Short-side goals on the rise as shooters adjust to goalies
It's the kind of goal that makes fans groan because, man, he probably should've stopped that.
A shooter skating down the wing or even behind the net fires the puck between a goaltender and the near post for a short-side goal. It looks like it shouldn't go in, but it has been happening a lot more this season as players figure out what goalies are doing ... or at least trying to do.
''Those goals, they don't look good, but I think if people knew how hard it was to do that maneuver, they might be a little less quick to jump to judgment on the goalies,'' Chicago Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling said.
That maneuver is called the ''Reverse VH'' and it's the most widespread way for goalies to cover the post and not allow soft goals to be scored. An opposite of the previously-used ''VH'' stance, it means a goalie's pad against the post is horizontal along the ice while the back leg is vertical.
The Reverse VH is more effective than its predecessor, but as NHL Network analyst and former goaltender Kevin Weekes has said : Short side has become the new five hole. And everyone in hockey knows it.
Brian Boucher, another retired goalie turned analyst, said you can't go two or three nights without seeing a short-side goal somewhere around the league . As recently as Thursday night, Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog went short side on Stanley Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Matt Murray on a textbook sharp-angle shot that looks like a bad goal but is more the product of shooters understanding techniques.
''Guys are realizing that the sharp-angle shots are extremely difficult to stop,'' Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals said. ''You do see more and more guys trying it because it's a high-quality scoring chance. Guys figure out trends now. They kind of figure them out a little quicker than they used to, which isn't great for us.''
Jonathan Quick led the Los Angeles Kings to two Cups by using the Reverse VH and taking advantage of his Gumby-like athleticism. The stance, which originated in Sweden a few years before, took off in the NHL after Quick won the Cup in 2012 and now it's a go-to for most goalies.
Goaltending analyst Justin Goldman points out that when a skater is coming down the ice, there's actually more room for the puck on the short side than the far side because there's less distance for it to travel. More short-side goals isn't a result of the Reverse VH being a bad stance, but instead he believes it's goalies overusing it and losing the cat-and-mouse game between them and shooters.
Too often goalies drop to their knees into the Reverse VH and become sitting ducks for Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Joe Pavelski and some of the best snipers around.
''The shooter knows the goalie's going to drop into this stance, which means he can release a puck a half a second or a half a step sooner than usual and he knows what his target is before he even looks up and sees where the goalie is,'' Goldman said. ''They're almost over-anticipating what a shooter is going to do before he actually does it and the shooter has the capacity now, he has the wherewithal and he has the accuracy to pick that spot.''
Darling thinks some goalies are still mastering the relatively new Reverse VH, and 2006 Cup-winner Cam Ward of the Carolina Hurricanes acknowledged he still uses the old VH style because he's more comfortable in it. Ward looks at Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins as someone who can push side-to-side with power out of the Reverse VH, and Goldman called 2013 Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets the ''posterchild'' for doing it right.
''It's a tough position to get fully square, but when the puck's behind the net it gives you good coverage for pass outs and things like that,'' Philadelphia goaltender Steven Mason said. ''It's complicated, but I think sometimes it can be overused.''
Flyers teammate Jakub Voracek said he just shoots ''wherever it's open,'' but that's often the short side nowadays. When the best shooters can anticipate a goalie going down early and putting the puck where he isn't, Goldman said it's so difficult to get back up that the key is being patient and staying upright longer.
''The problem is because goalies rely on this stance so often, they're dropping down into it before the puck is actually off the shooter's stick,'' Goldman said. ''You want the shooter to make the first move. You want to hold your feet. You want to keep yourself as patient as possible so you read what the shooter does first and then you react.''
Easier said than done, perhaps, even for the best in the game. A lot has changed since Boucher set the consecutive shutout record in 2003, and he doesn't even know if he'd be able to perfect the Reverse VH and deal with the expectations of goaltenders today.
''You've got to be in position to make the second and third saves because at the end of the day it's about keeping the puck out of the net,'' Boucher said. ''Whether it's your fault or it's not your fault, if you don't keep it out of the net you're going to have a tough time winning games and you're going to have a tough time having a job.''
Michel Therrien became the fifth coach fired this season when the Montreal Canadiens canned him Tuesday and replaced him with Claude Julien, who was fired by Boston last week. Julien took five more days to get a new job than Bruce Boudreau did when fired by Washington on a November Monday in 2011 and joining the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday.
After registering a point Tuesday in the Penguins' win over Vancouver, Crosby is one away from 1,000 for his career . He's at 756 games now and will soon become the second-fastest active player to hit 1,000 after the ageless Jaromir Jagr.
GAME OF THE WEEK
The Blue Jackets host the Penguins on Friday in what very well could be a first-round playoff preview.
Points: Crosby (Pittsburgh), Connor McDavid (Edmonton), 61; Goals: Crosby, 30; Defenseman points: Brent Burns (San Jose), 59; Goals-against average: Devan Dubnyk (Minnesota), 1.97; Save percentage: Dubnyk, .933.
Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno .