How NHL goalies deal with playoff pressure between the pipes
Hockey goalies are different. Come playoffs, they can be difference-makers.
It’s commonly accepted that a team’s fortunes during the Stanley Cup playoffs ride on its goaltending. For perspective, in the 50-year history of the Conn Smythe Trophy, given to the Stanley Cup MVP, only five players from a losing team have received the award. Four of them—Roger Crozier, Glenn Hall, Ron Hextall and Jean-Sebastien Giguere—were goaltenders.
All-star netminder Cory Schneider of the New Jersey Devils knows NHL playoff hockey firsthand. In 2011, during the tumultuous finals between the Boston Bruins and the Vancouver Canucks, Schneider—then with the Canucks—was thrust into the spotlight when the team’s starter, Roberto Luongo, faltered.
“Everything is just magnified during the playoffs,” says the 30-year-old Schneider. “Every play, every mistake, every save, every goal, it all just gets magnified.”
Schneider is one of three goaltenders (along with L.A.’s Jonathan Quick and Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop) named to Team USA for next fall’s World Cup of Hockey. During the playoffs this spring, the Devils’ $6-million man is taking a turn as analyst with the NHL Network. And he says every facet of the game—emotional, mental, and physical—ramps up big time come the playoffs.
“Everyone’s game elevates,” says Schneider. “Obviously, the goalie has to be better. His game has to elevate. But your teammates around you, their game elevates. The speed and physicality go up. So while you do better, your team game improves as well.”
Brian Daccord, Schneider’s longtime coach and now goaltending consultant for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Hockey Canada goalie consultant Fred Brathwaite, a 19-year pro, both echo Schneider’s take on playoff mode. It’s all about the intensity.
“A series can change on a play, on a goal,” says Daccord. “You don’t want to be giving up a goal that is going to change momentum in a game that may change momentum in a series.”
So how does the goaltender, arguably the most important player on the ice, deal with the amplified pressures of the playoffs?
Find the puck
Sounds obvious, right? But with the bottleneck of big bodies collapsing to the front of the net, finding a 1-by-3-inch disc of vulcanized rubber is a tall task. That’s when good habits come into play.
“You settle into a rhythm when it comes to finding pucks through traffic,” says Schneider. “There are some nights when, no matter what you do, you can’t find the puck. You’re up, you’re down, you’re moving everywhere, and you just can’t find it. That's a tough night physically.”
Schneider says he knows he’s on point when he’s “getting those windows and getting those lanes where you just knowing where to look” for shots, instead of getting fidgety.
“For some guys,” says Schneider, “when they get in that zone, or that playoff mode, they can do that more effectively.”
Positioning and communication
Amid the havoc of the low slot, goaltenders keep talking to help position their defenders, much as NFL quarterbacks call out defenses for their offensive line. Schneider wants his defensemen covering his backside, while he protects the portion of the goal closest to the shooter, or short side.
“If you’ve got that guy on the half-wall [the boards, by the faceoff dots], curling off, they’ve got options,” he says. “Sometimes, with guys like [St. Louis Blues forward Vladimir] Tarasenko or [Dallas Star Jason] Spezza, they’ll wheel off that wall and snap a shot. As a goalie, you have to hold the short side. You can’t be cheating far side and get beat short side.”
Defensemen have to fill shooting lanes as well as denying the backside play, so communication is crucial.
Patience is a virtue
For Schneider, keeping his feet and “staying big” is critical.
“That’s the patience you learn, the more you play,” he says. “When you’re feeling good about your game, when you're seeing the puck and tracking, you can hold you feet longer, because you trust your hands and your reaction time.”
While acknowledging there’s a time for taking away the bottom of the goal—“When it does get in tight to the net, and pucks are getting jammed”—Schneider says it’s a technique that’s prone to overuse. If he drops too soon, Schneider says, “I feel like I’ve already committed, and I’m tipping my hand to the shooters to what I’m going to allow.”
Manage the game
Four decades ago, Hall of Fame netminder Tony Esposito advocated breaking the game into five-minute segments, to avoid thinking too far ahead. Schneider takes the same approach, concentrating on the process, not the outcome.
“You have to take the gravity of the moment out of it,” he says. “Whether its Game 1 of the playoffs, or Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, you don’t really want to change the way you play a whole lot. You just want to make sure that you’re focused and that you’re tracking the puck, and staying in the moment.”
“You can’t play for the end result,” he says. “Everyone wants to win so bad, but you have to separate yourself from the winning and the losing. It’s a cliché, but the only thing that matters is stopping the next puck.”
Manage the series
Similarly, even a seven-game series allows for high and lows. Goalies need to take one game at a time.
“If you say, in mid-April, ‘God, I’ve got to win 16 games to win the Stanley Cup,’ you're just going to drown,” says Schneider. “The playoffs are so exhausting. You may lose 12 games, and still win the Stanley Cup.
“Losses are going to happen. It’s the playoffs. You’re playing good teams. It’s the ability to compartmentalize that, and come back and realize it’s a seven-game series. As long as you win more than they do, that’s all that matters.”
According to Brathwaite, part of game management is keeping cool. He recalls watching this year’s Super Bowl, when Carolina’s Cam Newton struggled.
“Denver players said, once they saw him talking back to the refs, and yelling at his players, they knew they had him,” says Brathwaite. “If you look back at your goalie, and he looks like he’s shaken up, the other team feeds off that as well. If you can keep an even keel, it gives your team confidence, and it gives yourself confidence.”
Diversions are important. Daccord recalls that Hall of Fame goaltender Grant Fuhr, who backstopped several Stanley Cup-winning Edmonton Oiler teams, would often hit the links on the day of a game.
“He was asked, ‘You had a playoff game, why did you go play 18 holes of golf?’” says Daccord. “And Grant said, ‘I played 18 because it’s the playoffs. If it wasn’t, I would have played 36.’
“You can’t be in that heightened mental state for a prolonged period. You have to do something that will distract you. For Grant Fur, it was golf. For somebody else, it may be movies, or working around the house.”
Bad goals happen (just ask Steve Mason of the Flyers). Better goaltenders put those gaffes behind them, quickly. Same for bad games.
“If guys see you down in the dumps, because you gave up that bad goal, now it’s going to let the whole bench down,” says Brathwaite. “You need to take a couple of deep breaths. Or count backwards. What it takes for you to get ready for that next shot.”
Schneider concurs. “Your ability to bounce back and re-focus has to be much greater in the playoffs,” he says. “You have to move on. If you have a bad game, you really can’t let it linger.”
It helps to be the clear No. 1 starter, like Washington’s Braden Holtby or San Jose’s Martin Jones. Coaches are admittedly quicker to pull the trigger on a goalie switch, due to the nature of a short series.
“You don’t have time to wait around for a guy to find his game,” Schneider says.
A loss is a loss
The added element of sudden-death overtime can be taxing as well. Most NHL-caliber goaltenders are fit enough to handle the extra workload, though the pressure can take a toll.
“For me, it’s the mental part” of playoff hockey that’s exhausting, says Daccord. “Because focusing, and focusing intensely, is physically tiring.”
However, an overtime losses can be even more draining. In those instances, no matter how heartbreaking, a goalie has to look forward.
“You can lose 7-1, or 2-1 in triple overtime, it doesn’t matter. The next game is the next game,” Schneider says. “The key is, don't lose the momentum in a series.
“Perhaps an overtime win can give a team momentum. You have to make sure that you don’t let it snowball and get away from you, so all of a sudden that overtime loss affects you the next game, and the game after that.”