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Unmasked: More shots the better for NHL goalies

by Kevin Woodley / NHL.com

VANCOUVER -- Ask Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby about the hardest part of his job and he doesn't talk about staring down breakaways or being on the other end of Alex Ovechkin one-timers in practice.

Holtby doesn't talk about seeing 50-plus shots either. That's because the fewer shots he faces, the more difficult his job is.

"It's probably the hardest thing to do as a goalie," Holtby said.

At a time when NHL teams and players are increasingly measured by how many shots they put toward the net, it's interesting to consider that less can actually be more for those charged with stopping them.

Although it makes sense that facing 20 shots should be easier than trying to stop 35, most NHL goaltenders will tell you that isn't necessarily the case.

"I don't think you can understand unless you are a goalie, and it's easy to say, but it's true," St. Louis Blues goaltender Jake Allen said. "Ask any goalie; it is tougher when you are getting 15 or 19 shots a game instead of 35 to 40. You get in a rhythm, you get a feel for it, you understand your game a little better, understand your system a little better. It makes everything a lot easier."

As counterintuitive as that may sound, and as difficult as it may be to quantify for a position that already gives the analytics crowd fits, the Capitals' biggest concern about Holtby early last season was how he'd adjust to seeing fewer shots behind the stingier system implemented by new coach Barry Trotz.

Goaltenders who play a more active style tend to also be more reliant on rhythm and timing, something that can be harder to find when you're not as busy.

Tightening up Holtby's movements wasn't a problem for Washington goaltending coach Mitch Korn, but adjusting to fewer shots isn't easily fixed with drills designed to re-program muscle memory. Longer periods between saves tests the muscle between the ears instead.

The Capitals had given up more than 30 shots per game for three straight seasons, including 33.5 in 2013-14, the fourth-highest total in the NHL.

They averaged 28.9 shots against last season, which ranked 20th, and are down to 25.2 so far this season. Although eight shots may not seem like a big deal spread out over 60 or more minutes, Holtby noticed it.

"The start was tough, and it was something I was not used to at all, sometimes seeing two shots in the first period and keeping your head in it somehow," Holtby said. "It was a challenge, and Barry was very up front with it right from the start, saying, ‘This is one thing that might happen and you've got to find a way to battle through it.' It's still hard, probably the hardest thing."

As Allen's comment indicates, Holtby certainly isn't unique in feeling this way.

When NHL.com asked Pekka Rinne early last season if life was harder with Trotz in Washington because he was seeing more rush chances and shots behind the more aggressive system of new Predators coach Peter Laviolette, Rinne said the opposite was true.

Nashville actually averaged fewer shots against in Laviolette's first season (28.9) than its final season under Trotz (28.3), but in those early months, Rinne felt like the more active system, with an aggressive forecheck and defensemen jumping into the attack, kept him busier in his end.

"It's fun to play like that," said Rinne, who has an active style. "You feel into the game more when you play fast. The shots are always around 30, and for a goalie, that's a perfect number. It's right there where you have enough work and you stay warm, you stay into the game."

Teams that give up fewer shots overall are also more likely to give up fewer high-quality chances, and it's hard to imagine any goaltender asking for more of those. Using shot-quality statistics from war-on-ice.com, the Carolina Hurricanes, who are allowing the fewest shots in the NHL at 24.6 per game this season, are also seventh best in the NHL with an average of 9.2 high-danger scoring chances per 60 minutes. The Ottawa Senators give up the most shots in the League (34.7 per game) and the fourth most high-danger chances (12.0 per 60 minutes).

Ottawa gives up nearly three more good scoring chances per game based on those metrics, but its goalies also face an average of 7.3 more "less dangerous" shots per game than the Carolina goaltenders.

Although it's too simplistic to treat all of those shots the same, the reality is most goalies feel a somewhat steady flow of easier, "feeler" shots keeps them in the game.

"Look at a guy like Craig Anderson, all rhythm," said Allen, who has done summer camps with the Senators' No. 1 goalie. "He gets peppered, it's 30 to 40 shots every game, and it's all rhythm and I personally think he's a great goalie, he understands the game and has great reflexes, but it might be tougher for him to play in a low-shot situation, just like it was probably tough for [Ryan Miller] coming to St. Louis (in a trade on Feb. 28, 2014) after all those shots in Buffalo."

Slow nights can be tougher mentally when the guy at the other end is stopping lots of shots.

Cam Talbot faced just that situation in his fourth game with the Edmonton Oilers.

Leading 2-1 despite outplaying the Calgary Flames for long stretches, Talbot stopped a 3-on-1 shorthanded rush late in the second period of a 5-2 win for the Oilers.

"I really wasn't in the game; there were 13 shots the first two periods and I sat for like five or six minutes without a shot, and if I don't make that save, I'm at two goals on 13 shots and people are saying, ‘That's a terrible save percentage,'" Talbot said. "There are always those thoughts that go through your head … if it's a tight game and the other guy is making all these saves, you want to come make the next save, because if they score on the next shot, it looks pretty bad, but you have to learn how to not let that get into your head and really focus on playing and focus on your game and focus on the next shot, whether it's every 30 seconds or five minutes."

For most NHL goalies, something between those two extremes is preferred, no matter how much easier the bigger gap between shots appears to the rest of the world.

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