Hill authoring his own Cinderella story in Stanley Cup Playoffs
Say this about the looming Stanley Cup Final between the Florida Panthers and Vegas Golden Knights: There will be no shortage of storylines.
Whether it’s two of the faces of American hockey in Matthew Tkachuk and Jack Eichel going toe to toe, or the reality that we will again have a first-time Stanley Cup winner (assuming Vegas takes care of the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference Final, a series they lead 3-0), there is tremendous intrigue surrounding the series in front of us.
The goaltenders, undoubtedly, will draw a lot of attention. Much has been written about Sergei Bobrovsky’s remarkable roller-coaster ride from franchise goaltender, to third-stringer, to Conn Smythe favourite. But I think Adin Hill’s rise from journeyman netminder to seemingly bulletproof behind the Golden Knights defence is just as notable.
One of the questions I received this week was just how rare a breakout performance like Hill’s is, especially during postseason hockey. It’s an interesting line of questioning when you consider how little Hill has played during his NHL career.
Our confidence as to a goaltender’s true talent level comes from watching them play lots of minutes and face lots of shots. In the case of Hill, our estimates about his true talent would be rather wide – coming into the postseason, Hill had played just 101 regular-season games spanning six seasons.
Hill’s performance in these playoffs may seem superhuman for a career journeyman backup. It’s not often you see a goaltender from that bucket stop 94 per cent of shots over eight games. And notably, it’s not just Vegas’ sheer defensive play that’s juicing Hill’s save percentage. Through these eight games, Hill is at +9.1 goals saved versus expected, or about +1.1 goals erased per game. (For context: Bobrovsky is at a staggering +1.5 goals erased per game this postseason.)
How rare is that? Let’s compare it to a distribution of his performance we have observed during the regular season:
If you look at Hill’s distribution of performance over the course of his career, he’s a strikingly mediocre goaltender, which explains why he’s been able to hold onto meaningful backup jobs since entering the league in 2017-18. But that distribution of performance is also wide. We have seen a variety of stinkers and blow-up games, and we’ve seen games of sheer brilliance.
I think there is an important lesson here, especially as it relates to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. If you looked at a goalie with this distribution of performance over hundreds of games and forecasted what he might look like over the next hundred games, you would likely have a very precise estimate. But those estimates can get much wider over just a dozen games. Throw an inexperienced goaltender like Hill into the equation – a goaltender none of us had seen much of prior to this postseason – and your estimates might be all over the place.
Just as strikingly average goaltenders can sink a team’s fortune in the postseason, they also can get white-hot over a stretch of games at just the right time. Hill has been this great before; in fact, many times over. And to that end, him playing well right now cannot be totally unexpected.
But staying hot for this long and at this critical a moment is a different question altogether. It’s why goaltending can be such an impressively puzzling thing to analyze, no matter if you’re pouring through video or looking at the data.
Full marks to Hill for his play. And if he can outduel Dallas’ Jake Oettinger just one more time, he’ll get to write the next chapter of his personal Cinderella story.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference