Hockey pundits will often discuss a phenomenon known as the “trap game.” In this case, “trap” isn’t referring to some boring neutral zone forecheck, but rather the entire game being a sort of trap.
Generally, it refers to a matchup in which a team faces a weaker opponent in the midst of high-energy games. Contests like these are generally considered risky because in the midst of a series of emotional, high-energy or crucial division games, a team may underestimate a weak opponent, or simply not be as prepared for the matchup, and lose a game that probably should not have.
It is odd, then, that while many fans will acknowledge the existence of a trap game from a team standpoint, that many are still shocked when a goaltender plays an off game against a weak opponent. It seems many fans expect that when a goaltender plays weaker competition, the expected result should be a shutout. After all, a good goalie playing a bad team shouldn’t have any problems, right?
Not necessarily. When playing against a weaker team, games can take on an odd flow from the goaltender’s standpoint. Scoring opportunities can come in the midst of stretches where the goaltender faces few shots, or the opponent’s plan of attack could be altogether more sporadic and unpredictable. For any goalie, getting caught up in a game that has a loose tempo or unpredictable nature can lead to the goaltender “playing down” to his opponent.
This has always felt like a rather subjective evaluation, though. So, I decided to examine some of Ilya Bryzgalov’s performances last season against non-playoff teams in order to determine whether or not his performance against weaker teams was prone to getting caught off guard.
Firstly, let’s arbitrarily define the “weak competition” teams as teams that ultimately finished 10 points or more out of the playoffs:
Carolina (82), Toronto (80), NY Islanders (79), Montreal (78)
Minnesota (81), Anaheim (80), Edmonton (74), Columbus (65)
Bryzgalov’s performances against each team:
Carolina: 5-1 W (25 SA, .960 SV), 4-2 L (31 SA, .870 SV)
Toronto: 1-0 SO W (29 SA, 1.00 SV)
NYI: 4-3 OT W (32 SA, .906 SV), 1-0 SO L (18 SA, 1.00 SV), 6-3 W (21 SA, .875 SV), 3-2 W (31 SA, .935 SV)
Montreal: 5-1 L (28 SA, .821 SV), 4-1 W (24 SA, .958 SV)
Minnesota: 5-1 W (26 SA, .962 SV)
Anaheim: 4-3 W (19 SA, .864 SV)
Edmonton: 2-0 L (30 SA, .933 SV)
Columbus: 9-2 W (35 SA, .943 SV)
In 13 games total against teams that finished firmly out of the playoffs, Bryz accumulated a 9-3-1 record. He allowed a total of 25 goals on 349 shots, for a .928 save percentage. So it would initially appear that Bryz does not, in fact, tend to play down to all of his weaker opponents; in fact, his .928 SV% against these teams is certainly much higher than his average .908 for the entire season.
However, it is worth noting that in many of these games, our loopy Russian netminder faced a number of shots that is slightly higher than his season average. Over the course of last season, Bryz averaged 26.33 shots against per game. In this collection of games, his average shots against were 26.84. Of these 13 games, his save percentage dropped below 90 percent just four times. In only one of those four games did he see greater than 30 shots (his 4-2, .870 loss to Carolina).
So perhaps the key for the “trap game” in Bryzgalov’s universe relies on the amount of work he is getting. Often times it’s the erratic pace and work load that makes weaker teams difficult for a goaltender to play against, and Bryzgalov’s statistic variations seem to indicate that he only struggled against these teams when he wasn’t seeing many shots. Of course, 13 games is a small sample size, but these are numbers that we’ll continue to track on Crashing the Crease during the upcoming season. If there is one, that is.