Every hockey team used to have just one goalie. Why would it need two? There was only one goal to defend, and all the goalie had to do was stand in front of it. If Gump or Turk or any of the guys who played all 60 minutes of all 60 games back when the NHL was a six-team league went down with an injury, he would just get up, that's all. And play continued.
But the modern era's 80-game schedule, jet lag, crease-crashing 210-pound wingers, curved sticks and straighter-than-ever shooters have changed the philosophy of goaltending. Now a team must have two competent goalies, not only so that each can stay fresh, but also so that they can push each other to their best efforts. Ever since the advent of the two-goalie system, coaches have been experimenting with it, seeking to learn how best to implement it, and enjoying only off-and-on success. But it appears now that the New York Rangers have discovered goaltending paradise.
At week's end, the Rangers had a four-point lead in the Patrick Division thanks largely to the netminding tandem of John Vanbiesbrouck and Mike Richter—or, if you prefer, Mike Richter and John Vanbiesbrouck. There's no lead dog here. In 13 starts, Richter, a 24-year-old rookie, had a 7-3-3 record, an impressive goals-against average of 2.51 and a league-leading .928 save percentage. Vanbiesbrouck's numbers (8-3-2, 2.39 and .922) virtually mirrored Richter's.
The importance of these mirror images to the Rangers' 15-6-5 start is reflected in the fact that New York amassed that record despite the lengthy absences, because of injuries, of center Kelly Kisio and defensemen Randy Moller and Normand Rochefort, players who helped the Rangers win the Patrick Division title last season. Still, New York has had enough depth at the critical positions—center, defense and, especially, goal—to keep racking up the points.
Like most teams, the Rangers could use another scorer, but general manager Neil Smith says he will not deal either Vanbiesbrouck or Richter for help at another position. "I drafted goalies for years in Detroit [as the Red Wings' director of scouting] and came up with only one NHLer, Tim Cheveldae," says Smith. "Good goalies are just too valuable."
There are still a few one-man shows around the league (seven of the 21 teams use one goalie for the majority of their games), but the trend is clear: Marathon men are out, dynamic duos are in. And with the best pair in the league, the Rangers, who have not won the Stanley Cup since 1940, look as if they could be Cup finalists next spring—maybe even the NHL champion.
Of course, not everyone would join in that prognostication. Many hockey experts question the effectiveness of smaller goalies like Vanbiesbrouck, who is 5'8", and Richter, who is generously listed at 5'10". The skeptics' simple logic says that big goalies cover more of the net. In today's NHL, where the shots come harder and from more angles than ever, the goalie who sets himself in the best possible position to have the puck hit him is the one who gives himself the best opportunity to win. And with shooters releasing the puck more quickly than ever, little time is left for goaltending acrobatics. Quick little goalies who flop, dive and overuse their gloves can succeed for short stretches. But most are only a good scouting report—"Wait for him to go down, boys, and then shoot high"—away from being back in the minors.
But Vanbiesbrouck and Richter are two short goalies who stand tall. Richter positions himself as well as any goalie in the league. That means he does it as well as Vanbiesbrouck, whose picture should be featured in the chapter on positioning in the goaltending textbook.
Reflexes, of course, are still a job requisite. Vanbiesbrouck has outstanding quickness, and Richter may be even quicker. From the dropped-down, split-legged "butterfly" position used to protect the bottom half of the net while looking through screens and scrambles, Richter is able to spring back to his skates with astonishing speed. His short, swift but not-really-fluid movements suggest a toy goalie with a key in his back.
Richter does only the most perfunctory puckhandling around the goal. Vanbiesbrouck, though, likes to roam. "I'm more likely to beat myself trying to poke-check somebody on a breakaway than Mike would be," Vanbiesbrouck says.