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Goalies can make or break an NHL season

With veteran Lundquist sidelined, Capitals give 2 young goalies a shot between the pipes.

Washington Capitals goaltender Ilya Samsonov, left, will start for the team because Henrik Lundqvist is out for the season with a heart condition. Vitek Vanecek is another option for goalie, a crucial position in ice hockey because games are often decided by one goal. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The Washington Capitals’ 2021 National Hockey League (NHL) season starts tonight when they play the Buffalo Sabres in Buffalo, New York.

The Caps will look different this year. After 10 seasons with the team, goaltender Braden Holtby signed a contract with the Vancouver Canucks.

The Caps signed veteran goalie Henrik Lundqvist to replace Holtby. But Lundqvist is sidelined for the season with a heart condition. So Washington will go with two young goaltenders — Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek — between the pipes. (That’s hockey talk for goal posts.)

The Caps goaltending situation got me thinking about how much difference a goalie can make to an NHL team.

So I looked at the 2019-2020 season, and here’s what I found. Hang on, there’s going to be a lot of math.

Last season the average NHL goalie had a save percentage of about 90 percent (90.5 percent, to be exact). That means the goalie made about 90 saves for every 100 shots he faced. Or put another way, the average goalie let in around 10 goals for every 100 shots. Holtby, for example, had a save percentage of 89.7 percent.

Top goalies, such as Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins, have a save percentage of about 93 percent. That means they let in only seven goals for every 100 shots.

Now you may be thinking that isn’t a big difference. If you got a 90 percent on a math test instead of a 93 percent, you would still get an “A,” or at least an “A-minus.” But that 3 percentage-point difference can make a big difference to an NHL team. Here are more numbers.

I looked up the average number of shots on goal an NHL team took per game during the 2019-2020 season. It was around 31 shots. That means a goalie faces 100 shots in a little more than three games.

Let’s look at the stats of a top NHL goalie and an average one. A top goalie lets in only seven goals for each 100 shots, while an average goalie lets in 10. That means an average goalie lets in almost one more goal a game than a top goalie.

For example, Rask let in 2.12 goals a game last season, while Holtby let in 3.11.

One goal a game is huge for an NHL team. Last season, the Caps played 77 regular season and playoff games. Want to guess how many of those games were decided by one goal? Thirty-seven — that’s almost half the games!

I understand that not every goal is the goalie’s fault. Forwards make careless passes, and defensemen make mistakes that put their goalie in a tough spot.

Still, good goalies can make a big difference. So the Caps’ goaltenders better be good, or at least above average, if the Caps are going to be winners in 2021.

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