During the first week of the season, we've seen a lot of goaltenders give up a lot of goals on shots that came from below or near the goal line.
Roberto Luongo had one bank off his skates in the opener against the Penguins on a shot from James Neal. In that same game, Vancouver's Maxim Lapierre beat Marc-Andre Fleury from an even worse angle. During the games in Europe, the Rangers' Ryan Callahan banked one home off of Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick. In his first game as a Capital, Tomas Vokoun allowed two goals from sharp angles against the Tampa Bay Lightning, one to Teddy Purcell and one to Bruno Gervais.
At first blush, it's easy to see these bad goals and say to yourself, "I could've stopped that shot." But when it comes to shots from below the goal line, there's nothing easy about playing them for a goaltender.
Shooters today are smarter, faster and better than ever. They all know that when they have the puck in that situation, a goaltender has to make a decision. If he decides to play the shooter 100 percent, he leaves himself open to a myriad of possibilities for a goal to be scored: The back-door goal, a defenseman sneaking down from the point on the far side, an uncovered forward in the slot, or even just a deflection off a skate in front. If the goaltender just hugs the post and plays the angle, he's helpless to make a play in any of those situations.
With the new sticks today that fire shots harder than ever, people lose sight of the fact that those sticks also fire passes harder than ever, too. That leaves a goalie even less time to move side-to-side to cover the net, and in some ways, it turns a goalie into a gambler -- a fully-padded odds calculator.
More often than not, a player is going to make a pass from near or below the goal line. A goalie knows this, so he will hedge his bets in some situations. All goaltenders do it, whether they admit it or not. There are reasons why some will do it more than others, and there are ways to improve your odds from allowing a bank shot to squeeze through you as a goalie.
One thing all goaltenders can do to minimize the risk of being made to look silly is technique. In a situation where a shooter has the puck near the right-wing corner and the goaltender wants to be ready for the pass but not leave himself susceptible for the bad-angle goal, he should take his back skate, the one furthest from the shooter, and position it out in front of his body slightly and away from the goal line. This way, if a shooter wants to get sneaky and go for the ricochet goal, the puck will bounce off that skate and away from the net, not into it.
A lot of goalies today use the V-H method, which means they try to stay vertical and horizontal at the same time. That means they'll hug the post, while keeping a pad extended along the ice. But not everyone is comfortable with that and it's not a fool-proof way of stopping those shots.
The head also is key. Wherever the head is looking, the rest of the body usually will follow.
The big reason why goalies gamble is a lack of trust in the defensive coverage. If a goaltender feels his defensemen and forwards have everyone covered around the net and deep in the zone, he'll simply play the shooter and not worry about the back-door goal. But in a lot of cases, goalies feel they have to cheat because they're not sure if their teammates have their back.
And a lot of times, that's not necessarily the fault of the goalie's defense. Before the work stoppage, defensemen virtually could do anything they wanted in front of the net and they wouldn't be called for a penalty. Holding, grabbing, clutching, cross checking, perhaps a shove to the ice with a push to the back of the head -- it usually went uncalled. Nowadays, it's harder to tie up attackers near the net, so a goaltender almost has no choice but to cheat toward the other side of the net when the puck is below the goal line.
But a lot of the credit has to go to the shooters. A lot of them are learning about how to beat goaltenders by working with their own team's goaltenders and goalie coaches during practice.
When I was with the New York Rangers, players like Ryan Callahan and Brendan Shanahan were out there with us. When I was with the Devils, it was the same thing with Zach Parise. That time after practice with the goalie coach isn't just for the extra defensemen and forwards. Smart players are out there learning our secrets and using them to score goals like the ones we've seen in the early going.
A great example of why goalies need to cheat a bit came in Wednesday's game between the Canucks and Flyers.
Sean Couturier carried the puck behind the net and didn't come out above the goal line until he was near the corner. Luongo, trusting his defense, stayed on his knees and focused on Couturier. But Jakub Voracek was all alone on the other side of the ice. Couturier hit him with a pass, and Voracek beat Luongo with a shot before he could square up to the shooter.
And don't think for a second this is just an early-season phenomenon. Chicago's Patrick Kane scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal in 2010 against the Flyers' Michael Leighton on a similar shot, and you can't score a goal later in the season than that one.