhawks one more point, which would have been enough to push them into 7th and away from all this “weak 8th seed” talk. Two more points and they would have finished in fifth, one point away from having home-ice advantage in the first round. Clearly, the real Blackhawks were no pushovers. The real Blackhawks were the real deal.Tags: Autopsy, Blackhawks, Goaltending, I am so sorry for the play on words at the end of this post, Statistics, Stats