A goaltender's crease was once his castle. It was flanked by two four-foot-high, unyielding steel posts and fronted by two ill-humored defensemen whose primary responsibilities were to protect the goaltender from hindrance or harm and help him keep the puck out of the net.
Tending goal was simpler then. Defensemen rarely deserted the front of the net to join the attack. The posts, which were fitted over steel rods that were bolted into the concrete beneath the ice surface, did not budge upon contact. Those few daredevil scorers willing to risk injury by going all the way to the goal understood the consequences should the goalie be jostled or hurt. If the offending player was not gored by the goal or immediately pummeled by one of the goalie's vigilante teammates, his number would be noted, and it would be open season on him the next time the referee looked the other way. In the NHL, crashing into the goaltender used to be expensive. Now it might be the cheapest shot in the house.
This is particularly true during the playoffs. In the regular season's six months, an elbow occasionally finds a goaltender's throat, and the odd stick may slam across the back of his knee. Some teams go to the net with more determination than others. Some goalies, known to rattle more easily than others, are more frequently the object of physical abuse. Still, over 80 games, knocking goalies down is more often happenstance than strategy. But after the first week of April, when the goaltender becomes the most significant obstacle in the way of a team's advancing to another playoff round, he becomes prey. So, he had better pray.
In some of the more notable incidents since the playoffs began on April 4, three goalies have had to leave games after being run over. The Edmonton Oilers' Glenn Anderson, a notorious crease-crasher, may or may not have been tripped by Shawn Cronin of the Winnipeg Jets as he continued goalward after taking a shot in Game 4 of the Oiler-Jet Smythe Division semifinals. Nevertheless, avoidance was hardly on Anderson's mind when he turned Winnipeg goalie Bob Essensa into a 7-10 split. Essensa first caught Anderson's knee in his chest and then in his head and was knocked cold. He was finished for the night.
In Game 5 of the Toronto Maple Leafs-St. Louis Blues Norris Division semifinals, Leaf goalie Jeff Reese was helped from the ice after suffering a knee injury during what appeared to have been an inadvertent hit by the Blues' Dave Lowry. Only 27 seconds later, the St. Louis goalie, Curtis Joseph, was a victim of the Leafs' onrushing Dave Hannan. Hannan, going to the net for a rebound, hit the off-balance Joseph, who suffered a sprained shoulder. Backup goalie Vincent Riendeau had to complete the final 8:43 of the Blues' series-clinching 4-3 victory.
"We're going to have to address this over the summer," says Jim Gregory, who, as the NHL's vice-president of hockey operations, oversees the league's officiating staff. "The net is doing what it was designed to do, but now we have created another problem."
The net to which Gregory refers was introduced in 1984-85, when the NHL, citing safety concerns, replaced the steel-rod goal anchors with Megg-Nets, circular magnets embedded in the ice and protruding slightly above its surface. Each goalpost rests on a Megg-Net. The device, the invention of Dennis Meggs of Kitchener, Ont., is designed to let the cage break free when 200 pounds of pressure is applied to it. In practice, however, it may take only a little nudge from a besieged goalie or defenseman to knock the net loose and thereby gain a whistle and a breather. At least in terms of injuries caused by players colliding with the net, the Megg-Net has made hockey somewhat safer.
But "there's less fear involved in crashing the net than there used to be," says Boston Bruin goalie Andy Moog. "Coaches suggest to the players that they go to the net, and they come so hard that even if they want to stop, they can't. When I used to reach down and cover the puck, I would get soaked from the spray from the skates of guys stopping. I can't remember the last time that happened."
Instead, he gets the sort of treatment usually reserved for condemned buildings. The role of the steel ball is played by the onrushing forward. The role of the building is played by the goalie. He winds up crumpled in the corner of the dislodged net. Or under a 225-pound forward. Or looking into a doctor's penlight, trying to remember which city he's in. Of course, if the goalie isn't really hurt, it's good strategy for him to pretend that he is, so that the referee will call a penalty. Skating has always been an underrated skill for a goalie. Now, so is writhing.
Just because the goalie is encased in padding does not mean he is protected. At almost all times, he's watching the puck, which means that unless the shooter continues right at the goaltender after taking a shot, practically every hit the goalie takes comes from a blind side. And since he is barely moving or is standing stock-still, the goalie is no match for a 6'3" winger traveling at approximately 20 mph. "They do it to your goalie, and then you feel like you have to do it back to theirs," says Roger Neilson, the coach of the New York Rangers. "I don't like that part of the game at all."