Mental training, as much as form, the key for Thomas
Justin Goldman is one of the preeminent goaltending experts on the Web. His site, www.thegoalieguild.com, serves as a haven for those who share a passion for goaltending with a mission to enhance and advance knowledge of the goaltending position through a wide variety of interactive and in-depth scouting services. Here he talks about the mental battle both goalies are facing in this back-and-forth Stanley Cup Final.
For someone who clearly is one of the most dynamic, active and animated goaltenders in the world, he's the total opposite during the national anthems before the game. Standing next to his teammates on the blue line, he barely moves at all.
Thomas, who statistically has been dominant during the Stanley Cup Final, radiates so much energy during a game that most hockey fans can't help but cheer for him. And while he certainly looks uncontrolled and unorthodox, he actually possesses a rare and essential trait.
That trait begins and ends with his psyche.
When Patrick Roy won the Stanley Cup in 1996, the hockey world became obsessed with the full butterfly style. That quickly took over the way goalie coaches taught the position. It was reinforced again by Roy in 2001 and then refined and robotized a few years later by Jean-Sebastien Giguere's Stanley Cup success with Anaheim.
When Chris Osgood won the Stanley Cup in 2008, exactly 10 years after his first Cup with the Red Wings, goalies realized the importance of adding some hybrid elements into their game. For Osgood, breaking down and rebuilding his game during the NHL lockout allowed him to capture glory in the twilight years of his career.
But in 2011, Thomas is showing the world the significance of not relying solely on technique.
Technique always will be a key component of a successful goalie, but no one can win the Stanley Cup without first having an even stronger mind.
This elite mental strength has been the driving force behind Thomas' ability to play so well, even under the suffocating amount of pressure he faces in this tournament. He's been so good that many analysts have referred to him as being in the zone.
As it is with every sport, being in the zone is simply playing with extreme confidence and with the best rhythm possible. But what exactly is that "zone" for Thomas? And how is he able to stay in it for so long?
As one NHL goalie coach believes, Thomas' stellar play in the Stanley Cup Final is an extension of his elite cognitive skills. It is the same skill set you'll find in the world's best martial artists.
In simple terms, Thomas, during the course of his career, has trained his mind to think at a higher level than just telling his body to make certain saves.
"He moves without any kind of deliberation," said Dallas Stars goalie coach Mike Valley. "He's completely aware of what he's doing and understands how to control vertical angles, how to take away net space. He's also unbelievably patient and very controlled on the edges of his skates."
So it's not just the fundamentals that make Thomas so good; it's how he applies them in a much smarter manner than other goalies. To me, much of this comes from his experience playing in Finland and Sweden. Those seasons abroad honed his cognitive skills and improved his vision, patience, and his ability to read plays and different speeds.
This is a dynamic Valley can relate to, as he also is a former Elitserien goalie for Swedish club AIK.
"Playing in Finland and Sweden, you can't play a strictly blocking style," Valley said. "The game has more of an East-West style, which forces a goalie to have to learn how to be patient and read plays. It probably helped Thomas a great deal to go over there and be able to adapt to that style. And that style is more of what we're seeing here in North America since the rule changes. He's basically taken the two schools and (married) them together."
This ability to mix the more restrictive blocking butterfly style with more of a "free-range" active style is something that I personally look for when scouting a goalie. It simply provides them with more tools compared to goalies that strictly play one style. For Thomas, it proves that he's much more mentally aware of the save selections he makes.
"It shows that there's different ways to play and it doesn't all have to be so technical," Valley said. "Not everyone is built the same, nor do they possess the same strengths or weaknesses. Therefore goaltenders cannot all play the same. There is more than one way to stop the puck, and at the end of the day what matters most is just stopping it."
Thomas, regardless of traffic or screens, score or situation, seems to stop pucks as if nothing else in the universe exists. It's simply just him and the puck. He moves so freely and effortlessly, but with such calculation, that even when he's falling backward, he's completely aware of how he's falling and where his hands and feet are going.
It's as if his mind is not just clear of negative thoughts, but of any thought at all.
Even when the pressure does go up, Thomas still has the focus to channel it in a positive and efficient manner. He's able to increase his level of focus as the game gets more intense, something that is very visible in the way that he makes saves. He waits patiently for the shot to be released and then explodes into pucks at just the right moment.
"He's done a lot of yoga, so right now you can tell that the physical and mental training is paying off," Valley said. "He's always so calm, and his breathing is basically what helps put him into that zone. Thomas is playing right in 'the now,' and he's not thinking about anything except for the moment he's in. You can tell that everything he's doing right now in regard to how he moves and acts, it's all a trigger for him to get in the zone."
This heightened sense of perception is what being in the zone is all about. It's also the main reason why Thomas has been able to bring NHL fans one of the most memorable Stanley Cup Final goalie performances in the last 20 years.
Because of this, it's amazing to think that his success could have a residual, long-lasting effect on the position. Like Roy, Martin Brodeur and many other greats before him, Thomas could spark the next step in the goaltender's evolution.
"If a goalie clings blindly to technique, then they eventually become bound by those limitations," Valley said. "A goalie's foundation should be built upon strong cognitive and visual skills. If you look at Thomas, you can tell his cognitive abilities and his ability to read plays and the puck is phenomenal. There's very little guesswork in his game."
By understanding how Thomas thinks the game and how that helps him produce stunning results, this unhealthy obsession with over-complicated goalie techniques hopefully will start to subside at the youth levels. For goaltending as a whole, that's a much-needed and important step for the position to take right now.
So as you watch Thomas stand perfectly still during the anthems tonight, remember that the way he looks and moves only is skin deep. The power of his mind transcends all elements of form and function and quickly puts him in the zone.
And as we have seen in this Stanley Cup Final, it helps him play at the highest level in the biggest games of his life.