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A team advances only if a masked player carries it Add to ...

The monster that so terrifies goaltenders sits pushed against a bare wall in the lower bowels of the HSBC Arena, stacks of used boards on one side, empty beer kegs on the other.

"I don't even want to look," Ottawa Senators goaltending coach Ron Low says.

Ryan Miller, the Buffalo Sabres' star goaltender, closes his eyes at the very thought and shakes his head.

"Fine," he says with some disdain, "if they want us to make soccer saves and go diving across with our gloves."

The monster is the National Hockey League's experimental goal, a hockey net that looks as if it has been deliberately warped by Photoshop, the crossbar arching higher, the posts billowing out on each side and the net visibly larger.

The night before, five goals were fired by the Senators and two by the Sabres into the regulation-size hockey nets that sit in a far-off area of the arena, but seven goals in a single game has been the exception this spring. Save percentages are soaring; goals many nights seem as rare as fights.

There is even a mock picture of the 2007 Vancouver Canucks team floating about the Internet, the photograph showing a singular lonely figure, goaltender Roberto Luongo, sitting alone on a bench for the camera. The message is clear: Luongo did everything he could - but his team could not score.

Once again, the Stanley Cup playoffs have come down to goaltending. It makes almost as much sense to say there are four goaltenders still standing as four teams, with Buffalo pinning its hopes on Miller, Ottawa on Ray Emery, the Anaheim Ducks on Jean-Sébastien Giguère and the Detroit Red Wings on Dominik Hasek.

"You will only go as far as your goalie takes you," Terry Murray said a decade ago when he was coach of the Philadelphia Flyers. He was dead on - when his goaltending failed him, his boss fired him.

Detroit goaltender Mike Vernon, on the other hand, was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in that year's playoffs.

Fourteen times since the Conn Smythe was introduced in 1965, the MVP honours have gone to goaltenders, but recently the domination seems far more apparent.

Since Patrick Roy almost single-handedly delivered Canada's last Stanley Cup title to Montreal in 1993, the Smythe has gone to five goaltenders, most recently Cam Ward of the Carolina Hurricanes just last year.

"What pitching is in a short series in baseball," Detroit general manager Jack Adams said more than a half-century ago, "goaltending is in the Stanley Cup playoffs."

It seems even more true these days, so true, in fact, that there is much talk in hockey circles of doing the hockey equivalent of lowering the mound, which baseball turned to in 1969 in an effort to "increase the batting."

Baseball fans want to see home runs; hockey fans want to see goals. Baseball largely solved that problem - though some would argue pumping up the arms had more to do with this than lowering the mound - and hockey is still wondering what, if anything, should be done.

The "new NHL" was supposed to open up the game and provide more goals, but it hasn't quite worked out as imagined. The game opened up, but the nets seemed to close down. Coaches adopted new checking techniques, players such as Ottawa's Anton Volchenkov emerged as superior shot blockers - "Sometimes he makes more saves than I do," Emery said jokingly - and goaltender development simply moved to a higher level.

"You just don't see any easy goals any more," said Low, who played goal for a half-dozen NHL teams in the 1970s and 1980s.

Montreal Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey believes that goaltending has gone from being largely a reflex position to one of technique mastered with the help of coaching specialists.

"Compare it to figure skating," Gainey said. "It's all about the breakdown of technique. A skater has to work on a jump until the technique is exact and that jump is landed perfectly each time. Goalies today work the same way on technique, and this has lead to an increase in efficiency."

Ottawa coach Bryan Murray said that Emery's technique has improved so much this season, thanks to "attention to detail," that he has become "the real, real strength of our team."

But technique cannot explain it all. "There's that," Gainey said, "plus the equipment has exploded."

No one who watched hockey from the 1970s to 2007 has not noticed the mushrooming of goalie equipment. The goaltending stars of those days - Montreal's Ken Dryden, for example - look today as if they are dressed for street hockey, not NHL hockey. Roy, with his tent-like jerseys and strategic stitching, led the way into a world where the goal equipment looked as Photoshopped as the experimental net.

The equipment has been somewhat cut back in recent years, but not significantly. Some long-time hockey observers, such as hockey analyst Pierre McGuire, think the equipment can still be reduced somewhat, but at some point, player safety will become an issue.

"As a shooter," said Daniel Alfredsson, the Ottawa captain, "you've got maybe an inch to shoot at. It's got to be in off the post if it's going."

Good shooters, Alfredsson said, are now increasingly dragging the puck into their feet before snapping it off, their hope being that the slight move will either start the goalie moving or slightly shift the angle to the shooter's advantage.

Others, of course, will argue that the simplest answer to more goals is the easiest: bigger nets.

Gainey says the size of the nets has become a major topic of discussion among general managers.

"The question is," Gainey said, "whether or not the skaters can catch up to the efficiency of the goaltending. That's the big question. That's why we're still toying with the larger net.

"But it's a fine line. If goals become too easy, they lose their value."

"So what if goals are hard to come by?" Low added. "The games are exciting. What the hell is wrong with having good goaltending anyway?"

rmacgregor@globeandmail.com

Hot goalies

Statistics for the No. 1 goaltenders on the remaining teams in the 2007 Stanley Cup playoffs (not including last night's game):

J.S. Giguère, Anaheim

Win-loss record: 5-1

Goals-against average: 1.28

Saves: 177

Save percentage: .952

Shutouts: 0

Dominik Hasek, Detroit

Win-loss record: 8-4

Goals-against average: 1.51

Saves: 254

Save percentage: .930

Shutouts: 1

Ray Emery, Ottawa

Win-loss record: 9-2

Goals-against average: 2.03

Saves: 255

Save percentage: .917

Shutouts: 2

Ryan Miller, Buffalo

Win-loss record: 8-4

Goals-against average: 2.22

Saves: 339

Save percentage: .924

Shutouts: 0

Source: ESPN.com

 

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