All-Star Game's 3-on-3 format will challenge goalies

Friday, 01.29.2016 / 3:00 AM
Kevin Woodley  - Correspondent

The NHL All-Star Game never really has been kind to goaltenders.

With all the focus on skill, speed and scoring, and little emphasis on backchecking and defense, high-scoring games are the norm. So what can the guys charged with keeping pucks out of the net expect from the new 3-on-3 format being used Sunday in the 2016 Honda NHL All-Star Game (5 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports)? With even more time and space, how will goalies approach this?

"Just survive," Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne said with a laugh. "When you think about 3-on-3 with all the best players, there's not going to be a lot of defending to help the goalie. So you just try to have fun with it."

That's easier when goalies know they aren't being judged on numbers.

Patrick Roy played in the All-Star Game 11 times during his Hockey Hall of Fame career and finished with a 7.44 goals-against average. Goaltenders expect to see big numbers posted against them. But they've also viewed the game as a chance to make some equally big saves against the game's best players.

For some, it has meant slightly altering their approach.

With little of the defensive structure goalies rely on to anticipate plays during the regular season, the All-Star Game always has felt more like a game of shinny for goalies, with lots of extra time for the world's best shooters to make plays and pick corners. While some assume that might force goalies to play more aggressively and wander further out of their crease to cut down angles on those shooters, the reality is that many goalies prefer to go in the other direction, playing deeper to shorten their movements on passes.

"I like to play extra deep and wait for plays to develop," the Florida Panthers' Roberto Luongo, who will be playing in his fifth All-Star Game, told last season. "Guys rarely shoot."

The question is whether that might change now that the All-Star Game is 3-on-3. Vancouver Canucks goaltender Ryan Miller compared 3-on-3 in overtime to competitive indoor cycling races.

"You are waiting and waiting and waiting for the right opportunity to sprint and go hard," Miller said.

The truth is, much like the first few months of 3-on-3 overtime, the goalies aren't sure yet how things will play out Sunday in Nashville.

If there is a lot of end-zone play and cycling, that same play-deeper, stay-patient approach will remain important for most. If it turns into a track meet with missed chances at one end resulting in a steady stream of odd-man rushes and breakaways at the other end, goalies might be forced to play with a little more backward flow, timing their retreats with the approaching attacks.

That may suit aggressive goalies like John Gibson of the Anaheim Ducks, Ben Bishop of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings, while others like Luongo, Devan Dubnyk of the Minnesota Wild and Cory Schneider of the New Jersey Devils are more likely to stay closer to the edge of their crease.

It depends how they read each situation, and not even the goalies headed to Nashville are certain what to expect in a format they've seen so little of.

"Once they get in the zone and it's 3-on-3 down low they might get a chance in tight. But most of the best chances come off the rush," Bishop said. "It depends on the situation. Sometimes you might take a little more net. But it depends who it is and your reads. No two chances are the same. It should just be a lot of fun and a chance to size yourself up against the very best players in the world."

New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist won't be at the All-Star Game this year, but has adapted his approach to 3-on-3 in overtime. For him, it's not so much about altering technique or tactics but more about battle level.

"You just go out there with a battle mentality of never give up on any pucks," Lundqvist told "You know you are going to see some situations that you normally don't see. That battle mentality just has to be extremely high when you go out for 3-on-3. Everything develops so fast out of nothing, so you have to just challenge yourself."

If there's one thing goalies agree on, it's the need to be prepared to match that speed without the 60-minute warmup of a regular-season game.

With more extended saves likely in 3-on-3, dynamic stretching before taking the ice will be more important than ever.

"For sure," Rinne said. "Even if it's not necessarily top speed out there, you still want to make all the saves for sure. And goalies are going to be the ones who go all out."

If there's one part of 3-on-3 that hasn't materialized in the regular season that Rinne would like to see more of during the All-Star Game, it's puckhandling goalies.

With an emphasis on possession and dump-ins being rare, goalies haven't been asked to play the puck as much as some predicted going into the season. Rinne thinks teams could better use the goalie to get a line change without giving up possession, and hopes he can talk his All-Star teammates into throwing the puck back his way more often.

"I could be more demanding and asking for the puck," Rinne said with a smile.

If you've seen Bishop play around with the puck in practice, passing it with the velocity of a defenseman and moving it around his skates like a forward, it's not surprising to hear he would also like to have more opportunities to play the puck in Nashville.

"I'll have a blast with it," Bishop said. "I'll be up at the red line."

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