The great debate
It wasn't that many years ago that I remember sitting in the St. Louis Blues' locker room talking to Brett Hull about goaltenders. It was a fascinating conversation in the way "The Golden Brett" talked about tendencies of all goalies and how they were vulnerable in almost every situation -- if you knew how to take advantage of them.
''If you are coming in on the right wing, shooting low to the stick side is a shot they cannot stop.''
''If you are circling the net on the backhand, they have everything low covered. Get the shot high.''
''When you get a goaltender going from side to side off the goalpost, you can bet he'll open the 5-hole. Shoot it there.''
This went on for about 20 minutes and, obviously, the conversation showed that Hull's 700 goals haven't come just because he had a big shot.
At an All-Star Game not too long ago, former 50-goal scorers Keith Tkachuk and Luc Robitaille also weighed in on the subject.
''Five-hole is always a good bet,'' said Robitaille, referring to the spot between a goaltender's feet and legs.
''But it's got to be quick 5-hole,'' Tkachuk said.
With all the theories on beating a goaltender out there, it has become abundantly clear throughout the past decade that more puck-stoppers are winning the battle, that the 4-foot by 6-foot target is becoming an incredibly shrinking net.
In 1992-93 there were five goaltenders -- Tom Barrasso, John Vanbiesbrouck, Curtis Joseph, Felix Potvin and Ed Belfour -- that posted a save percentage of .900 or better. Today, nearly every goalie is .900 or above, which proves the standard of goaltending has never been better. At the same time, a 3.00 goals-against average was considered good just 10 years ago. Now, most good goaltenders boast a GAA closer to 2.00.
In fact, scoring a goal is becoming almost as difficult as getting a hole-in-one. Well, OK, so maybe the odds of getting a goal aren't 1 in 10,000, but that small net guarded by today's goaltender is becoming almost as challenging to find as a 4-1/4-inch cup from more than "gimme" range.
What we've learned in the National Hockey League in recent years is if a team can get more than two goals every game, it will win the majority of the time. And, that's an eye-opener for anyone who remembers the early 1980s, when the Edmonton Oilers scored more than 400 goals (that's five goals per game) five times.
But, times have changed. Goalies have gotten better and many have wised up to the tricks of the trade scorers have employed for decades.
''Now,'' Tkachuk adds, ''Five-hole rarely is the place to shoot. In fact, the bottom half of the net is rarely a viable target. You have to always think about lifting the puck.''
"No one scores any low goals anymore," former Montreal Canadiens great Bob Gainey says. ''Goalies have all taken that away. It all goes back to the influence Patrick Roy has had on our game."
So there's the anatomy of a goaltender -- vintage Patrick Roy in the mid-1980s, when he burst onto the scene and won a Stanley Cup for Montreal in 1986 by dropping into a butterfly position and covering the lower half of the net ... when necessary.
''Funny isn't it,'' Roy told me earlier this season, ''but Jacques Plante once scouted me for the Montreal Canadiens and he told them I'd never make it by leaving my feet so often. Thank goodness they didn't give up on me.''
Plante, as most goalies will tell you, wrote a book on how the proper position for tending the net is standing tall and wide -- making yourself as big as possible and cheating out of the net toward the shooter to cut down the angle he has to shoot at.
Roy has continued to revolutionize his style and others -- with the size of pads and equipment, etc.
"Roy will tease you by opening the 5-hole and then shutting it just as you shoot," Red Wings sharpshooter Brendan Shanahan said. "He's so tough because he covers all five holes very well, glove high, blocker high and stick between the legs. It comes down to the shooter trying to find a way to score in the sixth, seventh and eighth hole ... wherever those are."
What Roy has done, however, is prove that a goaltender still can be in control, square to the shooter even if he is on the ice. And he has four Stanley Cup rings and the reputation as the game's best money goalie to prove it.
For years, there were two ways of playing goal. You either challenged the shooters, coming out of the crease to cut down angles, like Plante, or used the butterfly like Glenn Hall, going up and down quickly to take advantage of quickness and reflexes.