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How To Play The Toughest Position In Sports

Illustration for article titled How To Play The Toughest Position In Sports

The following is excerpted from Take Your Eye Off the Puck: How to Watch Hockey By Knowing Where to Look, by Greg Wyshynski, out now from Triumph Books.


There is no position in sport as noble as goaltending.”—Vladislav Tretiak, goaltender


The only job worse is a javelin catcher at a track-and-field meet.”—Lorne “Gump” Worsley, goaltender

Goaltenders are, essentially, the sadomasochists of sports.

They’re tasked with nothing short of depriving joy. From fans. From offensive players. From television executives who desperately want more than three goals per game from which to pluck a highlight. They’re the Debbie Downers of hockey. Every time a puck flies into their gloves, a sad trombone should play.

But while giving frustration to one team a goalie gives elation to another, provided they excel at this truly deranged profession.

Your job is to stand there while frozen rubber discs are fired at your body. It’s like facing a firing squad, except your punishment continues for upwards of 60 minutes. If you don’t stop one, you get the blame. Every single person in front of you, from the left defenseman to the cotton candy vendor, can fail to do their job, and it’ll be your fault. “That’s a goal he’ll want back!” they’ll say, as if there’s any other kind.


Yet through all the pain, all the blame, all the stress, and all the strain, goalies are truly the last line of defense; as such, they can be given credit for stealing victories and carrying teams and all the other over-praising that comes from being the one individual who can make or break a game. They’re like NFL quarterbacks, minus the college stud looks.

Well, save for Henrik Lundqvist.

Speaking of saves: you’ve seen goalies make a hundred of them in a week. What you might not have seen are the reasons behind each save—the decisions, the positioning, the blind trust placed in teammates’ competence—that help determine which group’s joy the netminder will kill in that instance.


It begins with style.

Between the poles position

In Game 3 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final—the most compelling championship round I’ve seen as a hockey fan, for what it’s worth—Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins gave up a goal to Maxime Lapierre in the third period that ended up being the difference in a 1–0 shutout by Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks.


After the game, Luongo was asked about that goal, and the rest is goalie smack-talk history.

“It’s not hard if you’re playing in the paint,” said Luongo. “It’s an easy save for me, but if you’re wandering out and aggressive like he does, that’s going to happen.”


Luongo would go on to say he had been “pumping Thomas’ tires since the series started” and that he hadn’t “heard one nice thing he had to say about me.” Thomas infamously volleyed back with “I guess I didn’t realize it was my job to pump his tires,” a burn that continues to smolder to this day.

The point of Luongo’s comment was that, essentially, every goalie thinks his brand of kung fu is the strongest.


Luongo is a classic butterfly-style goaltender: a wide stance, his feet falling in behind him when he drops down, as his five-hole closes up with his knees. The butterfly style wasn’t actually en vogue until Thomas was in his early twenties; he was a hybrid goalie, taking some of that technique but ultimately relying more on instinct, which is why he used to flop around the crease like someone’s goldfish after the house cat knocked over the bowl.

There are also different types of styles within the butterfly. There’s the narrow butterfly, where a goalie’s feet fall behind him. Those goalies tend to close their five-hole with their knees. And there are wider butterflies, where a goalie is spread farther out and you see a wall of pads when he goes down.


It comes down to this for goalies: what are you taking away from a shooter, and what are you leaving behind?

Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers plays “deep in his net,” closer to the goal line. He wants that three or four extra feet to give himself time to react. The farther back one plays, the shorter the distance one needs to travel to make a save or recover after making one on every lateral play.


Let’s say a defenseman on the left point makes a pass to the right point. If Lundqvist has his left skate on his left post, he basically just rotates his torso to square to the shooter. His skate maybe moves two feet, as he goes left post to right post. It allows him to move quicker and get set more quickly. It’s a remarkable difference from a goalie who plays higher up and needs to stride to face the shooter.

Yes, Lundqvist’s style gives the shooter more to look at, but Lundqvist luckily has a secret weapon, which is locking eyes with the shooter and having them get lost in their dreaminess. (Just kidding. We think.)


He’s also a freak. Not many goalies have his instincts and reflexes, so not many play as deep in the crease as Lundqvist does. Some play midcrease; others get very aggressive and challenge the shooters at the top of the crease.

What are the benefits to each position?

The farther out a goalie plays, the more vision and space he’s taking away from the shooter. There’s less chance a goalie will be beaten cleanly from the outside.


“The farther you’re out, the more the angle from the puck to the post, the more of that space you’re taking up in that triangle from the cut to the post. In other words, cutting down the angle,” said Kevin Woodley of INGOAL magazine. “The farther you get out, the more you cut down that angle, just by being in position.”

There’s also more room for backward motion, which some goalies prefer, gliding back when challenged by the shooter, cutting down the angle. That was the “starting outside-in” style of Martin Brodeur.


A goalie who plays at the top of his crease has a significant distance to travel when faced with a one-timer. Ultimately what’s taught by goalie coaches is for goalies who play high to move back toward their post when the puck is being passed around laterally, until he feels he’s “center net” in terms of his angle to the shooter. Only then should the goalie come back out and add depth to his positioning.

Brodeur was the greatest goalie of all time based on the numbers. He was a butterfly goalie when he was younger, but when he got to the NHL and worked with Devils goaltending coach Jacques Caron, he decided it wasn’t enough to just block the puck. He wanted to be more mobile within his crease.


Not exactly blessed with what you’d call great mobility—Brodeur had the numbers of Patrick Roy and the physique of Patrick the Starfish from SpongeBob SquarePants—he worked on what are called T-pushes.

Here’s how that works: a goalie opens the leg on the side of his body in the direction in which he wants to travel. His skates will be perpendicular. Knees bent, he pushes off with his trailing leg, and how much weight he puts on his front skate will determine how far he’ll travel.


It’s an old-school method, but Brodeur was an old-school goalie.

“I think the trend of butterfly—stats don’t lie, it works,” he told INGOAL magazine. “So you can’t bash that. It’s all about percentages. It was successful at one point and so that’s how goalie coaches taught the younger guys to play the game. They’ll tell you how many percent of the goals in the NHL are scored in certain areas of the net and if you’re able to block it at 100 percent, you should be a good goalie.


“But I think it’s gotten tougher and tougher just to think about percentages because there is a lot more wide-open shots, a lot more survival out there than there was before the lockout. Your reflex game is more important, your agility, being able to recover from a save and controlling your rebounds are more important now because your defensemen can’t do the job they used to be able to do by interfering with players trying to get rebounds. Guys are able now to get the rebounds, so just blocking the shot is going to get tougher on goalies to just rely on that. You’re really going to have to control your game, put the puck where you want as far as rebounds are concerned.”

And even when a goalie sets up perfectly, there are risks.

“When you don’t set your feet, it’s way harder to make certain saves. And then when you do, you’re so far from the net you can’t make another one,” said goalie coach Mitch Korn.


So just like goalies take a little bit o’butterfly for their style, they’ll also take a little bit of the crease. Many play at a three-quarters’ depth, trying to get the best of both worlds: a lot less distance when recovering to make the next save than a guy a foot higher in the crease, but cutting down more of the net than the cardboard shooting target playing off his goal line (again, Lundqvist excluded).

“That’s where goalie coaching has evolved,” said Woodley. “They look for ways to move around the crease to ensure coverage. That you can get to the next space as quick as you can be. They look for efficiencies in ways to get there. Like on a one-timer, when a goalie slides back toward his post on his knees—at the very least, he’s cutting off the bottom of the net. He’s taking away that space.”


In some ways, it sounds like goaltending is a variation on that old Wayne Gretzky mantra about being where the puck isn’t.

“Except that in Gretzky’s case, there was a lot more flow and circular movement. Goalies go into the space and fill it as quickly as possible. Not where the puck isn’t, but rather where it should arrive via the angle,” Woodley said.


Even if goalies argue about their styles like grandmothers argue over pie ingredients at a county fair, it all comes back to one thing: making the save. And no two are alike, in execution or purpose.

Excerpted with permission from Take Your Eye Off the Puck: How to Watch Hockey By Knowing Where to Look, by Greg Wyshynski. Copyright 2015, Triumph Books.


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