If you have watched Don Cherry on his weekly "Coach's Corner" segment over the years, you are familiar with his positon on players reaching their sticks out in front of shots.
Cherry has long pleaded with defensemen to stop this practice, a pet peeve usually accompanied with highlights of that habit resulting in otherwise harmless looking shots ending up as goals.
Cherry is right, but not just when he shows video a puck changing direction off the stick on its way into the net. Sometimes just placing the stick in front of the puck as it is leaves an opponent's blade is enough to disrupt the goaltender, which isn't really surprising once you realize how much information they get from that release.
"I've always said that stick blade is like a microchip," Washington Capitals goaltending coach Mitch Korn said. "It holds millions of bits of information."
That information goes well beyond whether a shooter is left-handed or right-handed, or how he holds his hands. It includes body position, from how the hips and shoulders are angled, to how far he is holding the puck away from his body when he skates, to how he adjusts that position as he shoots. It includes whether the release is high or low, if the blade is open or closed, and where exactly on the blade the puck is located.
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Goaltenders who have been around long enough are aware the information includes knowing the preferred curve on many players' blades. So by the time the puck leaves the stick, NHL goalies already know where it is going.
"Without reading those signals, you don't have a chance," Vancouver Canucks veteran Ryan Miller said. "Most people think we are completely reacting to the puck, but if you are not reading, you are beat. On most shots from a Grade A scoring opportunity, it's almost physically impossible to catch up to the puck unless you are anticipating. If you miss the release point of a shot, even though you might catch up to seeing the puck, you are already behind."
That anticipation requires being able to see the puck, which is why there will be players talking about "taking the eyes" away from a hot goalie during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But it's not only about not letting that goaltender see the puck all the way to the net. Preventing him from seeing the release, not allowing the goalie to gather all those clues about where the puck is headed, is often enough.
"I'm a real big shot-reader," Tampa Bay Lightning starter Ben Bishop said. "You'll see me sometimes stand on my feet making saves. It's one of those things you learn, you know guys in the League, their releases and where they like to go. If you can't see it, you have to kind of go down first and react second, and then you are usually a little late."
Teams have gotten better at creating those delays, using moving and stacked screens to force goaltenders into more of those blocking, down-first situations.
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Bishop mentioned a goal he gave up to New York Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello this season on a shot from the top of the faceoff circle. It was well-placed, but stoppable if Bishop had been able to see it leaving the stick blade.
"But I had a guy skate in front of me right as he released, and so I had to go down first where normally I would stay up and make that save," Bishop said. "That makes all the difference, just being able to see that release."
More shooters are learning how to disguise their release, or change the angle at the last second, trying to tease a goalie with signals he is shooting to a particular spot before throwing it the other direction. Increasing the amount of traffic and deflections means goalies can't rely totally on release-based anticipation because there is a good chance the puck will change direction.
This has led to the evolution of more detailed puck tracking techniques designed to enhance the ability to maintain visual connection longer through their save executions. How a goalie moves his head to track a puck can make the difference between moving into its path and pulling away from it based on what he expected off the release.
In other words, there is a difference between tracking a puck and reading or anticipating a play or shot. In a perfect world, goaltenders are able to combine the two skills, but the NHL is rarely perfect for goalies.
Shooters and teams are working hard to make it less so all the time, which brings us back to Cherry and all those reaching sticks. If there's one thing worse than having a shot disguised by your teammate, it's having its intended path altered, even a few inches after it leaves the shooter's blade.
It's not uncommon to hear fans and television analysts say a goaltender should have time to react when one of those deflections occurs from farther out, but the reality is they were already reacting and starting to move before it left the blade, and if that reaching stick changes the expected path enough, it can be hard to go the other way.
"You want to be liable too, and not so committed to a play that you can't adjust to the unexpected, but it is hard because you are committing to the release point and the trajectory you know it is going toward," Miller said, "So anything that alters that, if you are already in motion, it's coming a lot faster than most people realize and it's a pretty big undertaking in a short amount of time."