Goalies' challenge: To shrug off the increase in goals
Posted: Thursday November 17, 2005 2:04PM; Updated: Thursday November 17, 2005 5:53PM
Nikolai Khabibulin must shrug off his poor numbers in Chicago.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
We knew goaltenders would get the worst end of this deal. The NHL wants more scoring, so it opens up the ice, cracks down on obstruction, and chops away at the amount of padding the goalies can use to protect their nets. Everyone -- well, everyone not wearing a mask -- is happy, especially the goaltenders' psychiatrists, whose workload has increased now that they must talk their clients off the ledge on a more frequent basis.
That's the underlying downside, if there is one, to all this uptick in offense. Goalies are having to redefine their perception of a "bad" game. Those who used to beat themselves up for allowing three or four goals must find a way to accept that as the norm in this current NHL atmosphere, to place it in proper perspective. The ability to shake off things has always been paramount to a netminder. Now, it's a premium, and quite possibly the difference in which goalies will thrive -- and which ones will self-destruct -- as this season progresses.
"It's just the mental challenge after games and after weeks or months after some seemingly bad games," Stars goalie Marty Turco said this week during an NHL conference call. "There's just nights that I've actually felt like I've played well and let in four or five goals. You just have to let it go."
In October, the average goals per game was 6.4, an increase of 27 percent from the same number of games (174) to start the 2003-04 season. In addition, there was a 10 percent increase in shots.
Perhaps more telling, forwards were responsible for 919 goals in October, the most in that time frame since the 1995-96 season. Let's assume part of that stems from forwards pounding the crease, firing point-blank shots with little retribution from penalty-fearing defensemen.
Nothing can be so tiring for a goalie than facing a bevy of pucks from a crowded crease. The exhaustion is as much mental as physical. Cruising with a big lead also offers no slack time, since teams seem to be overcoming two-, three-, even four-goal deficits with regularity. And with a condensed schedule offering little recovery time, goalies are being challenged more than ever to stay at the top of their game.
Oh, and don't forget the shootouts, which have decided nearly nine percent of all games this season. Going mano a mano may be exhilarating, but it also means additional pressure. The accumulation of that pressure will be most noticeable come March and April when playoff berths are on the line.
"You're going to have to let things roll (off your back) a lot better," Turco said, "and continue to try to make the difference for your team every night, whether it's giving up one goal or four."
Goalies must turn a blind eye to the numbers on their ledger. A goals-against average or save percentage that was considered merely average in previous years might now fall under the category of solid, even impressive.
Surprisingly, the numbers of the league leaders aren't so far off the chart from previous seasons -- at least not yet. The Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist leads the league with a 1.88; that's in line with the league leader from 1997-2002. Only in the previous two years had we seen a significant deviation, with Turco's 1.72 GAA in 2003 and Miikka Kiprusoff's 1.69 GAA topping the charts in 2004.
Still, there are some eye-catching dropoffs this season, especially among the veteran stoppers. Martin Brodeur's 3.45 GAA would be a career-high if he finishes the season that way. Same for Olaf Kolzig's 3.78. Ed Belfour's 3.43 would be the highest since his rookie season. Nikolai Khabibulin (3.53) has disappointed in Chicago; his total is more than a goal per game higher than his Stanley Cup-winning season in Tampa Bay.
And Turco's 2.79 GAA this season also is the worst of his career, by far. Four times this season he has allowed five goals. Can he shake it off? He must if the Stars are to be legitimate Cup threats.
"Numbers are going to be, just like any sport, kind of like a bikini -- they show a lot but not everything," Turco said. "Even if you're on, you can still be subjected to numerous goals and lamplighters."
So take it easy on yourself, all you NHL goalies. Don't dwell on the numbers. Try to avoid having Denis Lemieux-type convulsions. And for goodness sake ... DON'T JUMP OFF THAT LEDGE! Your psychiatrist needs your business.