PITTSBURGH -- Goaltending is the great equalizer in the Stanley Cup playoffs and the team that gets the better of it will usually win that particular series.
On the rare occasion that team does not win, it is usually because the other team is just so much better, and so much more dominant, that the goaltending is just cancelled out. It does not happen often, but it is pretty much how the 2016 Eastern Conference finals played out when the Pittsburgh Penguins were winners in a tight seven-game series against the Tampa Bay Lightning thanks to their 2-1 win on Thursday night.
After taking over for an injured Ben Bishop in the first game of the series, Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was the best goalie in every single game he played, whether it was Matt Murray or Marc-Andre Fleury standing in the crease at the other end of the ice.
When you look at this series, the scoreboard will tell you the the aggregate goal tally was 21-18 in favor of the Penguins, and that four games, including the decisive Game 7 and the two overtime games the teams played, were decided by just a single goal.
It is difficult for a seven-game series to be closer than that.
The crazy thing about all of this is the series was not that close. At least not based on the way the two teams actually played on the ice.
The only reason it appeared to be, and the only reason it needed a seventh game, is because Vasilevskiy nearly stole the series all by himself.
Just to give you a sense of how lopsided the play was at times in this series, Vasileskiy allowed 20 goals in the series after taking over for Bishop early in Game 1. That is a lot of goals for six-and-a-half games. He still finished the series with a .922 save percentage. That is an outstanding number, and one that only 11 of the 58 goalies that appeared in at least 20 games this season were able to reach.
Then you look at the Penguins goalies at the other end of the ice, where Murray and Fleury combined for an .899 save percentage (a number that is very bad!), and you wonder just how in the hell they actually won this series with that type of gap in goaltending.
Well, it is very simple. They were so dominant at times when it came to controlling territorial play that they pretty much eliminated the goaltenders from the equation. That is not an easy thing to do, especially this late in the postseason, and especially against a team as good as the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Lightning are an outstanding team and possess a roster that is filled with ridiculously skilled and creative offensive players. That remains true even without Steven Stamkos, their best player, until he surprisingly returned for Game 7 on Thursday night. As a team, the Lightning do not always spend a ton of time in the offensive zone, but when they do they can look scary with the puck on their sticks. They are opportunistic, they pounce on the chances they do get and make you pay for that one mistake you might make.
But that lack of territorial play ended up giving the Penguins an absolutely massive edge on the shots chart.
The Penguins ended the series outshooting the Lightning by a ridiculous 269-179 margin.
The total shot attempts in the series (goals, saves, blocks, misses) were 455-341 in favor of the Penguins.
If you only look at even-strength play it was 371-303 in favor of the Penguins. That is a 55 percent Corsi number. Just to put that in its proper context, the best Corsi team in the NHL during the regular season was the Los Angeles Kings at 56.4 percent. The Penguins were second best at 52.7 percent. Again: The Penguins were 55 percent in a conference finals series against one of the best teams in the NHL. You sometimes hear hockey people refer to "tilting the ice." That is what tilting the ice looks like.
The Penguins didn't necessarily win this series by creating the best chances (though they did have their fair share). They won by creating the most chances. Over and over again. Quantity, and not necessarily quality, was the key in this series.
Vasilevskiy will probably end up hating the goal that decided Game 7, the second goal of the night for Pittsburgh's Bryan Rust, and it was not a great one.
#Game7 wasn't tied for long. Rust with number 2. #StanleyCuphttps://t.co/d81oBtmeCo— #StanleyCup Playoffs (@NHL) May 27, 2016
There is a lesson here. That is lesson is that shot volume matters. A lot. The only reason that goal ended up mattering at all Thursday is because of the saves Vasilevskiy made earlier in the game (and later in the game) when the Penguins were controlling the play. He did it every game in the series.
But the more chances you get, and the more shots you create, the more likely it is you get a play like that to go your way. It isn't always the pretty goal that beats you.
Throughout the series there always seemed to be a confidence with the Penguins, even in defeat, that if they continued to play their game they would eventually break through no matter how well the guy in the opposite crease played. They always seemed to find a way to do it.
In the end the Lightning had, by far, the best goalie.
The Penguins had the better team.