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Playoff pressure on goaltenders is more intense than ever

Brian Elliott's sudden reversal of form is the last thing the Blues need in their 0-3 hole against the Kings. (Harry How/Getty Images)


By Stu Hackel

It's a cruel world in which goalies live. The numbers may tell us they haven't been this good since the days of Georges Vezina, George Hainsworth, Tiny Thompson and Frank Brimsek but -- then as now -- gaudy regular season stats are meaningless when the playoffs roll around. The Blues' Brian Elliott may have posted eye-popping numbers between October and the first round, like a 1.56 goals-against average and .940 save percentage, but in his last three games against the Kings, his  performance has been abysmal and will likely leave a lasting impression.

Goals like the one that Mike Richards scored against Elliott on Thursday night aren't supposed to happen against top NHL netminders, unless they are Roberto Luongo.

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At the other end of the ice, the Kings' Jonathan Quick has been making the case that he may be the best goalie in the game, but when he uncharacteristically let a puck slip from his glove, Anthony Stewart promptly banged it home (video) in the third period, drawing the desperate Blues to within a goal. It proved that in the stress of the postseason, even the best can have shaky moments.

That's playoff hockey, where the heightened level of competition can turn any little glitch into a blunder. Take the Devils' overtime game-winning goal on Thursday night against the Flyers, a contest in which the goaltending by both Marty Brodeur and Ilya Bryzgalov proved a bit leaky. The winner was started with great determination by Ilya Kovalchuk, whose excellent vision enabled him to see the Flyers leaving themselves vulnerable on a bad line change and resulted in Alex Ponikarovski chopping a backhander past Bryzgalov, a rebound of his own shot. Here it is from CNBC:

Digesting the game afterward on the NHL Network, former NHL goalie Kevin Weekes broke down Ponikarovski's goal and the bio-mechanics of how Bryzgalov moved, and explained how the Flyers' goalie messed up the rebound. It was all in the way Bryzgalov held his stick, Weekes said, even though the shot that resulted in the rebound was on the glove side. Had Bryz not dragged the stick behind him when he moved right-to-left and kept in front of him, his body would have been more erect and he would have been able to close off the short side.

Here's the goal again, from the CBC telecast this time, and it has the overhead view, which helps illustrate Weekes' point.

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Modern goaltending has become highly technical, even scientific, in an effort to minimize mistakes. Goalies used to rely on their athleticism, courage and reflexes to get the job done. Now, it's more about their technique. Cam Cole of The Vancouver Sun spoke this week with former NHL goalie Bill Ranford, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as Stanley Cup MVP in 1990 with the Oilers and is now the Kings' goalie coach and Quick's guru. In discussing his pupil's growth, Ranford told Cole that he saw aspects of himself when he began working with Quick five seasons ago in the ECHL:

“He was all athletic. I know ... pot calling the kettle black, right? It gets very tiring, fatigue sets in in your legs, and it’s hard on your body, so I had first-hand knowledge of it. We felt it was important to bring a little more technical aspect to his game, and just calm his game down a little bit so he’d be in position for the second save. He put in a lot of time and effort with the technical part, understanding the game better, reading plays — and now the athletic side of it is a secondary asset, a go-to asset when it’s needed.”

Quick learned quickly. “Unbelievable,” said Ranford, who is now 45. “My first year in Reading, we’d work on something in the morning and he’d apply it that night. I could never do that, but he did.”

Because of the fundamental role of goalies in the sport and the paramount importance that their play takes on in the postseason, what they do and how they do it is more closely scrutinized and hotly debated than the work of any of their teammates. The demands on them are extreme and it was no surprise to hear the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist say after his team's victory over the Capitals in the third overtime period on Wednesday night that the pressures are more mental than physical. “You have to keep reminding yourself to not have a letdown or make bad decisions out there,” he said. “After the fourth period, it’s all in your head. How far can you push yourself?

“My entire body is exhausted right now, not so much from moving around, but from keeping my focus for so long,” he continued. “It’s exhausting. All it takes is a stupid mistake or a bad bounce and it’s over. That’s the toughest part. You have to stay sharp.”

It was Lundqvist's first overtime victory since 2007. He lost seven straight in the interim.

Fortunately for goalies, they now have the benefit of coaches who are specifically assigned to assist them, a development that didn't take place on a wide scale until about 25 years ago. In the Original Six era, there was no such thing as a goalie coach -- and one of the more openly antagonistic relationships in the NHL of the 1950s was between Rangers goalie Gump Worsley and the Blueshirts' coach, Phil Watson. They routinely traded insults in the newspapers. Netminders were on their own when it came to technical and psychological support, and it's likely the reason why stories abound about the eccentricities of guys who played that position back in the day. Quirky minds like Bryzgalov's were, at one time, the rule among goalies.

Things have come a long way since Jacques Plante wrote the first book on goaltending technique in 1972, and the advent of the goaltender coach is one of the biggest changes. Ranford's work with Quick is mirrored by others: Sean Burke in Phoenix has helped Mike Smith's rise this season. Despite his struggles in this round, Elliott has benefitted greatly this season from working with Blues goalie coach Corey Hirsch. Mitch Korn's work has helped elevate Nashville's Pekka Rinne into an elite goaltender.

One of the greatest coach-goalie partnerships ever is that of Martin Brodeur and Jacques Caron, who left his full-time spot with the Devils this season but has remained a consultant. Caron will retire after this season, but in 1980 he opened one of the first summer hockey schools devoted exclusively to goaltending and his impact on Brodeur's career is incalculable. Brodeur calls him a second father (and his own, Denis, was also a fine amateur netminder for Canada's national team).

Even before Caron began working with Brodeur in 1993, Francois Allaire and Patrick Roy formed a fruitful partnership. Because of Roy's popularization of the butterfly style (a technique developed by Glenn Hall of the Blackhawks in the Original Six era and one that Allaire advocated), that duo may be the most influential goalie-coach tandem in hockey history.

Plante, himself, became one of the first NHL goalie coaches when he signed on with the Flyers to work with Bernie Parent, who had been his teammate on the Maple Leafs in the early '70s. During a stretch in which he was playing poorly, Parent contemplated retirement until Plante observed him for a couple of days, noticed he was back on his heels, made the adjustment that got Bernie back on his game.

That sort of interaction is commonplace now and it has made goaltending infinitely better. Today's members of the goalies' union are more able to cope and adjust to the pressure associated with the playoffs, but it's still a pressure that few have ever known.