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Hockey Wilderness
  • The Stakes Were Way Too High To Go Away From Gustavsson In Game 2

    Image courtesy of Jerome Miron-USA Today Sports
    Tony Abbott

    Making decisions with high stakes is hard. Analyzing decisions when you don't have skin in the game is much easier. It's important to keep these things in mind occasionally. 

    The NHL is a results-based league, one where millions of dollars, thousands of man hours worth of effort throughout the year, and jobs, are on the line. Everyone looks good when things go well. But for 15 of the 16 teams in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it's going to end with some amount of media and fan scrutiny.

    Not all of it will be fair, either. Coaches and players make mistakes, of course, but so do the teams that win. There are also times when what seems like a mistake came from a decision where there was no right answer.

    The Minnesota Wild's goalie saga from last year's playoff is a good example. From Games 1 to 5, Marc-Andre Fleury was underwhelming against the St. Louis Blues. Many people still question why the Wild didn't go with Cam Talbot before Game 6. The answer? Talbot had a poor year despite a late surge and was weak in particular to the kind of offense St. Louis ran.

    Dean Evason's decision to start Fleury for Game 2 on Wednesday wasn't a similar no-win situation. It wasn't a remarkably difficult decision. Filip Gustavsson was right there, coming off a 3-2 Game 1 win over the Dallas Stars where he stopped 51 of 53 shots in double overtime. What coach isn't going to turn to them for Game 2?

    We found out last night. You can see how it might be clever. Dallas relies on Jake Oettinger as its clear No. 1 goalie. Stars coach Pete DeBoer is never in a million years going to turn to backup Scott Wedgewood. Maybe Oettinger would run down due to fatigue, and by keeping Gustavsson fresh, could there be a long-term advantage by going to a rotation?

    Way too clever, it turns out. It blew up like a pair of ACME rocket boots in Minnesota's face for Game 2, a 7-3 loss where Fleury only stopped 24 of 31 shots. The loss underlines how bizarre of a decision that was, of course. But even independent of the result, the move just did not make sense.

    Let's start here: No other coach would've made that decision in Evason's spot. How can we possibly know that? History.

    Since the 2004-05 lockout through the start of this year's playoffs, there were 59 playoff games that went to two or more overtimes but didn't end the series. That is, games in which coaches on both sides had goalies playing for a very long time, and they had to decide whether to sit or start them in the next game.

    How many of those winning coaches decided to turn away from the goalie that earned the decision? Just one. On April 15, 2015, Scott Darling came into the game in relief of Corey Crawford and stopped all 44 shots in a double overtime win in Game 1. Joel Quenneville returned to Crawford for Game 2.

    Fatigue wasn't the factor driving the decision. Darling only played 67 minutes, a pretty standard OT workload. It was track record. You can say it was unfair to Darling, but he only had 13 starts in his career, and Crawford was one of the best goalies in the league at the time. Also, Quenneville won his third Stanley Cup that year, so it's hard to question him on hockey tactics.

    Meanwhile, the Wild are still looking for their third playoff series win in two decades.

    Heck, in 57 of the 59 cases, the coaches decided to give the net to the losing goalies, despite any fatigue concerns. Both those cases came in the 2020 COVID bubble playoffs, which was admittedly weird, and both goalies struggled in those losses. You can get why those coaches changed horses, especially in a summer hockey game coming off a five-month layover.

    Now, every coach does it this way is not a very good reason to do something on its own. But what about when conventional wisdom and the data align against you? Because as Hockey Wilderness noted two weeks ago, the data was firmly against starting Fleury over Gustavsson.

    What stat do you want to use? All of them point towards Gustavsson. Save percentage? Gustavsson second in the NHL with a .931 for the year. Fleury was tied with Alex Stalock for 19th at .908.

    How about a stat that accounts for Minnesota playing good defense in front of them? Gustavsson finished seventh in the league in Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx), between Andrei Vasilevskiy and Oettinger. Fleury was just barely in positive territory with 0.86 on the year, between Tristan Jarry and the aforementioned Talbot.

    In terms of who got them to the postseason in the first place, Gustavsson gave Minnesota roughly 11 points in the standings. Meanwhile, Fleury was worth about four, per Evolving Hockey's Goalie Goals Above Replacement model.

    Maybe Evason was just playing the matchups? That's not the case, either. Gustavsson was a stellar .935 goalie against playoff teams this season. Meanwhile, Fleury struggled big-time, putting up an abysmal .866 save percentage and was especially prone to the kind of gigantic blow-ups we saw in Game 2.

    Against the Stars, Fleury allowed eight goals on 77 shots in two regular season games this year (.896). Do we even need to tell you that Gustavsson stopped 62 of 66 shots (.939) in his two meetings with Dallas?

    Let's be honest, though, you don't even need all that information to make the decision to keep riding the "Gus Bus!" Fifty-one saves on 53 shots in Game 1 is also a pretty compelling argument for giving your best goalie the net in Game 2. 

    But they didn't, and the Wild paid for it.

    It's true Minnesota played a sloppier game than they did in Game 1. Fleury faced 10 shot attempts that had a 15% chance or greater of scoring. Gustavsson only faced five such chances on Monday, in significantly more minutes. Even considering that, though, Fleury didn't come close to rising to the occasion.

    He finished the night with a GSAx of -3.41. The Wild defense gave up 3.59 expected goals, which isn't good, but paired with three goals, all Fleury had to do was steal 60% of a goal to force overtime. 

    Would Gustavsson have done that? The answer is that we'll never know. However, we know that Gustavsson registered a GSAx of 0.60 or higher in 20 of his 37 starts. He stole 1.60 goals or more, enough to win the game outright, 11 times. Assuming that stays stable, we're talking about a 54% chance of forcing overtime and a 30% chance of winning without overtime, significantly higher odds than Fleury's season would indicate.

    And, of course, it bears mentioning that Gustavsson registered 2.1 GSAx in Game 1. Repeating that would've sent Minnesota home to the Xcel Energy Center up 2-0. Maybe the Wild played worse. But even with solid, unspectacular goaltending, that win was within grasp.

    Evason defended Fleury and his decision after the game. No coach is going to throw his goalie under the bus during a playoff series, but the way he defended the decision wasn't satisfying. "It's what we do, right?" Evason told the media. "We've done all year." 

    Craig Berube made adjustments in last year's playoffs, while Evason lagged in doing so. It cost them the series. Rigidly sticking to what worked in the regular season, ignoring the context of being able to hide Fleury against weaker non-playoff teams, showed he's still reluctant to adapt his ways for the playoffs.

    Worse yet, it punted on maximizing his potential to step on Dallas' throats and take two games from them at American Airlines Center. You could say that Minnesota was playing with house money, as P.K. Subban suggested in the ESPN studio show during the second intermission. After all, they won Game 1 on the road, meaning all they have to do to close out the series is win their home games.

    If Evason believed it, he failed to learn another lesson from last year. There is no house money in the playoffs. You have one resource in a series that matters: Four losses. Spend them all, and you're out. You can't pencil in Ws for your home games and plan your series around that, you need to go for the kill.

    The Wild failed to do this last year against the Blues. They dropped a chance to run up a 3-1 series lead against a team with practically two NHL defensemen. Instead, they went home for Game 5 with a tied series and home ice advantage. They lost in six games.

    Minnesota won not one, but two games on the road against the Vegas Golden Knights, including a Game 1 overtime win. But that advantage vanished because those home games weren't in the bag, and they lost in seven.

    The Wild haven't won a postseason series in eight years, despite seven bites at the apple. It's the wrong time to get cute. It's no time to go completely against coaching consensus, data, and logic. Gustavsson has been the biggest difference-maker for Minnesota all year. Until he proves otherwise, letting him sit on the bench is every bit as silly as stapling Kirill Kaprizov there.

    The Wild can't afford to roll with Fleury again, and it's very possible that they couldn't even afford to do it this once. We'll know by the end of the series.

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    17 minutes ago, jgodwin17 said:

    The team definitely could have helped him out more Wednesday night, that's for sure. That said, generally they DO help him out a lot more, but you can only clear out so many slot rebounds before the opposing team gets to one. Fleury's rebound control, and puck control in general is AWFUL.

    Funny thing I just found on MoneyPuck: Fleury's rebound control/puck freezes are better than Vasilevskiy's so far in the playoffs. Lol. I say that tongue in cheek of course because Vasi got blown out of the water last night, again proving that even all-world goalies have off nights. 

    You are correct that Fleury doesn't freeze the puck as much as he should. Moneypuck had him this regular season at -68.06 for puck freezes above expected. His rebounds per save really aren't much different than some other starting goalies. But those are just stats, the eye test does say that he could improve that aspect. I don't think it's AWFUL in all caps like you said. According to NaturalStatTrick, Fleury had 158 rebound attempts against. For reference, Gus had 131. But goalies like Sorokin (282), Saros (236), Hellebuyck (214), Vasi (209), Otter (193), Ullmark (170) had more than Fleury and I think we'd all agree those goalies had better years than Fleury. 

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    I think why the eye test makes you think he could improve is because of where those rebound attempts are coming from. If you look at the rebound attempts against those other (much better) goalies they are likely mostly coming from less dangerous spots. Fleury loves to kick them out right into the slot. Despite the defense doing an incredible job clearing most of them away last playoffs, that was likely the reason we lost the series against the Blues last year. They scored a large portion of their goals off slot rebounds. Also worth noting that a lot of those goalies played many more games than Fleury, so naturally they will have more rebound attempts against.

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    50 minutes ago, CammieBuckeye29 said:

    Funny thing I just found on MoneyPuck: Fleury's rebound control/puck freezes are better than Vasilevskiy's so far in the playoffs. Lol. I say that tongue in cheek of course because Vasi got blown out of the water last night, again proving that even all-world goalies have off nights. 


    My problem with Fleury is he's been letting in the easy ones. It started last season and has gotten worse this season. Has anyone else noticed when the Wild get a goal Fleury to often let's the other team right back in it by giving one up to them shortly afterwards. The Wild got to within 1 in game 2 at 4-3 and Fleury gives up two in quick succession. The 5 hole goal is inexcusable. He had clear vision and didn't even move.

    Every goalie gives up goals they'd like to have back but with Flower it's one or two a game now for the most part. He still makes those unbelievable saves and can keep the Wild in a game with them, but the stakes are to high in the playoffs. Ride your hot Goaltender starting now. 

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    2 hours ago, CammieBuckeye29 said:

    The excuse that the Wild can't adapt to the different styles of both their goalies doesn't fly for me. They are NHL players/coaches and should be smart enough to figure it out. Sure, Fleury could control some rebounds better. But also, it shouldn't be rocket science for his team to help him out a bit more. 

    I sort of agree with this statement, but not entirely.  When your team is running around like chickens with their heads cut off, it's time to melt it down, not kick out a rebound.  Keeping it moving all the time is not the right way to do it, especially on the road.  Fleury's got to show some awareness in these situations, and he didn't.

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    Gotta assume though Fleury would like to make a save where he can freeze the puck if possible? His style just isn't stationary or ultra-disciplined. Don't you guys remember him falling out of favor in Pittsburgh while also winning series by standing on his head. Later winning the Vezina in Vegas. Yeah he's older but still much the same. He had shutouts this season, sometimes making huge breakaway saves. He also has a bad game time to time. I would think at this point they're gonna stick with the hot goalie.

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