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Shootout success is all in your mind (game)

Monday, 03.30.2009 / 9:00 AM / NHL Insider

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

"It's a big mental battle. That's the most interesting thing about it, the mental game. It's like a chess match."
-- Jussi Jokinen

Well before the opening faceoff, Carolina Hurricanes forward Jussi Jokinen already knows what shootout move he'll use that night should the game go the distance.

A useful role player during the game, Jokinen is a superstar in the shootout and he takes it very seriously.

"On TV they like to show lots of highlights from shootouts, so I like to pick from there a little bit, and before every game, when I know which goalie is going to be in the net, I pretty much decide I'm going to do this move or another one," Jokinen told NHL.com. "I have played here for four years, so I have known the goalies. I like to study goalies. I watch myself in the shootouts, too. I spend lots of time practicing that stuff."

Jokinen's practice has paid off. And he's not alone.

It's become a trend among NHL players who normally take part in the shootout to perfect their three or four moves, while at the same remembering when, where and against which goalie they used them. They all seem to have long memories when it comes to the shootout, which is another reason why some unlikely sources can be so good at it.

Jokinen, for one, averages less than 14 goals per season, but his 22 shootout goals are second all-time behind Atlanta's Slava Kozlov. His 53.7-percent success rate (22-for-41) is fifth-best all-time among shooters with at least 20 attempts.

It would be wrong to call Jokinen or anyone else a specialist, because they obviously have other qualities that make them NHL players, but their talent in the shootout does make them a more valuable asset than someone else averaging 14 goals and 15 minutes a night.

"I'm OK with that," Jokinen said. "It's one of my strengths, being one of the best guys in the League for four years."

What they're thinking

Most of the good shooters have only a handful of moves in their bag of tricks. Any more, Edmonton forward Patrick O'Sullivan told NHL.com said, "Unless it's a rare circumstance that I don't know of, it's not always going to work."

This season's shootout king, Colorado's Wojtek Wolski, said basically he has five moves now, but they all stem off the two originals he used as a rookie in 2006-07. Wolski is 9-for-10 this season and 16-for-24 in his career.

"I don't know if it's the magic touch, but I have been lucky to come up with a couple of moves that work," Wolski told NHL.com. "The goalies are smart, though. They know what's coming."

Jokinen, who said he has three or four moves, believes goalies have become so good that if you go 50 percent in a season, you should consider yourself lucky. Most goalies scout all the top shooters.

"When the shootouts came into the League the goalies weren't preparing for them," Jokinen said. "My first year, the move I used a lot was to shoot low blocker. I had done (that) for a couple of years in Finland, but when I came in here nobody knew me and the goalies had no clue what to expect from me. Nowadays, if you are close to 50 percent range during the year, you had a great season in the shootout. Goalies are so good now."

 
But the good shooters know how to play head games with the goalies.

For instance, Jokinen said in 2005-06 he beat Peter Budaj in the preseason and then used the same shot to score on him the first time they squared off in the regular season. When the matchup came around again a few months later, he had Budaj on the ropes.

"I had scored twice on the low blocker and we were both thinking that," Jokinen said. "I still shoot it the same place and scored. It's a big mental battle. That's the most interesting thing about it, the mental game. It's like a chess match."

The stats prove the general consensus is right, that goalies have a distinct advantage over the shooters. Entering action March 26, goaltenders had stopped 67 percent of the 4,202 shootout attempts since the event was introduced in 2005-06.

Wolski, though, said the good shooters can narrow the odds by playing head games.

He's 67 percent for his career and is No. 1 all-time among the 70 players with at least 20 attempts. Only seven of those 70 are successful at least 50 percent of the time.

"For me it's a guessing game still to know where they think I'm going, but there are goalies like (Dwayne) Roloson, (Miikka) Kiprusoff and (Niklas) Backstrom that I've faced a couple of times, so we're both guessing as to what is going on and I think it helps a little bit," Wolski said. "I still don't think it's 50-50. The goalie has the advantage, but it helps. If I come down on a move that I already have done he could think I am doing it again, but I can switch it up if I see he's cheating. It is head games."

When a player goes in the shootout also plays a part in his strategy.

O'Sullivan said he normally goes first, so he decides what move he'll do based on the goalie's size and tendencies. For instance, he might use one move on a butterfly goalie like Jean-Sebastien Giguere, but something totally different on someone like Martin Brodeur or Marty Turco, who tend to stand up more and rely on athletic ability.

"Turco is unpredictable. You don't know what he's going to do," O'Sullivan said. "He starts sideways in the crease and that kind of gets in your head. His body is facing the sideboards. It's really weird. He comes out far and he'll back up with you.

"Giguere is more of a blocking goalie, so he's trying to play the percentages. You have to pick a corner because nothing is going to get through him."

Minnesota's Antti Miettinen, who is a modest 6-for-14 in his career, including 3-for-5 this season (all game-deciding goals), normally goes second or third, so he gets to watch the goalie at least once before skating in on him.

"Most of the time I would say I probably go with my moves, whatever I'm comfortable with at the time," Miettinen told NHL.com, "but quite often I'm the second or third guy if I'm going and I get to take a look at the goalie and see what he's doing. A lot of times I go with what I see out there."

Help from above

Teams that employ a full-time goalie coach own an advantage over those that don't.

For some, the goalie coach, who normally sits upstairs during games, acts as the shootout coach, radioing down to the bench just before the event begins to give a quick scouting report on the opposing goalie.

"We get a quick report from upstairs so we can kind of tell how the goalie has been playing lately, whether he's been saving a lot of dekes or letting in a lot of shots," Miettinen said. "We can go from there."

Bob Mason is the Wild's guy. He told NHL.com that he and fellow assistant coach Mike Ramsey watch video on the opposing goalie on game days. They each make notes and then compare.

"After the overtime we'll communicate about shots through headsets," Mason said.

During the game, Mason and Ramsey not only are keeping tabs on where the goalie is getting beat that night, but also where the shot is coming from.
"We have a pretty good system where we can look at all that stuff and try to feed the players a little information (after overtime). On the other hand, we try not to overburden them with too much information." -- Bob Mason, Wild goalie coach
"We have a pretty good system where we can look at all that stuff and try to feed the players a little information (after overtime)," Mason said. "On the other hand, we try not to overburden them with too much information."

O'Sullivan said Edmonton goalie coach Pete Peeters offers his thoughts from the press box. It's helpful because he said he has never watched any film on goalies.

"Some guys are going to do what they want to do and would rather not hear anything that causes them to second-guess themselves, but I like to know exactly what the goalie tries to do," O'Sullivan said. "At the end of the day, though, when you're trying to score in a shootout, most guys have a good idea of what they are going to do anyway."

O'Sullivan also said Roloson sometimes helps Edmonton's shooters by giving them tips on other goalies around the League.

"At this level," he said, "any little bit of information is going to help."

 
For Wolski, getting help from Avalanche goalie coach Jeff Hackett means he has to watch less video of goalies in the shootout. He still does "here and there," but Hackett's reports usually are good enough.

"With certain goalies he'll tell us before the game what he likes to do," Wolski said. "He will tell us he might go down, poke check, or do this or that. He'll usually call down right before the shootout and say you might want to try this move or that move."

Not everybody utilizes the scouting reports. Miettinen said they can be good for your confidence, but he still goes on instinct.

"I don't want to go down and think about going upstairs when I want to go five-hole," Miettinen said. "I don't want to take the shot with that kind of mindset. I use what they say and make my decision when I go out there."

Livin' on the edge

There are three moments in a hockey game that without hesitation bring fans out of their seats -- goals, fights and, if the game goes that far, the shootout.

Players all would rather win a game in regulation or, if they have to, overtime, but just like their fans, they get geared up for the shootout. The point at stake could be the difference in a playoff berth or home-ice advantage. It also could stop a sliding team from losing any more ground.

"Maybe you have lost three games and you go into the shootout. If you lose the losing streak keeps going, but if you win the shootout and then win another couple of games you can say the shootout started a winning streak," Jokinen said. "It's so big. At the end of the season, if you won some shootouts it can be a big difference in making playoffs."

"I still don't think it's 50-50. The goalie has the advantage, but it helps. If I come down on a move that I already have done he could think I am doing it again, but I can switch it up if I see he's cheating. It is head games."
-- Wojtek Wolski

It was the reverse for Carolina last season. If the Hurricanes had won two more shootouts they would have made the playoffs, but instead they finished two points out in ninth. Edmonton stayed in the Western Conference race until the end due to 15 shootout wins.

"At the beginning people just thought it was great for hockey and the fans would like it, but now you are seeing teams get an extra five, six, seven or eight points in the shootout," Wolski said. "If you have a couple of shooters that can do well, put the puck in the net, and a goalie that does well in the shootouts, it can really help you. It can be the difference in making the playoffs."

Also, the feeling a team gets from winning or losing in the shootout, O'Sullivan said, can be strikingly different than how players feel after winning or losing in regulation or overtime.

"They are awesome to win, but it (stinks) when you lose them," he said. "It cheapens the way you feel. You can play such a good game and lose because of something that doesn't have anything to do with the game. I'd still rather have a chance to win than tie."

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com.

Tomorrow: The Goalies
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