Every point is going to matter in the last week of the 2012-13 regular season, so shootout wins will be tantamount when contenders for the Stanley Cup Playoffs find themselves in tiebreakers across the next seven days.
That means the goalies for those teams will be under the microscope even more than usual. Plus, their job could be harder than ever as the League's shootout scoring percentage this season -- 35.82 percent entering the week -- is even more impressive than last season.
And there is no doubt the goalies are aware of what is going on as shootout attempts become more and more intricate, seemingly with each passing day.
Ranford has noticed that more and more players who employed one signature "go-to" move in the past now have added two or three moves to their arsenal, making it harder for goalies to predict strategy.
One of the strategies gaining more popularity with shooters involves approaching the net at an exaggeratedly slow pace. This has become part of the arsenal, perhaps most famously, of Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks.
Ranford believes this "slow is the new fast" phenomenon is working best against goalies who play the shootout aggressively, coming out far and backing up quickly in a "timing" play.
"Goalies who are less aggressive you can beat with speed and go around them," Ranford said. "But more aggressive goalies can have their timing thrown off if a guy slows it down. Guys like Kane might come in so slow that it forces you to be much more patient in your movements."
Goalie coaches long have preached patience as the single most important skill a goalie can employ in a shootout, and as shooters add more shoulder fakes and other deceptive moves, the exercise of restraint becomes even more vital.
"Let the shooter make the first move," Mike Ayers, USA Hockey's national goaltending coach, said. "All the other intangibles come with being an athlete."
Whether a shooter comes in slow or fast, Ayers said, doesn't change one fundamental truth: "The biggest thing is being able to match the shooter's momentum. Some shooters are starting their attempt at a higher rate of speed, then slowing down. If the goalie doesn't adjust his backward movement, he becomes very deep and vulnerable."
Ayers also noted the increased scoring in shootouts isn't just an NHL phenomenon, saying, "Overall, the skill set of players are becoming more diverse and players are not shy on trying a 'new' move to keep the goalies honest and shake things up."
Fans got a glimpse of one of these more creative new moves earlier this season when forward Kaspars Daugavins, then with the Ottawa Senators, became the first to attempt a shot by pushing the puck down the ice with the toe of his stick blade and then whipping around in a spin-o-rama. The move, which some derided as a "trick" play, was foiled by Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask. But the bold attempt exemplified the ever-increasing sense of creativity among shooters.
"For years shooters relied on instincts," veteran goalie coach Mitch Korn of the Nashville Predators said. "Goalies have always had a system, but shooters never really analyzed what they did. But in recent years there has been a greater analysis by the shooters to make it more of a science for them. So when you add the skill level and commitment to want to do those things, they become very dangerous because they have the puck."
Korn, like Ayers, believes that goaltenders shouldn't press the panic button at the recent uptick in shootout scoring.
For example, throwing out a preemptive poke check in a shootout -- the shooter, after all, has no pressure from a back-checking defenseman -- is a recipe for bad results for the goalie.
"Poke checks are an opportunity to give an easy lay-up goal," Korn said. "They work less than 50 percent of the time. I would like to force you to beat me and not beat myself."
Perhaps most sobering for goalies, however, is this: "There are moves that, if executed, are unstoppable," Korn said. "Great moves and great shots trump everything. Goalies can only react."
Perhaps no NHL goalie has learned this lesson more than Korn's elite pupil in Nashville, Pekka Rinne. The Predators goalie has seen his shootout save percentage plummet from .786 last season to.667 this season. As a result, Nashville has lost six of eight shootouts and those potential six points are part of the reason the Predators have been eliminated from Stanley Cup Playoff contention.
"I am just trying too hard, which doesn't do you any good," Rinne said. "In shootouts, I am at my best when I am having fun and look at it as a fun competition to challenge myself."
Whatever strategy goalies employ in shootouts, Ranford points out that their goal remains the same: "You've got to stop the puck."
Ranford, however, believes that as the stakes become higher down the final stretch to the playoffs, we might see the spectrum shift once again in the favor of the goalies.
"The pressure will be different," Ranford said. "That extra point could make the difference of getting into the playoffs, so there is more pressure on shooters. We will see how that plays out."
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