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E.M. Swift
November 13, 2000
The most exciting moment in sports may be the game of chicken that suddenly breaks out when a skater finds himself one-on-one against a goalie
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November 13, 2000

Break Away!

The most exciting moment in sports may be the game of chicken that suddenly breaks out when a skater finds himself one-on-one against a goalie

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For goalies, stopping a breakaway can have lasting repercussions. When John Vanbiesbrouck played for Florida in 1995-96, he remembers thwarting the Penguins' Mario Lemieux, generally considered the best breakaway artist ever (box, left), in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. That stop buoyed Vanbiesbrouck's confidence so much that he led the surprising Panthers past the Penguins in seven games and on to the Stanley Cup finals against the Avalanche. "I fed off that save the rest of the series," says Vanbiesbrouck, now a New York Islander. "These kinds of things can be powerful. It cuts hard both ways, depending on whether you stop the puck or it goes in. It's probably the ultimate challenge for goalies."

It's a challenge that many goalies don't mind. "There's a jolt of excitement in that split second you recognize a breakaway," says former Montreal Canadien and Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden, who's the president of the Maple Leafs. "There's no time to feel dread. It's more an intense, heightened awareness, almost like your ears pricking up, as you move out for the confrontation. It's a showdown without compromise. You don't need to worry about anything or anybody else but that one shooter."

Goaltenders are used to fighting through clutter: screened shots, deflections off pads and skates. A breakaway is a pure test, and one in which, statistically, the goalie has the advantage. The NHL doesn't keep stats on breakaway goals, but netminders stop three penalty shots in five on average. "The goalie ought to stop a breakaway 65 percent to 75 percent of the time," says former Bruins netminder and Hall of Famer Gerry Cheevers. "That wouldn't hold true if you were facing someone like Pavel Bure all the time, but you're not."

Patience is the key for the goalie. He must force the forward to make the initial move. On the other hand the forward is waiting for the netminder to blink. It's a high-speed game of chicken. "I always felt on a breakaway that a goalie could make the shooter do what he wants," says former Islanders netminder Billy Smith. "That's why you see goalies coming farther out of their net. They take away the angle to make the guy deke and get him close enough to maybe use a pokecheck."

The pokecheck is especially effective when the shooter is coming off the wing. Most goalies find this angled attack problematic, because they must move both across and back, which inevitably opens the five hole. An even riskier move is the kamikaze blitz, when the goalie, perhaps seeing the forward barreling in with his head down, dives out at the shooter with his stick extended, hoping to catch him by surprise. St. Louis Blues second-year netminder Roman Turek did it successfully at least half a dozen times last season. "But you must hit the puck with your stick," says Turek. "If you miss it, you're done. You're down with your stick out, and it's a goal."

It's difficult for netminders to establish a book on shooters these days since teams face one another only a few times a season, and with a number of clubs using the neutral-zone trap, breakaways are becoming increasingly rare. Such unfamiliarity can lead to cases of mistaken identity. "I try to identify who has the breakaway," says Curtis Joseph of the Maple Leafs, who makes everyone's short list of top goalies against breakaways, "and then go through my mental Rolodex of the guy's favorite moves. But I've misdiagnosed before, when I thought it was a certain guy with a certain move, and it turned out to be someone else."

Says Avalanche center Peter Forsberg, "You have to figure out who's in net and what his strengths are, and try not to play to them."

Some believe a forward needs to master only one move. "It's like a Roger Clemens fastball," says Dryden. "Even when you know it's coming, you can't hit it."

St. Louis's Pavol Demitra is one of these one-move wonders. "It's quick," he says of his breakaway tactic. "I fake the shot, and the goalie goes down because almost every goalie plays the butterfly style. Then I go to the backhand and shoot high. That's my move. I do it every time. I do it every day after practice. Nobody can stop that."

Sutter is another who believes one move is all that's necessary for success, and he offers Jagr as proof. "Jagr can roof it on his backhand," says Sutter. "If you go backhand and can roof the puck, you score 100 percent of the time."

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