Goalie gaffes seem to be all the rage these days and on Saturday, there were two more faux pas that played endlessly on the highlight reels and profoundly affected the outcome of games. When did this Keystone Cops routine become so commonplace?
Here at the Staples Centre, Los Angeles Kings goaltender Ben Scrivens – who has been exceptional filling in for the injured Jonathan Quick – stumbled trying to play the puck during a five-minute power play and fell flat on his backside. His fall permitted the Flames’ Paul Byron to scoop up a loose puck and feed it to Blair Jones for a shorthanded goal, which broke a scoreless tie in what finished as a 2-1 Calgary victory.
Up the coast in San Jose, in a showdown for first place in the Pacific Division, it was more of the same, this time with Jonas Hiller in the featured role. The Anaheim Ducks were on a second-period power play when Hiller skated out to the right face-off circle to move the puck up to his defence. A routine play usually except this time, he turned it over to the Sharks' penalty killers, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, who played pitch and catch with each other before Marleau eventually deposited the puck in the empty net. The Ducks would tie the game in regulation to earn a point, but ultimately lost the game in a shootout.
According to Flames’ goaltender coach Clint Malarchuk, the evolving nature of the NHL game is the reason you’re seeing so many of puck-handling errors.
“Teams are so pressed and pressured for offence now that when the puck goes in deep, they want it turned around right away the other way,” said Malarchuk. “I know what we tell our goalies: ‘Play the puck. Play it and play it well.”
Easier said than done of course.
The goaltenders are now part of the breakout. Unlike defencemen, however, teams are asking their goalies to play the puck with a catching mitt gripping the lower part of a stick designed to block shots, not make passes.
The real mystery is why these misplays don’t occur more often. Presumably, if they did, teams might eventually start discouraging goaltenders “wandering” out of their creases, which is how it used to be described 30 years ago.
“It’s a game on ice,” said Scrivens. “Stuff happens. I was trying to get out there, play the puck and help the defencemen out. That was my plan and I had an unfortunate break catching an edge. Ninety per cent of the time that doesn’t really do anything, but this time it unfortunately might have cost us the game.”
“It's a problem as goalie if you make a mistake, there’s no one really behind you who can clear it up,” added Hiller.
Malarchuk noted that neither of the two Calgary goaltenders, Karri Ramo nor Reto Berra, is especially efficient at handling the puck, although both are improving as the season goes along. It will be interesting to see if the Flames give Ramo, the winner against the Kings, a chance to play some games consecutively now, after he turned in a strong outing.
The Flames have fallen to 30th overall defensively, behind even the Edmonton Oilers. Berra had been coach Bob Hartley’s goalie of choice for much of November, and while at times he made some exceptional saves, his style is a throwback to a different era – aggressive to the point where he is frequently caught out of position.
There is an acrobatic side to Berra’s game that is vaguely reminiscent of the early Dominik Hasek, but where Hasek played really deep in the net, and frequently had his shoulders hunched up under the crossbar, Berra is altogether too scrambly in the goal crease and frequently finds himself out of position and unable to stop second shots.
With all hands on deck, Calgary is an average defensive team. With their No. 1 and 2 defencemen, Mark Giordano and Dennis Wideman out indefinitely with injuries, the Flames need all-star calibre goaltending to stay competitive and to capitalize on a work ethic that rarely fails them. Twenty-six games in, Berra, Ramo and Joey MacDonald, who is currently in the minors, have three wins apiece. All have goals-against averages over 3.00 and save percentages under .900. Wonder if Miikka Kiprusoff would ever consider a comeback? They miss him even more than anyone could have forecast.