WASHINGTON, D.C. – His backup was getting ready on the bench, his night headed for an early end. Even so, Braden Holtby was locked in his own world, paying none of these surroundings any mind. A deep one-timer had been pumped by Dallas forward Jason Spezza, sinking Holtby and his Capitals into a 3-0 hole, less than halfway through Monday’s second period. So the goalie followed the same routine he has honed since juniors, foremost designed for moments like these.
Standing up in the crease, Holtby turned around, approached the net, removed his mask and grabbed his water bottle. He inhaled fast, exhaled faster, flicked his wrist up, and squeezed. As a stream shot from the mouthpiece, Holtby focused on a single droplet and tracked its descent toward the ice. Finally, he slugged some water, leaned back, rested his right arm on the crossbar, and craned his neck to watch Spezza’s howitzer replay on the Verizon Center video screen. Without fail, the details—and their precise order—never change. “My reset button,” Holtby says.
Poke around the NHL’s goalie guild and plenty likeminded metaphors will arise. The task won’t take long; everyone has some term for these actions. Holtby’s positional coach, Mitch Korn, calls them “rebooting the computer,” because “you only have so many megabytes of RAM in your head.” To scatological enthusiasts like Carolina’s Cam Ward, they represent “the process of flushing.” Detroit general manager Ken Holland, once a minor-league masked man for eight years, employs a simpler description: “One of the things that the great goalies do."
For former Stars goalie Marty Turco, this fleeting window of time—after an opposing puck enters your net, before the next faceoff begins at center-ice, a period usually lasting no longer than a minute—holds even more dramatic weight. “The most unfair—and sometimes funny—moment in sports,” says Turco, who made 543 regular-season NHL appearances before retiring in ’11-12. “No matter what, whether people want to believe it or not, both benches are looking at the goalie. And there he is, totally vulnerable, just got beat, just left right down to the bones of being mentally naked and left all out there for the world to see.”
Of course, goalies don’t merely train for what happens between the pipes, but what occurs betwixt their ears, too. And at no point are these mental skills more critical. “The most important save you make is the save after a goal is scored,” Korn says. Why? “If you think about it the whole game, it’s going to cost you eventually,” says Capitals backup Philipp Grubauer. “You can’t let a goal in and then think about it the next 10 minutes. There are so many situations happening, you need to be ready. You can’t change anything. The more you think about it, the more you beat yourself up.”
Or, as Turco cautions, “You can really f--- your mind up, man.”
Specific habits vary. Dominik Hasek used to douse his face in water, as though blasting away the stench with a cold splash. After consulting a sports psychologist, Philadelphia general manager Ron Hextall started taking laps from faceoff dot to faceoff dot, silently dissecting the play en route. Matt Murray, who backstopped the Penguins to the ’16 Stanley Cup, always squirts his bottle three times—first into his mouth, next over his shoulder, and finally into his mouth again. His cohort in Pittsburgh, Marc-Andre Fleury, usually makes a beeline toward the right corner along the goal line, unless the other team is celebrating there, in which case he begins by going left.
Ward too always ventures to the right. “It’s almost like walking it off, I guess,” he says. “Instead of standing in an awkward spot, dwelling on it. You can ask me why right, I don’t know. I guess left just seems a little bit awkward.” In Chicago, Corey Crawford shakes off his blocker pad, takes a drink, wipes the crease with his stick, and collects his thoughts by hunching over for five or so seconds. In Montreal, Carey Price always rests his glove hand on the crossbar and watches the replay, but nothing more. (“So laid back,” one NHL goalie coach says.)
Holtby’s methods came from John Stevenson, his old goalie coach with the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades and a sports psychologist. Now Korn, who also runs a series of summer camps, says he sees youth goalies practicing the same squirt-and-track technique. “I think most goalies have a reset at this level,” Holtby says. “If they don’t, there’s probably not a lot of consistency in the game.”
Not everyone adheres to as rigid rules as the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, though. When Washington beat the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 28 for instance, Henrik Lundqvist skated opposite ways after each of the Capitals’ first two goals, and then stood completely still after the third. Across the river, New Jersey Devils backup Keith Kincaid once would embark on a brief twirl. Now, he simply rehydrates to refocus. “I guess I wanted to do less movement,” he says. “Just a different approach this year. Everyone has their own way of dealing with it.”
The method most employed among goalies is also relatively new. When Korn cracked into the league with Buffalo in ’91, video screens were still uncommon sights at NHL rinks, instant replay unavailable as a teaching tool. Now? “I think part of everybody’s ritual,” he says, “because it provides you closure.” Scott Gordon, a former minor-league journeyman like Holland who now coaches Philadelphia’s AHL affiliate, remembers feeling mystified at how one particular goalie could seemingly recall every little detail when they chatted postgame.
“I’m like, how does he know all that stuff?” Gordon says. “I barely knew who shot the puck on me. Then was watching him after the goal, and he had his eyes glued to the scoreboard monitor. It’s a completely different era that goalies have that luxury. You were left in a fog as to what happened. Times have changed.”
The basic challenge, however, has not: For all the hundreds of pucks that goalies face in practice, the guttural sting of allowing an actual goal—and therefore, the process of shaking aside failure—is impossible to mimic. “You can’t replicate traffic,” Korn says. “You can’t replicate the game timing. You can’t replicate the mental focus, the up and down, the two and a half hours it takes from start to finish, to stay laser-focused, to not take a hiccup. Who are you getting over it for in practice? There’s nobody in the building.”
The only path toward improvement, then, is pain. “It’s not something you learn or you teach yourself,” Edmonton’s Cam Talbot says. “It’s just something you have to do.” When Brian Boucher was younger, every puck that struck nylon threatened to rattle him; the more that did exponentially compounded his anger. “That was something I had to battle with my whole career,” says Boucher, now an analyst for NBC Sports. “You’re trying your best to be your best. The one thing you have to realize as a goaltender is you’re not perfect, you’re not going to be perfect.”
By no means did Boucher struggle alone. “Earlier in my career, I don't think I flushed it and processed it quick enough,” Holland says. “I think I’d be calculating my goals against average, seeing how it would affect my numbers. I think I’d be calculating my goals against average, seeing how it would affect my numbers.”
In Dallas, Turco began consulting a mental skills coach after realizing that, upon allowing goals, his mind already began planning what quotes he would give beat writers after games. “You’re rationalizing it on purpose, or subconsciously,” he says. “Good luck trying to play after that. You’ve already lost. You’ll be more invincible if you plan to get scored on with the ability to shake it off. “
So what’s the upshot? After six replays on the Jumbotron, they drop the puck again,” Turco says. “That’s the best part of getting scored on.”