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First Round

Philipp Grubauer vs. Mike Smith

Style differences could play big role in deciding Avalanche-Flames series

by Kevin Woodley / Correspondent

Goaltending is an integral part of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. To better understand the strengths and weaknesses of the goaltenders, the final 100 goals allowed by each in the regular season and each goal allowed in the playoffs were charted, with the help of Apex Video Analysis and Save Review System from Upper Hand Inc., to see what patterns emerge.

Calgary Flames goalie Mike Smith is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2012, and hoping to at least match that year's run to the Western Conference Final with the Arizona Coyotes. Colorado Avalanche starter Philipp Grubauer will get a Game 1 start for the second straight season, but he's hoping his time in goal lasts a lot longer this time after losing the net to Braden Holtby three games into the Washington Capitals' run to the Stanley Cup last season.

On the ice, their styles and strengths are as unique as their experiences, and the differences could play a big role in the Western Conference First Round. The best-of-7 series starts with Game 1 at Scotiabank Saddledome on Thursday (10 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS, ALT).

Here is an in-depth look at each goalie's game:


Philipp Grubauer, Colorado Avalanche

Grubauer had a tale of two seasons. He got off to a slow start with his new team but was dominant down the stretch, going 7-0-2 with a .953 save percentage in his final nine starts to help the Avalanche clinch the second wild card into the playoffs from the West. Grubauer finished last season similarly strong to earn the first two starts in the playoffs ahead of Holtby. Whether he can last longer this season could depend on whether the Flames are able to pick out, and pick apart, any of the tendencies from the 89 goals he allowed this season.


Goal Trends

Glove hitch gone? Grubauer's early playoff exit last season was tied in part to a bad glove-hand habit that the Columbus Blue Jackets exploited in his first two games. Grubauer would turn his glove down over his pad as he got set for a shot, and it often left him playing catch up on high shots and that was the case against Columbus. The good news is that hitch appears mostly gone, and while the 21 high-glove goals jump out on the chart, the combination of 23 high- and mid-glove goals (26 percent) isn't significantly worse than the tracked average (23.7 percent) for this project. Still, Grubauer does tend to hold his glove a little low down at or below his hip, and is prone to leaving it behind and disengaged on lateral movements, so it will be interesting to see if the Flames target it as clearly as the Blue Jackets appeared to in his last playoff appearance.

Second chances and sharp angles: For a second straight season, Grubauer noticeably was above the tracked average (21.1 percent) for rebound goals. Last season it was 26 percent, and this season he gave up 27 of his 89 goals (30.3 percent) on rebound chances. Eleven of those rebound goals this season came off low-high passes or plays from near or below the goal line; Grubauer gave up 10 goals as a result of his post-integration tactics and technique, so sharp-angle attacks with second-chance support around the net are a good idea.

Against the grain: Grubauer was beaten 23 times (25.8 percent) on shots and plays that caught him moving the wrong way, well above the 16.9 percent average and the second straight season he's been above the average. He uses a narrow, upright stance and exceptional patience to make up for being on the small side at 6-foot-1, but he's not as aggressive with his positioning, playing mostly inside his crease, which leaves him shifting actively into shots, usually a good habit that can leave him susceptible to deflections and rebounds that go the other way.


Mike Smith, Calgary Flames

Smith had an .898 save percentage in 42 games this season; it's the lowest of his career in any season when he's played at least 25 games. He admittedly struggled early to adjust mentally to a reduced role alongside playing partner David Rittich. But Smith was better late, limiting opponents to two goals or fewer in 10 of his last 13 starts dating to Feb. 18. He has at least some playoff experience and can alter an opponent's forecheck with his puck-handling skill.


Goal Trends

Under the arm(or): Smith's goal totals under the arms were almost double the average tracked of more than 5,500 goals recorded for these breakdowns during the past three seasons. But a lot of those goals came early in the season, when he admittedly struggled to adjust to the new NHL chest protectors. Smith went through several variations trying to get comfortable before settling on a mixture of parts from three different models; the prolonged adjustment also may have played a role in his high glove totals. Smith said he was pulling his hands in tighter to make up for the smaller chest protector, effectively making himself smaller and less reactive. As a goalie who plays deeper in his crease than most, Smith can't afford to be passive with his hands, and this appears also to have played a role in 32 clean shot goals where he had time to be set on the shooter and see the release, well above the 22.9 percent average. As a bigger goalie (6-5), Smith also has bigger holes to close, especially when moving side to side, and his positioning can leave him flat along the goal line rather than squared up on a shooter, and reaching on points shots into traffic, which opens those seams more.

Smart dump ins: Glaring mistakes that lead to easy goals often become the focus of discussions about Smith's deft puck handling, and it's understandable given how deflating a free goal can be, especially as scoring gets harder in the playoffs. But there were three such goals in the 100 tracked this season, and the Flames' internal metrics show how valuable Smith's touches can be when it comes to getting the puck out of their end cleanly and getting their skilled forwards moving in the opposite direction with speed. Making it tougher on him by getting dump-ins up on the glass, where more bad bounces happen, or making them soft enough that forecheckers can get there quickly enough to disrupt things, may increase the odds of a glaring mistake. However, it's a fine line between allowing him to suck in those forecheckers and start odd-man rushes the other way.

Dead angles: Smith didn't give up any goals from below the goal line, but plays from sharp angles contributed to 10 of the 100 tracked. Post integration isn't easy for a big goaltender like Smith, especially since his butterfly is not naturally wide; lateral plays from sharp angles tended to get him reaching and opening up, contributing to the 15 goals through his legs.

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