To compensate for the lack of proper preparations, goalies have been scrambling for extra practice time through the pandemic, which proved difficult amid sweeping lockdowns.
There's a really good article on ESPN this week worth reading (below) which addresses the question about weak goaltending in the NHL this season. That's led to a flurry of OVERS for those who have been betting game totals during the first part of the NHL regular season.
Here's the abbreviated ESPN article which explains why we're seeing more high-scoring games than usual:
On Feb. 28, Maddie Rooney will play at Madison Square Garden as part of the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association Dream Gap Tour.
For the 23-year-old goalie, it's "an incredible opportunity" to play in New York City at the world's most famous arena. Unfortunately, her preparation for the game hasn't exactly been ideal. Since the pandemic wreaked havoc on our daily routines in March 2020, competitive action has been scarce. "To be exact," Rooney says, "since March 2020, I have played exactly seven periods of hockey. Those were at PWHPA scrimmages against local boys teams, high school teams and junior teams. Then at [national team] camp we played six games, but as a goalie I had to split that."
Compare that to the season prior when, as a senior at Minnesota-Duluth, Rooney was typically playing two games per weekend. The women's hockey landscape presents an exaggerated case, but lack of proper ramp-up time for goalies is a theme we're seeing across hockey, including the NHL in the 2021 season.
It's one of the reasons that explains why through the first month of the season, the leaguewide save percentage has been hovering around .900; excluding the lockout-shortened seasons in 1995 and 2013, the last time a save percentage was below .900 for the month of October (typically the season's first month) was 2005-06, when it was .894 while coming out of a season-long lockout.
A couple of stats help explain the slow goalie starts. Penalty kills are struggling (tracking for a league-wide worst first month total since 1985-86), and according to Evolving Hockey, shooting percentages are abnormally high (at around 8.5% at even strength, we're trending for the highest-single season rate since 2007-08). All of this comes after a significantly truncated training camp and the cancellation of all preseason games.
"The usual smoothness of getting into the game, just from my perspective watching the league, has been a little slower," says Jim Corsi, the longtime NHL goaltending coach who now oversees goaltending development for the Columbus Blue Jackets organization.
It's important to understand why live action is so critical to goalies as part of their training. "Game timing is a very different thing than practice or shinny hockey," says Ryan Miller, the veteran Anaheim Ducks goaltender. "In shinny hockey, guys are trying goofy plays, holding on to it, making extra passes. An NHL game tends to be more direct, more congested. Obviously there's great playmaking, but as a goaltender you have to stay inside of play, where you can reach some of those plays, make it challenging on a guy. You can't commit to the first situation so hard and give them something else."
Corsi said the hardest part of the game to adjust to after long layoff periods are "non-puck play."
"In a penalty kill for example, you're supposed to take a certain position if you're in the bottom of the circle and cut off a certain access portion of the net," Corsi says. "If you're just 6 inches off, guys will put that in."
In explaining why New York Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin was uncharacteristically struggling to begin the season, longtime NHL goalie and current NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes found some flaws in his positioning. "One thing that is different right now is he's allowing goals through his body," Weekes says. "Like [opponents are] finding holes, which most goalies in the NHL don't do -- unless you're going through a rough patch. But everyday NHL goalies don't allow them very often. For that reason, he looks smaller in the net, even though he's not a small guy. I think it's a confidence thing.
"I know from putting myself in the spot in terms of positioning, and you know you're in the right spot, and somehow the puck can find a hole. If that happens once, you shrug it off. If it happens two, three times, you start second-guessing yourself, and the next thing you know you're misplaying pucks that would hit you routinely in your body."
To compensate for the lack of proper preparations, goalies have been scrambling for extra practice time through the pandemic, which proved difficult amid sweeping lockdowns. "Some goalies can't find shooters because they are only allowed two people on the ice," Corsi says. "If you get one goalie, one shooter, after 15 minutes, the shooter is drained. And I have to stay on the bench, because there's only two people allowed on the ice."
Corsi has recommended some of his players to try to find outdoor ice. Recently, Corsi sent one of his pupils, a 17-year-old goalie, and his dad, to a local rink to practice. The police came by and shut them down. In that jurisdiction, wearing hockey equipment on the ice was banned, as a measure to prevent games.
Rooney lives in Minnesota where rinks were closed for a while during the pandemic; during the second half of the summer, fellow Team USA goalie Nicole Hensley flew out, and the two were able to split on-ice sessions with a goalie coach.
Because the Ducks were one of seven teams that didn't participate in the bubble, Miller last played an NHL game in March -- meaning his first game action this season came after a nearly 10 and a half-month layoff. The 40-year-old says he has tried "to find game simulation in practice" the best he can. "We have such a limited amount of practice, so you're just trying to find situations and take advantage of," Miller says. "Get on the ice early, be on the ice late. If the penalty killer or power play is doing something that would typically be kind of tedious, I stay around and take the reps."
Corsi saw the pandemic as an opportunity for goalies to embrace more visualization work. This is something he has believed in for a while, and something he thinks "should be a bigger part of what we've been doing."
In the Blue Jackets organization, they have challenged goaltenders to watch their own video of making a good or bad play and questioning, "Can you do something better?"
"A big part of it is to visualize, with imagery, and seeing yourself doing something; that can be really helpful," Corsi says. " Psychologists have shown you can go through this visualization and see yourself succeed; that's really valuable. That can get you less body stress and more mentally prepared so when the situation occurs on the ice, your head has already seen it, so your body will react without having to process it."
That's something Rooney has begun to embrace, too. In 2018, she helped Team USA to its first Olympic gold medal in 20 years. It was disappointing that last year's Women's World Championships were canceled, and the women are hoping the event will be staged again in March 2021. However, as Rooney enters her prime athletic years, she is doing her best to continue her growth, fighting off having the pandemic halt all her momentum.
She follows a lot of goalie schools on Instagram, where she finds new speed and agility drills. Although Minnesota gyms have been closed for long stretches during the pandemic, Rooney's boyfriend owns a gym, so she's been able to get in a decent amount of strength, flexibility and rehab training.
"I also incorporate three hand-eye coordination drills, with three racquet balls, and I got through a set of drills that I acquired from other goalies over the years -- through what they've posted on social media," Rooney says. "But a really big thing has been Vizual Edge, which is vision training. You wear these red and blue glasses, which mess up your typical vision, and it helps your tracking and overall vision."
Rooney has spent more time doing vision training than ever before. "COVID definitely allowed me to branch out to resources available to me that I wouldn't have necessarily put time toward in the past," Rooney says. "I'm interested to see if it will help with actual performance."
In this month's game at MSG -- which will pit Rooney's Minnesota PWHPA chapter against New Hampshire -- she knows it will take an adjustment to the game intensity. She's traveling to Florida before arriving in New York, where the PWHPA has arranged scrimmages against local boys teams (although Rooney is one of four PWHPA goalies in Florida for five scheduled games, so "who knows how much game action I will actually get," she says.)
"The U.S. team, and the PWHPA rely on a lot of behind-the-net play from goalies, and playing the puck," Rooney says. "I haven't been in those pressure situations with forecheckers on me in a long time. So making those quick decisions, that could be an area that might be challenging at first."
She's hoping the lag time won't be too bad.
"Honestly," she says. "I'm really excited just to play in a competitive game again. It's going to feel so good to be out there."