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Goaltenders often have superstitious minds

Colorado Avalanche Patrick Roy keeps his eyes on the puck as he makes a save against the Montreal Canadiens during first period NHL action in Montreal Tuesday Nov. 6, 2001.

RYAN REMIORZ/Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Through the years, Stanley Cup playoff series have been decided by goaltenders who come in all shapes, sizes and psychological profiles.

Patrick Roy infamously talked to his goal posts. Glenn Hall needed to vomit before every game. Gilles Gratton, a.k.a. Gratoony the Loony, once told teammates he'd been reincarnated from a Spanish Inquisition soldier.

They run hot and they run cold. Sometimes, as in the first round of this year's NHL playoffs, they can inexplicably go both ways within a single series.

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The Philadelphia Flyers used three different starters in their opening round against the Buffalo Sabres - and won. The San Jose Sharks gave last year's Stanley Cup winner, Antti Niemi, the hook twice - and won. The Vancouver Canucks turned controversially to Cory Schneider for Game 6, returned to Roberto Luongo for Game 7 - and won. Marc-André Fleury opened the playoffs with a 3-0 shutout, got lit up for eight goals the next night, and continued that up-and-down pattern as the Pittsburgh Penguins got ousted by the Lightning as Tampa Bay's Dwayne Roloson improved his record in elimination games to 6-0 with a shutout in the seventh game.

Roy led the Montreal Canadiens to the 1993 Stanley Cup championship, and Hall backstopped the Chicago Black Hawks to the title in 1961.

What hasn't changed over time is that goalies are a breed apart, with a distinct and separate function whose performance relies in equal parts on athleticism and mental strength.

"It's all about where their confidence level is at," says former NHL goaltender Glenn Healy, now an analyst for Hockey Night in Canada. "You see it in golf - with Greg Norman at the Masters. For how many days did he not miss a green or a fairway or a putt? Nothing. All of a sudden, he got to the back nine on Sunday and couldn't make anything. He looked like me and you golfing.

"You say, 'how does that happen?' Once that negative self talk and doubt creeps in, boy, it's hard to erase that."

No one needs to tell the Ottawa Senators how a goaltender's performance can ebb and flow in a single playoff year.

In 2001-02, Patrick Lalime surrendered only two goals in five games and recorded three shutouts as the Senators eliminated the Flyers in the opening round. Facing their arch-rivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs, in the second, Lalime opened with a 5-0 shutout, but ultimately the Sens lost the series in seven games, with Lalime's play dropping off a little every match as the pressure mounted.

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David Paskevich, a sports psychologist at the University of Calgary, suggests goaltenders at the NHL level are similar in terms of the physical, technical and tactical aspects of their games.

"What separates them is how they manage themselves mentally," Paskevich says. "Do they worry? Is there doubt? Are they concerned by other people's perceptions?

"If you can't manage your thoughts and feelings, it's hard to manage your performance."

Managing performance is tied to superstition for some players, according to former New York Rangers goalie Dan Blackburn, who at 18 became the third-youngest player to win a game at the NHL level.

"The connotation of the word 'superstition' is that it's negative," says Blackburn, who coaches goaltending in the Dallas area. "I think that the way most goalies look at it is as habits - to be habitual about things and have positive habits, because when you do something repetitively and you do it all the time, that builds structure in your game."

On the other hand, after the Boston Bruins lost the first two games in the opening round to Montreal last week, goaltender Tim Thomas switched the suits he was wearing to the arena in the hopes of changing his luck. The Bruins won Game 3, and Thomas came back with the same suit for Games 4, 5 and 6 - at which point Montreal finally won again and Thomas decided the suit had lost its karmic power. The Bruins won Game 7.

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There was a similar scenario involving Thomas and the mustache he grew during the Movember awareness campaign for prostate cancer. Thomas kept the mustache beyond November, because his kids thought it looked cool. When he finally shaved it, though, Thomas fell into a funk. He grew the mustache back, his game came around again and now he is nominated for the Vézina Trophy.

Healy also caught Thomas and centre David Krejci playing "a little game of catch with the puck before every game. Krejci shoots it at Thomas, Thomas shoots it back to Krejci."

"Okay, Gregory Campbell can't do that?" Healy says. "No, it's got to be Krejci. They do it because they did it once and it worked, so they're going to keep doing it."

Luongo, who disclaims superstitions, shaved his beard after a grim outing against the Blackhawks in the opening round. He explained the beard grows too heavy during the postseason. He came back in the clinching seventh game - a game reminiscent of the Vancouver 2010 gold-medal game against the U.S. - with a steady performance aided by teammates who blocked 16 shots.

"You watch Game 7 and they are doing everything they can to protect him," Phoenix Coyotes goalie coach Sean Burke says. "That was not a team that was real confident in their goaltender. But he's a well-liked guy, a guy the team cares about. So they played the type of game where they're trying to protect him and teams will do that for certain goalies."

Thomas is popular in Boston, too, and Roloson has quickly become a favourite in Tampa.

The oldest active goalie remaining in the playoffs at 41, Roloson is as close to superstition-free as a goalie can be. Roloson once noted sometimes superstitions can control you, if you develop too many.

"I've never really gotten into that stuff," he says. "I've played with some guys that had all these superstitions, but for me, it's not my cup of tea. When things change, I don't want to be all goofed up and not be able to play. I just like to focus on what I have to do."

When Blackburn first arrived in the NHL, he lived for a season with John Davidson, a former Rangers goaltender who was then a broadcaster for MSG Network.

"It's an interesting concept, superstition, because a lot of times, what it can do is keep you completely focused," says Davidson, now the president of the St. Louis Blues. "My superstitions revolved around driving to [Madison Square]Garden from Westchester County, which on a good day, took an hour. If things were going well, I'd tried to drive in the same lane, or go through the same toll booth. Sometimes, it would take an extra 10 minutes - but if it was going well, it was certainly worth it."

Superstition is hardly limited to goaltenders.

"When Darius Kasparaitis throws a cup before Game 7 in Pittsburgh and it lands straight up, the whole dressing room goes, 'That's karma - don't touch the cup,'" Healy says.

Still, it may be goaltenders more than most observe habit religiously. Hall of Fame goaltender Ken Dryden had to stop the puck one last time before leaving the crease during the warm-up. Luongo once explained he programmed his game days: chicken and pasta, a nap, shower, head to the rink.

Likewise, "everything I did was the same," Healy says. "Leaving for the rink at the same time, listening to the same songs on the way, eat the same meal, the same [leg]pad on first, where did it end? From the minute my feet hit the ground until the last buzzer, I did everything the same way. And then, if you found something that worked, you weren't changing it - ever."

The pressure on goaltenders is arguably greater than on anyone else in the playoffs, because mistakes are magnified tenfold. Much like managing stress in the workplace, "being successful is about managing your thoughts and feelings and the ability to relax after being scored on," Paskevich says.

Fleury and Niemi both rebounded for subpar performances in the middle of the 2011 opening round and were strong in their series finales. Fleury surrendered just the one goal, while the Sharks stuck with Niemi and he responded by battening down the hatches against the Los Angeles Kings on the road.

"If you're a forward that's struggling, you go out there and hit somebody or maybe drop the gloves," Burke says. "There are other ways that you can contribute. As a goaltender, it's the one position where you really are more of an individual, so you have to have your confidence. The minute that slips, there really isn't anybody to help you."

Davidson has a counter-intuitive theory about playoff pressure that Dryden believes as well: That playoffs are actually easier on a goaltenders' psyche, not harder.

"To me, there is no such thing as playoff pressure," Davidson says. "It was easier playing in the playoffs - because everybody does everything for you. It doesn't matter if you have kids, or grocery shopping, or banking, everything is done for you, all you have to do is play.

"Every once in a while, in January, you may get a little tired, or you've got to get yourself ready to play. In the playoffs, it's all natural. It just happens."

To Paskevich, success begins at that juncture - when it is all natural, when it all just happens.

"There are ritualistic routines, like forwards putting on the right shin guard before every game," he says. "The difficulty comes when you go from something functional to something dysfunctional. If the superstitions control the athlete, that's the dysfunction."

With reports from Allan Maki and Matthew Sekeres

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