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Shootout prowess includes defensemen, too

Wednesday, 04.01.2009 / 9:00 AM / NHL Insider

By John McGourty - NHL.com Staff Writer

"With a guy like Jack Johnson, and also with our Drew Doughty -- another one of our top young defensemen -- you have guys who possess a high skill level and both guys are talented players. These are guys who were high draft picks and guys you expect to have an impact with your organization. I like that they can handle the pressure that comes with those situations."
-- Terry Murray

Whenever you see a defensive back inexplicably drop the football on what appeared to be an easy interception, the announcers invariably will say, "That's why they're not wide receivers -- bad hands."

But it's different in hockey. Don't assume that because someone's playing defense, they have no shot with a shot.

Eleven NHL defensemen have scored goals in shootouts this season. Five have two or more goals and three are tied for the League lead among blueliners with three goals -- Jack Johnson of the Los Angeles Kings, Andrei Markov of the Montreal Canadiens and Marek Zidlicky of the Minnesota Wild.

Johnson has scored on three of his six shootout attempts, including the game winner Feb. 10 against the New York Islanders, beating Yann Danis.

Johnson, a left-handed shot, skated straight in on Danis, gave a head fake as if he was going for the right side, pulled up quickly as Danis lunged for the puck and flipped the puck in on the wide-open left side.

"One of the previous shooters missed on the right side, so I figured I would deke him," Johnson said. "I came straight in and gave him a traditional fake on the backhand and then beat him far post on the forehand. It was an old Pavel Bure highlight goal, although I'm positive he does it a lot better than I do."

Johnson also beat Minnesota Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom on Feb. 24 and San Jose Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov on March 14.

"I used the same move on Backstrom that I used on Danis," Johnson said. "With Nabokov, I shot from the slot. I kept my feet moving and didn't give him a chance to get set. He jumped out on me and I caught him in a rare situation. He wasn't expecting me to do that.

"I try to mix it up on them. You have moves and tendencies that you're comfortable with, but goalies watch and know those tendencies and you can't be too predictable."

Johnson has also been frustrated three times, including last Thursday against Marty Turco of the Dallas Stars. Johnson was the Kings' fourth shooter that night.

"Turco is difficult," Johnson said. "He has stopped me twice, so I'm looking forward to cracking him soon. I'm a young guy in this League and I know a lot of the goalies from growing up and watching them on TV."

A growing number of NHL teams study video to get an idea of what the next opposing goalie likes to do in shootouts and where he can be beaten. Johnson said he hasn't watched video of goalies or gotten instructions from his coaches, but he is watching.

"I tend to know what goalies want to do," Johnson said. "But as a later shooter, I watch and see what they want to do."

Johnson was used as the sixth shooter the first time he got the nod from coach Terry Murray, and then went fifth the next time. He was the third shooter twice in a row and has gone fourth in his last two attempts. Being picked before a top-six forward is quite a compliment for a defenseman.

"With a guy like Jack Johnson, and also with our Drew Doughty -- another one of our top young defensemen -- you have guys who possess a high skill level and both guys are talented players," Murray said. "These are guys who were high draft picks and guys you expect to have an impact with your organization. I like that they can handle the pressure that comes with those situations."

It helps that Johnson doesn't see the pressure as much as he sees the opportunity. There might be 20,000 fans in the stands screaming for or against him, but Johnson is focused on only one person in the building -- the goalie.

"The first time I was nervous, but ever since then I've been more comfortable," he said. "I find it more fun than anything. It's a chance to showcase skills. It's a shootout. I used to do it as a kid with my buddies in the driveway. They're more fun than anything. It's rare for a defenseman to get a one-on-one with the goaltender and get a clean shot."

Zidlicky's Wild coaching staff analyzes goalies to prepare players for shootouts, and that has influenced his shot selection.

"I was just a little lucky," Zidlicky said. "Five times I shot and three times I scored, so I think I was a little lucky. I tried a different move in every game because they probably watched video before the game."

Markov is the only one of the three that played forward when he was younger. He has a good shot from the point and he's been known to pinch into the slot and get off good shots during play.

"I was a center while I was growing up, but I was switched to defense when I was 16," said Markov, who is one of the Canadiens' leading scorers and could become the first blueliner to lead the Habs in scoring since 1921-22, when defenseman Sprague Cleghorn had 26 points.

Markov said his approach to each shootout attempt is different and that he usually doesn't plan ahead.

"It depends a great deal on which goaltender I'm going to face," he said. "I'm usually confident in shootouts, but I get a little more nervous if the game is on the line for my shot."

Perhaps the key to success in shootouts is to enjoy the moment rather than measure its import. It's a common trait with Johnson, Markov and Zidlicky.

"It's great. It's so exciting," Zidlicky said. "And then I scored, it was great. All our fans were cheering. It was just great. Just stay focused in your mind. Don't question yourself. Just focus on the shootout, forget anything that happened in the game."

Next: Deal for a specialist?
Quote of the Day

We've got a team filled with captains, that's what I think. With these first two games we got in, we're really dominating and moving the puck really fast, and it's worked out really good.

— U.S. goalie Brandon Halverson after a 6-0 win against Germany in the World Junior Championship on Sunday