If the inexplicable and enormous spike in goal-scoring has emerged as the biggest storyline of the first two weeks of the 2016-17 NHL season, nowhere has it manifested more dramatically than behind the pads of Cam Ward and Eddie Lack.
Six games in, the two Carolina Hurricanes’ goaltenders are rolling with almost unfathomably awful stat lines: an 0.848 save percentage and 4.02 GAA for Ward; an 0.857 save percentage and 4.00 GAA for Lack.
Their collective ineptitude has equated to five losses in the Hurricanes season-opening six-game road trip and and a 28th place ranking in goals against per game (4.0, exactly) despite having allowed the seventh-fewest shots against per game.
That familiar trend — of the Hurricanes doing well in every stat that doesn’t count in the scoreboard, yet poorly in every stat (namely, goals for and goals against) that does — is age-old for this team, dating back all the way to the beginning of this decade. But this extreme disparity between the two, tracing back via thick, black lines to Ward and Lack’s struggles, is still a new phenomenon altogether.
On Saturday in Philadelphia, Lack gave up two goals by overcommitting, challenging out too far and allowing Brandon Manning to deke around him, then sliding out of his crease and giving up a tap-in rebound to Wayne Simmonds. Then a third by not committing and cutting down the angle enough (Gostisbehere’s far side snipe) and a fourth by just flubbing an easy save on Jakub Voracek.
It was a full but mixed bag of miscues; inexcusably too many, but not easily fixed by changing one single aspect of his game.
Then on Tuesday in Detroit, Cam Ward gave up two of the soft type of goals that have plagued his career, letting pucks twice squeak through his pads and into the net despite being in position. At this point, it doesn’t seem like Ward will ever be able to correct that flaw in his game.
The past two games provide merely anecdotal evidence — and a six-game sample size is really rather small, too — but the Hurricanes’ 1-3-2 record in the standings is what it is. Sample sizes aren’t valid excuses for Ward and Lack.
Unsurprisingly, when the shots each goaltender has faced are categorized (by Corsica.hockey) as either low-, medium- or high-danger, Ward and Lack both still rank below-average in every category. But Ward’s below-averageness remains fairly consistent from category to category, while Lack nearly reaches league average against low- and medium-danger shots but gets slaughtered against high-danger ones.
Such data aligns with the reputations that the two men have developed over the years: generally subpar Ward’s occasional propensity for spectacular saves, Lack’s deep-in-the-crease style working well against outside shots but poorly against short-distance ones.
Ward is also struggling mightily with rebound control, giving up 3.69 rebound shots per game (6th-most out of 47 goalies). Lack, with his more conservative, sunken style, isn’t having the same problem.
These connections reveal that these six horrendous games haven’t, after all, been inexplicable aberrations. Rather, they’ve been roughly in line with Ward and Lack’s respective strengths and weaknesses. But this year, those strengths are now simply “not weaknesses” while the weaknesses are now egregious flaws.
That’s not to say that sample size isn’t still a factor — the Hurricanes won’t be finishing their 82-game slate in April with an .853 team save percentage — but it may well be time to panic about this netminding situation.
It’s worth noting, however, that the defense is doing its backstops no favors.
Despite allowing the fourth-fewest shot attempts and seventh-fewest shots on goal, many of the shots that the Hurricanes are allowing are of very high quality. 81.2 percent of the shots Ward and Lack have faced are of medium or high danger — a significant difference from the league average of 63.4 percent.
The breakdowns leading to Grade-A chances have been easy to spot in the last few games.
In addition to the four stoppable goals Lack conceded against the Flyers, he also had no opportunity at all to react to the deflection goals by Voracek and Matt Read, who were able to camp out freely in the slot.
In addition to Ward’s two gaffes in Detroit, he also faced an uncontested breakaway by Dylan Larkin and an awful defensive parting of the seas that gave Andreas Athanasiou several seconds to pick his corner from the dead slot.
Both goalies were unquestionably bad in the two games, but those defensive issues exacerbated their poor play even further — a regular theme every night thus far.
In fact, if Ward and Lack had faced the league average portions of each danger level instead of Carolina’s skewed distribution and still recorded their same awful save percentages against each level, they would have conceded, mathematically, 1.25 fewer total goals this season. For a team that has already lost three one-goal games, that would certainly have made a difference.
And the road for Ward and Lack — and the defense in front of them — won’t get any easier on Friday against the Rangers, the early league leader in scoring chances per 60 minutes by a wide margin.
Whoever takes the net for the home opener will need to experience a sudden and marked improvement in order to give the Hurricanes any chance to win.