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, puck-handling 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."