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There are plenty of big names available this year when free agency officially opens, but Rob Pizzo says plenty of teams may have new goalies when next season starts.
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There are plenty of big names available this year when free agency officially opens, but Rob Pizzo says plenty of teams may have new goalies when next season starts.
During normal times Vancouver Canucks goaltender Jacob Markstrom would be heading into his first playoff experience riding the confidence of a just completed NHL regular season.
Of course, these times are far from normal.
Instead of spring cherry blossoms, Vancouver is experiencing July heat. Instead of planning trips to the beach, the Canucks are in the second week of a training camp, preparing for a trip to Edmonton for the NHL’s Stanley Cup tournament.
When the Canucks open their best-of-five play-in series against the Minnesota Wild Aug. 2, Markstrom will have gone more than five months without playing an NHL game that matters.
“It’s been a long break,” Markstrom said recently. “Coming back (it’s) different circumstances than it usually would have been … but at the same time we want to keep building on what we started during the season.”
Markstrom’s play, especially in the abbreviated opening-round series, will determine whether the Canucks advance in the playoffs. Practices and scrimmages can help other players find their legs and sharpen their skills, but are they enough for a goaltender to find his game?
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“It’s tough because it’s not games,” said the native of Gavle, Sweden, who will be making his first playoff appearance at the age of 30. “You have your team shoot at you every day. You know where they are shooting instead of getting a read.”
Former NHL goaltender Corey Hirsch said goaltending will be the story of the opening round. The goalies who adapt quickest to the new normal will be the ones who carry their teams to the next series.
“This is a different animal than what any of us have ever seen before,” said Hirsch, who played 108 NHL games with four teams and is now part of the Canucks’ radio broadcast crew. “Some guys will just feel it right away and then other guys are going to struggle.
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“I truly think it’s going to be between the ears, and the guys that can get going right away and feel it right away.”
Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins said a short training camp, followed by an intense playoff format which could see the winning team playing 33 games before hoisting the Stanley Cup, will result in goalies getting hurt.
“You lay off for four months and go right to playoff hockey, there could always be some injuries, nagging injuries, that are going happen with groins or hips,” said Rask, who is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy along with Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy and Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck.
Hirsch said goaltenders will have little room for error in the first round.
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“The first period of every game is going to be crucial because you want to get some shots, you want to get into the game, you want to feel the puck,” he said. “If a guy gets behind the eight ball right way, he could be battling for the rest of that game. In a five-game series, one bad game can lose you the series.”
When the NHL paused the season on March 12 due to the COVID-19 virus, Markstrom had already missed eight games after knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus. He also missed games during the season to return to Sweden to deal with the death of his father due to cancer.
In the 43 games Markstrom played, he had a 23-16-4 record, a 2.75 goals-against average and a career-high .918 save percentage.
“It’s a new and different situation for everybody,” he said about returning to play. “No one has been in this situation before. You have to spend more time on the ice. You have to do more work than you usually have in a normal season when you come back.”
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Markstrom was drafted 31st overall by the Florida Panthers in 2008 and has waited 12 years for his first taste of the NHL post-season.
“It’s exciting for sure,” he said. “This is the games you want to play. It’s a long grind over the course of a season. To be able to go out and get some playoff experience I’ve been missing that and looking for to that for a long time.”
Vancouver Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom is using a tennis ball machine as part of his training to stay sharp.
Columbus Blue Jackets counterpart Joonas Korpisalo doesn’t have that technology at his disposal during the COVID-19 pandemic, so a wall has had to do the trick.
Toronto Maple Leafs netminder Frederik Andersen, meanwhile, might have the best option of the bunch — he’s self-isolating with teammate and 47-goal man Auston Matthews.
“I have a pretty good shooter here,” Andersen joked.
But no matter the setup, NHL puck-stoppers are, at least on the surface, at a disadvantage when it comes to maintaining most of their physical skills during the novel coronavirus outbreak that forced the NHL to pause its season on March 12.
Unlike skaters, who might have a net in the driveway or the ability run through a stickhandling drill, goalies are having a hard time mimicking situations that even loosely resemble practice or game situations.
“We’re doing our best and working a lot on hand-eye,” Markstrom said. “Don’t let your eyes fall asleep is a big thing.”
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Winnipeg Jets netminder Connor Hellebuyck has also been doing his best to stay on top of things during this unprecedented stoppage.
But it’s not easy.
“No one’s been through this before,” Hellebuyck said. “There’s really no book, no right way. I’m not able to strap on the pads. That’s the most important part about being dialled in as a goalie, getting a feel and really getting the workload. Going for a run isn’t going to keep me in goaltender shape.”
“It’s definitely a challenge not to be able to go on the ice,” Andersen said. “In times like this where facilities are limited, it’s about trying to be creative.”
That’s why many goalies are leaning on their private trainers.
While a team’s strength and conditioning coach has to formulate programs for more than 20 players, people like Adam Francilia, whose NHL clients include the San Jose Sharks, Hellebuyck, Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk and Carolina’s James Reimer, develop plans specifically for netminders.
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“In some cases they have really great home gyms at their disposal,” Francilia said. “And then there’s some guys in a condo with nothing … but I have enough stuff in my repertoire that guys only need their body weight to train.”
Francilia, who focuses on long-term athlete development, said while the coronavirus shutdown is an overall negative, it’s presented an opportunity.
“Every goalie has little bits and pieces they can always work on, whether it’s related to a past injury or some imbalances or some biomechanical hiccups that you never get to during the season,” he said. “The only limitation is knowledge and creativity.”
John Stevenson, a performance psychologist and former NHL goalie coach, said he always instructs his netminders to work on blocking outside noise.
The pandemic is no different.
“The coronavirus is an uncontrollable,” he said. “We don’t have control over the uncontrollables, but we definitely have control over how we choose to respond.”
Stevenson, whose NHL list includes Washington’s Braden Holtby and Philadelphia’s Carter Hart, agreed with Francilia that the league’s pause opens doors for netminders.
But not all training is equal.
“A lot of goalies train hard,” he said. “But they don’t all train smart.”
Stevenson, who had a two-hour call with an NHLer on Friday, counsels players on variety of skills, including mental rehearsal — he doesn’t like the term “visualization” — mindfulness meditations, cognitive perceptual training and breathing.
He suggests goalies go outside their comfort zone during the pandemic by incorporating new regimens.
“This is a great opportunity to go and try some things that you’ve never done before,” said Stevenson, who shared that Hart is looking to improve his juggling skills from four balls to five. “This period of time could make some goalies better.”
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Hellebuyck said he’s been watching highlights from the Vezina Trophy-worthy campaign he hopes to resume later this spring or in the summer.
“Try to kind of live in the moment with that.”
He added Francilia is constantly on his case about training, which includes detailed and varied videos demonstrating each exercise.
“He’s been contacting me more than I’ve been contacting him,” Hellebuyck said. “He’s been on my tail trying to get me to work out pretty hard. It’s good, and I have been.”
Ottawa Senators goalie Craig Anderson, who turns 39 next month, described the “mental battle” that comes with preparing for the resumption of a season that may or may not arrive.
“You just have to force yourself through it … it comes down to a mindset,” he said. “It’s too early to tell which way this thing’s going to go. You just want to make sure you’re ready at any given moment.”
The other Andersen, Toronto’s netminder, said he’s doing his best to pretend he’s still in the middle of the season.
“You need to keep your mental focus on actually playing hockey even though you can’t be on the ice,” Andersen said. “The videos have allowed me to keep that going.”
“I’ve been watching all the video clips from this season — all the games I’ve where I played well,” Korpisalo added. “It reminds me of those good moments.”
Like many people self-isolating, Francilia said monotony can even get NHLers down. With that in mind, he’s tried to set short-term goals for his clients.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if we’re training to return,” he said. “Think about this as exercising because you want to be a healthy individual. Try to widen your worldview. At the same time, these guys are so used to competing and becoming single-minded in their focus. I encourage them to also get excited. This is an opportunity in an otherwise pretty uneventful day to create that competitive moment.
“Here’s the moment these guys are starving for.”
Johnny Gaudreau stood on the Calgary Flames bench in a state of shock after Andrei Svechnikov scored the first lacrosse goal in NHL history against David Rittich.
It was Oct. 29, and the left-shooting Svechnikov had cradled the puck on the blade of his stick, wrapped around the right side of the Calgary net, and whipped it through the tiny gap between the post, the cross bar and Rittich’s head.
Sure, Gaudreau hoped the goal would be waved off because of a high stick. And sure, he bemoaned the fact that Svechnikov pulled off the seemingly impossible in a game Calgary would go onto lose 2-1.
But at the same time, he couldn’t help but realize he was witnessing the start of something the NHL had never before seen.
“That’s a very hard thing to do,” Gaudreau said with admiration. “When you try it in summer or practice — even without a goalie — it’s tough to do. So to see him pull it off in the NHL, and against an NHL goaltender, it’s pretty cool to see.
WATCH | The evolution of the lacrosse goal:
“We were just in shock and awe when that happened. Not many guys can pull that off. It’s fun to watch.”
Fun to watch for forwards, perhaps. But for goalies — and the defencemen paid to protect them — the lacrosse goal is a problem to be solved.
It’s a new threat to consider when certain players are parked in the area known as Wayne Gretzky’s office behind the net.
“It’s tough,” says St. Louis Blues netminder Jordan Binnington. “It’s a new play, and I think it’s kind of fun for coaches to find a way to adapt and for goalies to figure out a new way to stop. You just use your hockey sense and trust your reads to try and handle it.”
In truth, the lacrosse goal is nothing new. In the 1996 NCAA West Regional semifinal, Michigan forward Mike Legg shocked the hockey world when he scooped the puck and whipped it behind Minnesota goalie Steve Debus.
Legg’s stick on the play ended up residing for a time in the Hockey Hall of Fame for its part in what is simply known as “The Michigan.”
Flash forward 26 years. Svechnikov scored the first NHL lacrosse goal on Oct. 29. He repeated the feat on Dec. 17 against Connor Hellebuyck and the Winnipeg Jets.
On Jan. 14, Nashville’s Filip Forsberg proved the lacrosse goal is not a one-man phenomenon, lifting the puck on his blade and shovelling it under the glove of Edmonton netminder Mike Smith.
“The young kids are super skilled coming up now,” says Vancouver goalie Jacob Markstrom. “With social media and YouTube, they learn new tricks and all that stuff is going to be more creative.
“Players are getting more creative and more confident to pull it off in games. It’s obviously fun for the fans.”
The lacrosse goal is clearly fun, but debate rages around the actual legality of the play — especially considering Rittich took a stick through the face mask on the Svechnikov marker.
Under the current rules, a lacrosse goal is legal as long as the stick of the shooter is below the shoulders and the crossbar. As for the safety issue, “accidental contact” on a high stick is permitted “if the act is committed as a normal windup or follow through of a shooting motion.”
“I really think it’s just the risk you have to take playing the position,” says Calgary goalie Cam Talbot. “I know more guys are trying it now they’ve seen it done. It’s not going to change the way I play on my post or anything like that.
“They’re exciting goals. If you’re skilled enough to pull that off, all the power to you.”
Talbot is also relying on his defencemen to read the play in real time and, if possible, hack the would-be attacker’s stick before the puck is launched.
Defencemen are becoming aware that it’s an option for some players– Calgary’s Noah Hanifan
“The more you see it, the more D-men are becoming aware of it,” says Calgary rearguard Noah Hanifin. “You’re aware of what players tend to do those things. It’s pretty unique, but defencemen are becoming aware that it’s an option for some players.”
Option or not, Vancouver goalie Thatcher Demko isn’t about to reinvent his playing style in the name of preventing lacrosse goals.
“It’s kind of one of those in-game reads where whatever you’re seeing might help you stop the puck,” Demko says. “You just do it, whether it’s throwing your head or maybe using your opposite hand and knock it down. It’s just a quick read.
“I don’t think it’s a thing where you need to change your system of play. You have to have some awareness for it, like ‘oh this guy has a little bit more time than normal, what are his options?’ That kind of thing, but you’re not going to change anything really.”
The Hockey Night In Canada podcast is a weekly CBC Sports production.
In each episode, host Rob Pizzo is joined by colourful characters within hockey to discuss great moments and great players and talk about today's stars. The Hockey Night podcast brings you beyond the boxscore with insight you won't find anywhere else.
This week, it's all about the keepers of the crease — the goalies. The members of the goaltenders union tend to be a strange bunch. Who voluntarily wants to stand in the way of a 160 km/h puck?
They also tend to be superstitious.
Patrick Roy talked to his goal posts. Glenn Hall played a record 502 consecutive games and threw up before every one. Ron Hextall used to bang both ends of his stick against the posts at the beginning and end of every period.
In this episode, we will try and figure out what makes goalies so different.
One of the most unique and colourful goalies of our era Ilya Bryzgalov joins Pizzo. The Stanley Cup champion talks about his early days playing the game in Russia, where he used speed skating skates to play net, and how he avoided a certain pre-game meal at all costs.
Ilya Bryzgalov talks about trading speed skates for goalie gear:
John Garrett, who played 530 NHL and WHA games, also joins Pizzo and has an interesting story about playing an entire period with a hot dog in his pads. You will have to listen to it to believe it.
Be sure to subscribe to the Hockey Night in Canada podcast to get a new episode each week. It's available on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, Tune In or wherever you get your podcasts.
Recent HHOF inductee Jayna Hefford joins Pizzo to break down the 2018 class, while selection committee member Brian Burke sheds some light on who the most important person in the game is — and it may not be who you think.
Pizzo sits down with Hockey Night in Canada host Ron MacLean to talk about the top storylines one month into the season and MacLean also fuels the debate over who the best player in the game is right now.
Hockey fans depend on certain trusted insiders to get their breaking news, but how exactly do they get these scoops? Turns out it's harder work than some might expect.
The fans love seeing the puck in the net…so what about the poor guys between the pipes? Are they getting pummelled for the sake of rule-tinkering?
Could there be a more thankless gig? Perfection means being ignored. A single mistake and you are marked for years of noisy abuse. Don Koharski officiated over 1,700 regular season games. He and Pizzo discuss the infamous "donut incident".
Rivalries are the heart and soul of NHL excitement, but the days of brawling are mostly a thing of the past. Chris Nilan and Kris Draper talk about those old grudges, while some current players insist rivalries are as hot as ever.
At the beginning of every NHL season, hockey fans generally have more questions than answers when it comes to their favourite teams — and the start of the 2018-19 campaign was no different. Pizzo tackled five burning questions on the minds of the hockey faithful.
Phil Kessel found a way to upstage Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid.
The Pittsburgh forward raced down the slot and beat goalie Cam Talbot 42 seconds into overtime to give the Penguins a 2-1 victory over the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday night.
Ian Cole scored his first goal of the season for the Penguins, and Matt Murray stopped 29 shots. Crosby was held without a point in his showdown with McDavid, but the Penguins rode their depth to keep the struggling Oilers in check.
McDavid forced the extra period with his first goal in seven games, a wrist shot with 2:53 left in regulation that tied it. Talbot played brilliantly at times while making 42 saves but couldn’t get a handle on Kessel’s winner.
The central figures in the biannual meeting between the best players of their respective generations tried to downplay the hype. Probably a good idea. For all the star wattage Crosby and McDavid bring, their respective teams have spent the opening weeks of the season trying to figure things out.
Edmonton is trying to build off the franchise’s first playoff appearance in 11 years but came in as the lowest-scoring team in the Western Conference, averaging all of two goals a game.
The Penguins have been wildly erratic as they eye becoming the first team in 35 years to win three straight Stanley Cups. The first three weeks included a 10-1 loss to Chicago and a 7-1 thrashing at the hands of Tampa Bay, performances that cost backup goalie Antti Niemi his job. The Penguins waived him on Monday and called up rookie Casey DeSmith to serve as Murray’s understudy. Pittsburgh also acquired Riley Sheahan from Detroit and tasked him with anchoring the third line in the same way Nick Bonino did so effectively before signing with Nashville over the summer.
There was a definitive buzz — at least what passes for buzz in October — as Crosby and McDavid skated to centre ice for the opening faceoff. But both players, and just about everyone else, spent most of the night being stoned by the goalies.
Talbot stuck out his left pad to stuff Kessel on a wide-open backhand early in the second to keep the game scoreless. Murray put together a dazzling sequence later in the period, sticking his paddle out to knock Mark Letestu’s shot out of harm’s way. The sequence ended with Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin scrambling to the goalmouth to knock away a flip to the open net by McDavid.
Cole, wearing a full shield for extra protection after losing several teeth when he blocked a shot with them earlier this month, beat Talbot with a wrist shot that zipped by Talbot’s blocker 3:24 into the third. Sheahan picked up the secondary assist for his first career point for someone other than the Red Wings.
It appeared that might be enough until McDavid, at the end of a long shift, found one last burst. He extended to catch up with a pass and fired a wrist shot from the left circle over Murray’s glove.
Pittsburgh defenceman Justin Schultz left in the first period after getting tripped by Edmonton’s Drake Caggiula and did not return.