Goaltending plays an integral part in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. With the competition intense and often so even, the men protecting each goal often are the difference in a series. NHL.com decided to break down perhaps the most interesting goaltending matchup in the Western Conference First Round: Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings vs. Antti Niemi of the San Jose Sharks.
Much like many goaltending coaches will do before a playoff series, NHL.com correspondent Kevin Woodley, the managing editor of InGoal Magazine, charted every goal scored against each goalie in this matchup this season and came to some interesting conclusions about their strengths and weaknesses.
GAA: 2.07 | SVP: 0.915
Playing to such extremes in an age of more conservative, middle-ground goaltending is rare and makes for a few unique trends.
When he's on -- Some goalies are at their best playing a quiet game, but Quick is always moving. When he's locked in, the movements remain controlled, even when he's down, sliding back and forth with his torso slightly upright and his hands able to activate on the fly.
When he's off -- For all his incredible mobility you can usually spot bad games when Quick is reaching a lot and commits to the splits as a desperation save too often rather than staying over his knees.
It's no surprise most involve lateral plays, not only because plays which force movement lead to lower save percentages in general, but because Quick moves more as a result of aggressive positioning.
Almost two-thirds of the goals at even strength, and nearly half (14) on the power play involved movement, and a majority (33 and 13, respectively) were finished by one-timers or quick shots, whether on a cross-ice pass or rebound (21). Even then it's important to elevate that quick shot. Anything low gives Quick a chance to combine his explosive pushes with a Gumby flexibility, often turning what looks like a sure goal into a spectacular, momentum-changing save.
Power up -- The trends don't change dramatically when opponents get more time and space on the power play to target tendencies on Quick, with slight increases of glove-side goals (20 of 30 on the power play compared to 39 of 70 at even strength), and a slightly lower percentage of those coming on high shots (11 of 30 on PP, 21 of 70 at EV) versus low- to middle-net glove shots (9 of 30; 14 of 70). But it's worth noting there were none along the ice on either side on the power play, and one five hole, confirming shooters need to get pucks elevated, even with the extra time afforded by the man advantage.
Elevation a must -- Unlike most goalies who barely manage to get a pad across in desperation moments, Quick usually stacks his vertical coverage with the glove or blocker arm atop the pad. He rarely throws himself across blindly, tracking the puck and maintaining mobility through his torso even while doing the splits in a lateral slide.
RD. 1 - SHARKS VS. KINGS
Series preview: Sharks, Kings are very familiar playoff foes
Sell the fake -- Given his aggressive nature, selling a fake shot from up high to draw him out before making a lateral pass can buy time.
Odd-man high -- Almost one-third of the even-strength goals on Quick were off the rush (20), but instead of typical passes in tight on odd-man opportunities, crisp passes high in the zone work because his aggressive positioning leaves more distance to cover laterally, which can expose him to one-time goals into the far side of the net.
Make him smaller -- About one-third of his even-strength goals against included screens (9) or deflections (11), which can push him deeper in the crease than he'd prefer. A total of 18 goals came after low-high passes from below the goal line, forcing him to push off the post to the top the blue ice. Quick gets there faster than most goalies, but it increases the chances of catching him moving.
Sharp angle, no angle -- Quick's post-integration tactics are envied by many NHL goalies, including a technique copied widely after his Cup win. He moves on and off his posts seamlessly, so it's no surprise he gave up five dead-angle goals all season.
GAA: 2.39 | SVP: 0.913
Make no mistake, though, Niemi has elite-level skills.
In San Jose, those skills have evolved to include more upright movement and less of a default to sliding on the knees. It may still look unorthodox, but it has been effective for the Sharks.
When he's on -- It may not look prototypical or pretty, but the on-the-skates, T-push movement Niemi added in San Jose can be an indicator. At his best, Niemi beats plays on his feet, gets set, and lets his reactions take over with controlled saves on perimeter shots.
When he's off -- Look for extra movement. When Niemi isn't static, particularly when he has time to establish position, it is generally a sign he isn't on top of his game. Sliding into shots opens holes and leaves him exposed to changes of direction.
Like Quick, and pretty much all goalies everywhere, Niemi was beaten most often (93) on plays which forced him to move, and quick shots after those transitional plays led to a lot of goals (58). Niemi also was often caught in motion on plays when he didn't necessarily need to move this season, sometimes because he was committed to a more aggressive initial position, and other times because he got caught trying to push and slide laterally into shots.
This was true off rush chances, with more of a flowing, retreating style, and that extra movement leaves him more reliant and timing and rhythm.
Power up -- Unlike Quick, there are some differences for Niemi's goal-location charts on the power play. The save percentage and shot attempts to each side are the only things which can completely paint the picture of whether certain areas are being targeted, but the differences are worth noting. The percentage of glove-side goals increases from 39 at even strength (46 of 119) to more than 50 percent on the man-advantage (16 of 30), and 12 of those were high glove. Like Quick, goals along the ice decrease dramatically with the man advantage.
Down, rarely out -- Like Quick, it's important not to take a seemingly empty net for granted against Niemi. He doesn't stack his coverage above the pads quite like Quick (few do), but any shot in the bottom 11 inches of net gives him a chance to stretch those pillows across, and because he's not as aggressive, it's not as far of a reach.
Far pad off rush -- It was more prevalent early in the season, but a tendency to use his pads rather than his stick to steer long shots off rush chances left rebounds in the slot rather than the corner.
Bottom to top -- Niemi alternates between trying to look around and through screens from his crouch when the puck is below the faceoff dots and trying to stand up and look above traffic when it moves to the point. In addition to giving up visual attachment during this transition, it can expose him on quick one-timers after a low-high pass if he gets caught lifting up before he can get down and seal the ice.
D as screen -- Similar visual habits led to some rush goals, with speed forcing movement and pucks through defenders finding a way in.
Bad angle not a bad idea -- Niemi prefers to keep a skate outside the post on most sharp-angle attacks, which can slightly delay his push on cross-ice feeds. His preferred technique, called VH because the lead pad is vertical against the post and the back pad is horizontal along the ice, leaves more rebounds on dead-angle shots.