When 65 minutes of hockey aren't enough, a big point in the standings rests on on the shoulders of a select few individuals. A contest of finesse and skill ensues as all attention turns to two players on the ice: a shooter and a goaltender. The overall team performance is what gets them to this moment, but here, individual efforts in a high-pressure situation determine the outcome--and become the difference between an important point gained in the standings, or a loss that could eventually factor into making or missing the playoffs.
This year, with the tight race in the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference, the extra points from shootout victories have been especially important. Three of the four Columbus Blue Jackets' shootout wins this season have come on the road against Metropolitan Division opponents, and the Blue Jackets currently sit above all of those teams in the playoff race, except the New York Rangers.
"Every point matters, especially in against division rivals," Cam Atkinson told BlueJackets.com. "It's been huge for us to win those games, and they become the difference-makers at the end of the season."
The Blue Jackets felt the direct impact of just how big of difference makers shoootout results are last season. After the team went 5-4 in shootouts in 2012-13, the Jackets found themselves outside of the playoffs, thanks to a tiebreaker rule that saw the Minnesota Wild with more wins than the Blue Jackets. Just one more shootout win would've given the team a one-point edge in the standings over the Wild, and a playoff berth as a result.
Despite his Vezina-winning season, Sergei Bobrovsky and goaltending coach Ian Clark sat down during the offseason to analyze his performance, and saw shootouts as a big area for improvement. However, Clark was quick to point out that the big adjustment made this season isn't Bobrovsky's playing style--he's kept that intact--it's the methods of preparation Clark and Bobrovsky do before games that is producing improved results.
"Last season, we went into the shootout with just a sense of maybe what guys would shoot against us, but we didn't really evaluate what the shooters' primary objectives and moves were as they come in on a goaltender," said Clark. "We've committed to doing a better job in pre-scouting opposition shooters and their tendencies, and we're seeing the results of that preparation."
The numbers back up Clark and Bobrovsky's preparation. Last season, Bobrovsky stopped 19-of-26 shooters for a 0.731 save percentage and a 5-4 record. This season, Bobrovsky has allowed just one shootout goal (the Islanders' Matt Moulson scored in the Jackets' first shootout of the season) on nine shooters for an 0.890 save percentage and a perfect 3-0 record.
When it comes down to it, Clark said that goaltenders put the pressure on themselves to perform well and make all the stops, but ultimately they can't win a shootout all on their own.
"As a goaltender, we do have a chance to get an extra point for our team," said Clark. "At some point you need the support on offense, but if we don't let in a goal, at some point, we will win that game and get the extra point."
Bobrovsky and the Blue Jackets have received that support on offense, most notably from Atkinson, who has two game-winning shootout goals, and Ryan Johansen. Both players are seeing improved results from last season--numbers that they weren't too happy with when they fell outside the playoffs. Both players took it upon themselves to refine their skills in the offseason, and now that hard work is paying off.
"In the summer I shot on (LA Kings goaltender) Jonathan Quick a lot," said Atkinson, who is 2-of-3 in shootouts this season. "Shooting against one of the best goaltenders in the world improved my confidence a lot."
Johansen is quick to admit that he needed the extra practice, and has spent time on his own after practice to become more comfortable in one-on-one situations.
"It was definitely more mental with me," said Johansen. "When it's just you and the goaltender, there's a lot of pressure with all eyes on you and you being the focus of everyone in the building's attention. I've been able to get more comfortable and confident in dealing with that situation and now I trust myself more."
When asked about the go-to shootout moves he's been working on, Johansen refused to share his secrets.
"I can't say that," he laughed. "Those moves are something you'll just have to see on the ice."
Here's one of Johansen's shootout moves that proved to be the winning goal in the Blue Jackets' 4-3 victory over the Buffalo Sabres and their goaltender, Ryan Miller: