Friday, February 24, 2012

Got Me Under Pressure

This originally ran in Cold as Ice, the hockey column I co-write for Popblerd.
Hockey is a team sport, but more often than not, a team’s fortunes rest on the last line of defense: The goalie. You need more than just a good goalie to win, but things get much tougher for your team if your goalie can’t stop the puck.

As the NHL season moves into its stretch run and teams battle for playoff spots, every game is crucial and immense pressure is placed on goalies. Several goalies have had outstanding seasons and for the most part, that has resulted in strong seasons for their teams: Henrik Lundqvist (NY Rangers), Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask (Boston), Pekka Rinne (Nashville), Jimmy Howard (Detroit), Roberto Luongo (Vancouver), Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott (St. Louis) and Marc-Andre Fleury (Pittsburgh). Others—such as Craig Anderson (Ottawa), Miikka Kiprusoff (Calgary), Martin Brodeur (NJ) and Mike Smith (Phoenix)—have kept their teams in the playoff hunt. And then there are goalies like Jonathan Quick of Los Angeles, who is having an excellent year but the Kings are still struggling.

And then there are the goalies who have underperformed this year, including Ilya Bryzgalov of Philadelphia, Ryan Miller of Buffalo and Corey Crawford of Chicago, as well as the goalies for the Toronto Maple Leafs, James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson. The Leafs’ goalie woes have been particularly difficult to witness for this Leafs fan.

Reimer came out of nowhere last year to provide the Leafs with strong goaltending in the second half of the season and give them hope going into this season that they would make the playoffs for the first time since 2004. But after suffering a concussion early in the season, Reimer missed 18 games and Gustavsson stepped in to win some big games in January (after some initial struggles). Reimer returned and seemed to get his mojo back with a couple of shutouts in early February. But lately, both goalies have been leaky and the Leafs have found their grip on a playoff spot slipping away.

Things really came to a head Tuesday night again in New Jersey. Gustavsson gave up two weak goals through the five-hole during regulation, but the Leafs battled back and tied the game in the final minute to send it to overtime. To his credit, Gustavsson made some big saves in the third to keep the Leafs in the game. Toronto came out strong in the OT, with Jake Gardiner ringing a blast off the post and John-Michael Liles whiffing on the rebound in front of a wide-open net. At the other end, New Jersey’s Mark Fayne took a weak shot from the point that appeared to be going wide before bouncing off Gustavsson and dribbling into the net for the game-winner. It was about the most dispiriting way possible to lose a game.

Yesterday, in the wake of the loss and with his team in a 1-5-1 tailspin, Leafs GM Brian Burke finally acknowledged that he may need to acquire a new goalie at the trade deadline (which is next Monday, Feb. 27 at 3 p.m. Eastern). The rest of the team is far from perfect, but now they’re at the point where any weak shot thrown at the net has the potential to go in. Doesn’t exactly instill teammates with confidence. On the other hand, a strong goalie can keep a team in games against far better teams.

The goalie has the toughest job in team sports. Even more than a pitcher or a quarterback, the goalie must throw his body (however well-protected) in front of 220-pound players storming the net and 110 mph slap shots. Every mistake a goalie makes is magnified exponentially, especially at this time of year. Don’t think Jonas Gustavsson isn’t beating himself up over those horrible goals he gave up Tuesday night. Unfortunately for the man nicknamed Monster, that may be his last NHL game for a long time. Just as a great performance in net can bring glory, a poor outing can prove that life in the NHL is awfully unforgiving for a goalie.

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