T.J. Oshie is on Team USA for his shootout prowess. This is no secret. The behind-the-scenes looks at the roster selection make clear that the committee ranked him behind other forwards like Brandon Saad on pure skill, but put him on the team anyway because he's deadly when going one-on-one with a goalie. The wisdom of that selection was proven with his four-of-six performance in the shootout against Russia. His formula? Controlled randomness.
IIHF hockey is a unique beast. The ice surface is larger, the rules are different, and, most visibly in the early games, shootouts have the potential to bring skaters individual glory. Unlike in the NHL, in the Olympics a player can shoot multiple times, even consecutively, once the first three shooters have gone. Kovalchuk and Datsyuk alternated attempts for Russia, but for poor Sergei Bobrovsky, it was all Oshie, all the time.
Whether familiarity gives the advantage to a goaltender or a skater is an open question. A large part of winning shootouts is knowing tendencies—Will he deke? Will he skate in? Will he go forehand or backhand, top shelf or five-hole? The above gif is an overlay of Oshie's six attempts on Saturday, and at least in this case, the advantage is all his. Because T.J. Oshie doesn't have tendencies.
Shooters generally have tells. A sharp goalie, by watching tape and remembering previous attempts, may be able to discern what sort of shot is coming based on the skater's approach. If he comes wide, he might be thinking backhand. If he comes in slower, he may pull up for a shot from the hashmarks. That sort of thing. But the 27-year-old Oshie, like a pitcher disguising the ball coming out of his hand or a tennis player using the same serve motion each time, approaches each shootout nearly identically.
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On Saturday, his pokerfaced S-curve skate-up resulted in, in order: five-hole wrister; backhand fake to top shelf; fake snapper, fake deke, wrister; deke right; deke left; and to bring it full-circle, five-hole wrister for the win. It actually worked all six times—a high shot and an off-balance stick flail bailed out Bobrovsky on two occasions. Look at the six Bobrovskys—not a one didn't get fooled.
It's one thing to say "don't tip your hand" and another to execute. Part of it is being impervious to the pressure of the moment: Some of hockey's best scorers don't excel in the shootout because they overthink, and fall back on what might work for them in the heat of the game but fail when a goalie can anticipate it. Oshie was running on instinct. He said he spent the shootout round "thinking of something else I could do. I had to keep coming up with moves."
Long-term tendencies can give you away just as easily as short-term ones. The Russians knew as well as anyone that they'd face a steady stream of Oshie in a shootout, and presumably went to film and analytics to see if he favors one sort of shot over another. He does not.
Chris Boyle of Sportsnet has a great piece, which you should go read, comparing the shootout abilities of Oshie and Jonathan Toews. He constructed this chart showing from which spots on the ice Oshie has taken his career shootout attempts.
There are spots Oshie prefers, but none are so overwhelmingly favored that a goalie can anticipate a shot from there. He will go forehand and backhand with similar frequency—about as often as he'll take the quick shot from the hashmarks. If Bobrovsky had these long-term stats in hand, they were of zero help in guessing which way Oshie would go.
This jibes with research that Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski wrote about in Soccernomics, which found that the world's best soccer penalty takers are distinguished by their ability to send their kicks in randomly. Essentially, this means that each time an elite player stands over the ball, "he chooses his corner without any reference to what he did the last time."
Randomization of penalties is a completely logical theory that against all odds turns out to be true in practice... Nobody is suggesting that soccer players have sat at home coming up with mixed-strategy equilibria. Rather, the best players intuitively grasp the truth of the theory and are able to execute it. That is what makes them good players.
But unpredictability means nothing on its own. How effective is Oshie when shooting from—and at—various spots? Two more heat charts from Boyle:
These should strike fear into the heart of a netminder. Oshie is essentially unstoppable on the backhand, but more unpredictable on where he'll shoot from when he goes forehand. There is no way to anticipate; you can only react. And given his accuracy, reflexes usually aren't fast enough.
At 54.3 percent, Oshie has the highest career shootout percentage of anyone at these Olympics (and is just behind Frans Nielsen among active NHL players). But he's not some secret, unmatchable weapon. Canada's Jonathan Toews has netted 34 of his 68 career attempts, though as Boyle shows, he's more likely to shoot from further out, and if he does skate in, to go forehand.
Again unlike the NHL, these Olympics do have shootouts in the knockout rounds—after 10 minutes of four-on-four overtime in the semifinal, and after 20 minutes in the gold medal game. Though it's unlikely, the U.S. and Canada are close enough in skill that there's a chance tomorrow's game could come down to Oshie and Toews trading shots. If so, good luck to the goalies.
Gif and video by Tim Burke.