As Cory Schneider makes the transition to being an everyday goaltender in the NHL for the first time, a lot of the focus is on the increased workload and the effect a lack of rest can have on him physically.
The New Jersey Devils' new No. 1 goalie started their first 20 games this season, breaking the franchise record set by Martin Brodeur, before finally getting his first night off Saturday against the Calgary Flames. After one day off and one practice, Schneider was back in goal against his former team, the Vancouver Canucks, on Tuesday, and he talked openly about how big the adjustment has been.
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Beyond the physical and mental fatigue is a bigger problem, one that jumped out when Schneider returned to Vancouver: As he tries to manage his rest, there is less time to manage his game.
"You don't have the time to really work on your game when you are playing all the time," Schneider told NHL.com. "It's one more thing I am learning how to manage as we go is, if I can feel my technique breaking down, pucks are going through you, or you are getting a little leaky, you have to fix it on the fly. You may not have a practice session to sit down and go over every detail and work on your mechanics."
It's a stark contrast to Schneider's time in Vancouver, when playing behind and later splitting duties with Roberto Luongo left plenty of time to fine tune technique with Canucks goaltending coach Roland Melanson. In an era when the position is increasingly about taking care of every small detail that might open holes or cause delays, those daily goalie-only sessions can be difficult to replace.
As Schneider learns to manage his game, the 28-year-old is discovering it's one thing to recognize when one of those moving parts gets even slightly out of whack and quite another to fix it. The last thing a goalie wants is to be thinking about a change consciously during a game, which is why all those repetitions with a goaltending coach are so important. Whether it's a total technical overhaul or a tweak, all that work helps any change become instinctual.
"You can't get out there and bang away at it for 45 minutes if you are playing back to back or you have two coming up," Schneider said. "There have been some goals this year I would never have dreamed I would give up. Sometimes you get there and you are trying to chose save selection instead of reacting, or you are a little leaky, pucks going through your arms or squeaking through that you normally seal off. I don't know how much is fatigue and how much is not staying with your technique so you don't get that last 5 percent of a squeeze. But it is definitely an adjustment."
It's part of the transition from backup to No. 1 goalies go through in the NHL. Schneider is working through it on video with Devils goaltending coach Chris Terreri, who provides an extra set of eyes but not as many of those fine-detail practice sessions he used to have a lot more time for in Vancouver. Ironically, new Canucks No. 1 Ryan Miller can relate.
Miller has started 17 of 22 games, with backup Eddie Lack so far playing only the second half of back-to-back games.
That puts Miller on pace to play 63 games this season, far from his career-high 76 in 2007-08 with the Buffalo Sabres but only two fewer than the NHL-leading 65 games Kari Lehtonen played for the Dallas Stars last season. Miller, 34, is aware of the delicate balance between getting enough rest and finding enough time to keep your game sharp.
"It can work against you," Miller said of not being able to find practice time. "You can get sloppy."
Goalie - VAN
GAA: 2.47 | SVP: .908
That's why Miller said he was cutting himself a little slack when his play started to drop a couple of weeks ago. In the midst of making movement and positional changes under Melanson, Miller said it's no coincidence it happened during a string of 15 games in 26 days that included two road trips.
"You need quality time to work on your game," Miller said.
He got that work in through the preseason and two games in the first nine days of the regular season. But it got more difficult to find time when the schedule got busier, and by mid-November, Miller was battling.
"I felt a little fatigued and I hadn't quite gotten my technique where I wanted it yet, and was trying to incorporate some different perspective with Rollie," Miller said. "It just felt like I kind of got into, not a bad place, but a place where I was not as sharp and I kind of had to find that again and I am starting to feel a little bit better about that."
Miller was speaking one day before making 20 saves in a 2-0 shutout of Schneider's Devils that moved him into a tie for the NHL lead in wins (14). It was Miller's second straight strong performance after giving up 16 goals in his previous four starts; no coincidence it came after a stretch of 11 days with twice as many practices as starts.
It will be more difficult for Schneider to find those gaps if he continues to play every game, but the Devils might want to give him a few more. There may be a reason no goalie played 70 games last season for the first full schedule since 1989-90.
"It's a grind and you just try to steal rest when you can," Miller said. "I don't think it's a healthy way to do things."