The situation is this: You’re up 1-0, the hottest sniper in the NHL has just laid a devastating move on one of your teammates at the blueline and is scooting into space to let fly with a shot.
From the net, what are you looking at?
If you’re Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens, you’re reading the angle and aspect of Alex Ovechkin’s stick blade as he shapes to shoot.
From 50 feet away. Through traffic.
In this case, on April 9, with about 12 minutes to play in the second period, Price correctly divined Ovechkin was looking for the glove side. What he couldn’t anticipate is the shot would be a swerving, dipping knuckleball – Caps score.
It looked an iffy goal, one that Price would like to have back, but there’s a subtle quirk to Ovechkin that might escape the casual viewer’s eye.
Price noted a few days later that Ovechkin is able to push the puck outward, almost fling it, to the forehand side in a way that makes it tricky to read. Fellow right-handed snipers Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Semin have similar action on their shots. (“Maybe it’s a Russian thing,” Price said jokingly.)
“If your glove’s a few inches too high or too low, it’s almost impossible to adjust once he lets it go,” Price said.
Reading the play, keeping a sharp focus on the shooter and soft focus on the other players on the ice , relying on your reflexes, picking up positional cues and doing it all without overthinking – a lot goes into playing goal at a high level in today’s NHL, more than most fans realize.
As goaltending consultant Eli Wilson, who has worked with Price , put it: “It’s an extremely technical position, it’s never just one thing that leads to a goal.”
So bear that in mind the next time you feel like venting on Price, or James Reimer, or Jonathan Quick, or whoever dons the pads for your favourite team. Playing net is a devilishly complicated pursuit at the best of times, one that Price recently joked he would discourage his children, should he have any, from taking up.
“They’re going to play baseball, probably,” he said last week after a white-knuckle 3-2 win over Tampa Bay in which he made 32 saves and was bailed out by his goalposts on four occasions.
In addition to the vagaries of playing the position in Montreal – a hothouse atmosphere that has chewed up titans like Patrick Roy and Ken Dryden – success is often a function of ephemera like confidence and “feeling it.”
“Goaltending is a weird position,” Price said after the Tampa game. “Some nights you really feel it, some nights you don’t.”
It’s been a trying three weeks or so for the 25-year-old, whose Canadiens play the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Saturday night, the final game of the regular season for both teams. Price’s stats have nosedived on the back of some dodgy performances from both goalie and team.
In the second week of April, Price was pulled in two straight starts after giving up nine goals on 33 shots, then had a scheduled night off interrupted when backup Peter Budaj was yanked against Pittsburgh (Price gave up three goals in relief). Only now is the product from Anahim Lake, B.C., working his way back into form.
He played well against Tampa on April 18, then not so well against the Caps two nights later (a 5-1 loss), rebounded somewhat against New Jersey (a 3-2 loss), and took a step forward on Thursday against Winnipeg (a 4-2 win).
Those in the know feel Price is an elite goaltender. Last week, Tampa starter Ben Bishop called him “one of the absolute best goalies in the world,” a sentiment echoed nearly word for word by former Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke in a recent radio interview.
But in today’s NHL, no one is immune from dips in form.
The goaltenders generally accepted as the best in the league, New York’s Henrik Lundqvist, Nashville’s Pekka Rinne, have each endured periods of ineffectiveness this year. So have Columbus’s Sergei Bobrovsky, the consensus pick for the Vézina Trophy, Boston’s Tuukka Rask, Phoenix’s Mike Smith and the Blues’ Brian Elliott.
Many hockey people believe the days of consistently dominant NHL goalies in the mould of Dominik Hasek, Patrick Roy or a pre-2004 Martin Brodeur are over.
Limitations on equipment, rule changes to eliminate clutching and grabbing, the advent of one-piece sticks, and the improving fitness levels of players who seem to get bigger and bigger are conspiring against goalies.
“When guys have time and space with the puck, or worse, when they have momentum with the puck, they’re shooting to score,” said Wilson, a former Ottawa Senators goalie coach who counts several current NHL netminders, including Elliott, as pupils. “It’s not like the old days when it was more bang-bang and players would shoot just to get it on net. There’s a difference. The top 20 or 30 players in the world are way better than they’ve ever been. Way better.”
Add it all together, and the demands on goalies are greater than ever.
It’s no accident, then, that the focus for goalies is on technique and peak fitness. Wilson reckons the top 60 goaltenders in the NHL have the physical tools and technical knowledge to be full-fledged number ones. The difference between the elite, the near-elite, and the pedestrian is in the subtleties of their game.
“It’s like golfers,” Wilson said. “You might see five guys warming up who have a perfect swing, but when you drop a golf ball on the ground, three of them are all over the place and two of them hit poker straight.”
The best of the best, he continued, “have that exceptional hand-eye, hard and soft focus, and visual attachment. They’re seeing the puck into their body and positioning to react to the next play. Fine details can make a huge difference.”
Darren Pang, a former Chicago Blackhawks goalie who retired in 1990, said it’s easy for a goaltender to be knocked off his game, particularly in a compressed season where practices have been rare.
The Habs recently changed their practice arrangements to allow Price to see more pucks; shooting drills formerly left to backup Peter Budaj have lately involved Price.
Pang also used a golf analogy: “If a PGA golfer is playing every single week and doesn’t have any time with his instructor, it’s going to go awry.”
There are also natural reactions to external factors, Pang said. Deficient penalty killing can sap confidence (the Habs’ penalty killing has been catastrophic during Price’s recent slump). And soft defensive work around the net can also hinder the netminder in ways that aren’t immediately obvious.
“What causes a lack of confidence?” Pang said. “If a team doesn’t defend the net well, or gives up the post, you’re going to be back on your heels as a goalie. If you’re playing a team that’s really aggressive on wraparounds, or they’re going really hard to the posts on the rush, your tendency is to back up a little. Then your angles are off slightly, and you’re trying to compensate in other ways. Pretty soon, you’re six inches or a foot out of position, and nothing works.”
So as the Habs enter the playoffs, their goalie will need to make technical adjustments and recapture his focus and mindset.
It will help if his team is able to do something about insulating his workspace from the fast, powerful forces around him.