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Getting mental rest on days off key for goalies

Mindset should change when not starting, even if pregame workload remains same

by Kevin Woodley / Independent Correspondent

For an NHL goalie, the game-day routine and preparation changes if they are not starting.

But managing their workload isn't just physical. 

"It's mental," said Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators. "For sure, it's mental."

The reality of giving a No. 1 goalie a break is that it is not a physical break for the most part. The benefits are not as tangible.

Obviously, a night off helps any goalie since it's been documented in this space that NHL goalies can lose 10 pounds or more of sweat during a game. There is no denying the benefit of not facing that taxing scenario, but it may not be as important as many believe.

The rested goalie has a demanding workout, spending extra time on the ice, working with a goaltending coach, on the days they aren't playing.

"I practice harder," Vancouver Canucks No. 1 Jacob Markstrom said. "I do extra work with [goaltending coach Ian] Clark, then eat the same lunch, come back to the rink three hours early and have a coffee."

Video: CHI@VAN: Markstrom stymies Blackhawks with 49 saves

The rest of the pregame routine is the same whether Markstrom is playing or not, something echoed by other goalies who have been on both sides of the starter-backup dynamic in their careers. 

Even on nights when they aren't expected to play, most goalies do the same stretching routines, the same dynamic movement warm-ups, the same visualization exercises and ball drills undertaken when they are starting. It's all to get their bodies ready to play, in case they are required to play because of injury to or ineffectiveness by the goalie's partner.

Some little things might change. Calgary Flames goalie Cam Talbot said he doesn't take a game-day nap if he isn't scheduled to start because it's too hard to get to sleep at night if he hasn't tired himself out by playing. 

Canucks backup Thatcher Demko focuses a little more on mobility work on nights he is starting. 

For the most part, however, goalies don't change their physical preparation regardless of their status on a game night. If anything, they work harder on days they're not playing, especially with practice time harder to come by in a busy season.

"You get a chance to stay out later and work on some stuff after practice, that's the biggest thing," said Talbot. "Then after the skate, I'll usually get an extra workout in while I'm still warm."

So at a time when more NHL teams are trending toward a balanced workload and most are being careful not to overwork a No. 1 goalie, what is the benefit of having a game off?

"It is a lot more mental than people credit," said Talbot, who played in more games (73) than any other goalie in 2016-17 and tied with Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets for most game played (67) in 2017-18. "That was a lot of hockey and you're always mentally engaged."

Video: NSH@WPG: Hellebuyck uses blocker to stop 2-on-0

It's that engagement, being locked in and constantly focused, that can be draining on a game day.

"Even though you prepare your body the same, the difference is in your head," said Markstrom, who is tied for sixth among NHL goalies during the past three seasons with 158 starts. "You're not in your bubble all day."

Demko couldn't imagine trying to stay in that mental space each game. 

"I'm obviously coming to the rink with a mindset I might be playing but if you have that starting mindset for 82 games, I think you're just doing more harm than good at that point," Demko said. 

That may be the real benefit of balanced workload for goalies.

"When you're not playing, you're actually on the ice way more, which is a good thing, but it's not necessarily physical rest," said Rinne, who played a career-high 73 games in 2011-12 and has averaged more than 61 games during the past five seasons. "It's a mental break and a chance to regroup and work on things and I always find that when you play, 60 to 70 games it's such a mental challenge just balancing the ups and downs of the season. It's a grind. It's a long season, and even when things are good, it's still weighs on you. The biggest thing is being able to stay fresh mentally."

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