Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Ed Belfour made a
franchise-record 72 saves in Game 4 of the Leafs' first-round
playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers last week. He
should have made at least 73. As the match slogged through a
third overtime, threatening to turn into Hockey Morning in
Canada, the Flyers' Mark Recchi took a seemingly innocuous shot
from 40 feet out on the right wing. The puck dipped between
Belfour's pads and trickled behind him, crossing the goal line
with the speed of a department of motor vehicles clerk. Belfour
had been spectacular for most of this 114-minute playoff
classic, except on Recchi's first goal, a sharply angled drive
76 seconds into the game, and on a Jeremy Roenick shot that
banked in off Belfour's leg after Roenick had stripped him of
the puck. Soft goals, as they are known in the blunt lexicon of
the NHL, had prevented Toronto from taking a 3-1 series lead;
instead the Flyers won that match and the next one to take a 3-2
advantage. But Philly goalie Roman Cechmanek undermined the
Flyers in Game 6 by bending down to pick up his glove and
allowing Robert Reichel's sharp angle shot to beat him over the
shoulder. Toronto went on to win 2-1 in double overtime to even
the series. The moral: Sometimes it's not just how many, it's how.
The soft goal can change games, series, Stanley Cup tournaments
and history. There is no quantitative difference between a
pabulum-soft goal and a well-earned one. The soft goal--as
distinguished from the fluke score, such as the shot that
Edmonton Oilers defenseman Steve Smith banked past Grant Fuhr,
his own goalie, in Game 7 of the 1986 division finals against
the Calgary Flames--is a knee to the groin. Artistic goals
don't take the breath away as surely as those that come on
unscreened slap shots from the red line, Bucknerian dribblers
through the five hole, puckhandling gaffes that end up in the
net. Depending on whether a team is receiving or giving, a soft
goal often is the spark that ignites a team or immolates it.
"The playoffs are about rebound and recovery," says Flyers coach
Ken Hitchcock. "You're going to have terrible things happen to
you, some of them emotionally crushing. How you recover usually
determines how you do."
The soft goal is a bountiful gift. Over the past five years there
has been an average of 5.36 goals per regular-season game but
only 4.84 per playoff match, making a postseason score 10% more
difficult to come by, not to mention vastly more significant. "A
soft one almost counts as two goals," says Dallas Stars center
Kirk Muller, who has played in 121 postseason games. Since
playoff games can't end in a tie and a team needs two goals to
overcome the softy in a tight match, Muller hardly exaggerates.
"You know how hard it is to score in the playoffs," Muller says.
"Then you give up a soft one. It's deflating to you, a big bonus
to them. But as tough as it is for a team, it's worse for the
goalie. He made the bad play; he can't say a breakdown caused it
or a defenseman blew it. He's thinking, These guys worked their
asses off for me, and I gave up a soft one."
Dallas goalie Marty Turco earned his teammates' confidence one
save at a time during the regular season, the first in which he
had been the starter. He created a reservoir of faith in 55
regular-season matches with a .932 save percentage and a 1.72
goals-against average, the latter the lowest since World War II.
But in his first career playoff action Turco nearly drained the
reservoir: In Game 1 of round 1 against the Oilers, a shorthanded
golf shot by Ryan Smyth slithered through Turco's pads and made
the difference in Edmonton's eventual 2-1 victory. Turco allowed
another mushy one, a Fernando Pisani five-holer from 40 feet, in
a 3-2 Stars loss in Game 3. Unlike most goalies, Turco played and
talked his way through the errors, accepting blame and ratcheting
up his game, dispelling the dark atmosphere that often pervades a
dressing room when players are forced to defend a goalie who has
stumbled. The veteran Stars responded, eliminating Edmonton in
six games. "[The impact of] a soft goal is more dramatic with an
inexperienced team," says Hitchcock. "An older team has gone
through it and can recover."
There is no older team than Detroit, but the Red Wings were
neither as resilient nor as lucky as Dallas. In Game 2 of
Detroit's shocking first-round sweep by the Anaheim Mighty
Ducks, Wings goalie Curtis Joseph was beaten from a sharp angle
by Ducks rookie Stanislav Chistov. Joseph, who was anticipating
a pass, wasn't square to the puck; it hit him, crawled up his
body and fell past his right arm. Joseph also allowed a dubious
goal to Chistov in Game 3, and Anaheim went on to win four
straight one-goal games. Joseph's .917 save percentage and 2.08
goals-against average will look better in the history books than
it does when replayed in the minds of the Red Wings, who won the
Stanley Cup last season.
Detroit would not have won that Cup, however, without the mother
(and later the stepmother) of all soft goals. In the first
round, after losing twice at home to the Canucks, the Red Wings
were having difficulty in Game 3 in Vancouver. With the score
1-1 in the final 30 seconds of the second period, Detroit
defenseman Nick Lidstrom blasted a 100-foot slap shot toward
the bottom left corner of the Canucks' net, where goalie Dan
Cloutier reached for it like an arthritic man trying to tie his
shoes. "I was watching TV when it went in, and I said, 'Man,
oh, man, this'll be interesting--that could be the killer,'"
Muller says. The Canucks imploded, losing four straight and
presaging another soft-goal meltdown by an opponent of
Detroit's, two rounds later.
In Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, against the Colorado
Avalanche, the Wings were the beneficiaries when the Avs'
Patrick Roy grabbed Steve Yzerman's shot and then did a Statue
of Liberty with his glove to embellish the save. The puck fell
out, and Detroit's Brendan Shanahan nudged it into the open
net. The Wings went on to win the match 2-0, then hammered the
Avalanche in the series finale 7-0. Those soft goals against
the Canucks and the Avalanche helped Detroit to its third Cup
in six years, strengthening the Hall of Fame credentials of
nine of its players and fostering the notion that the Wings
were a team for the ages.
The same could not be said of the spectacular but short-lived
champion Pittsburgh Penguins of 1991 and '92. That club might
not have earned its second Cup if New York Rangers goalie Mike
Richter had not whiffed on a 65-footer by Ron Francis that
turned Game 4 on its head and prevented New York from grabbing
a 3-1 series lead in the second round. Pittsburgh went on to
win that series in six games.
"You can accept a skilled goal or a fluke goal that bounces off
someone's head and goes in," says Stars right wing Rob DiMaio.
"But soft ones kill your momentum. I thought in Philly in '95 we
had a pretty good team, that we could beat New Jersey [in the
Eastern Conference finals], but a couple of soft goals did us in.
The Claude Lemieux slapper from the blue line [past goalie Ron
Hextall late in Game 5] took the wind out of our sails. Nothing
against Hexy, but those goals broke our back."
Hextall's mistakes KO'd the Flyers and helped New Jersey win its
first Cup. The beneficiary was Devils coach Jacques Lemaire, who
had scored the most telling soft goal in NHL history. Late in the
second period of Game 7 of the 1971 Stanley Cup finals between
the Montreal Canadiens and the Chicago Blackhawks, Lemaire fired
the puck from center ice at goalie Tony Esposito before wheeling
toward the bench for a line change. Esposito fanned on the shot,
and the goal cut the Hawks' lead to 2-1. Lemaire had no idea he
had scored until his Montreal teammates reacted with glee. In the
third period the Canadiens scored twice to give Montreal the
"They had us, but that goal made it our championship," says
Lemaire. "Soft goals can change everything."