At least 30 times a season, my colleagues on the Houston Aeros press row lean over to me after a goal has been scored and say, “So, who had the pass?” or “Who put that in?”
And my answer nearly every time is, “I dunno. I was watching the goalie.”
It’s not that I don’t see plays develop. In fact, I’m getting pretty good at calling goals in the seconds before they happen, as I recognize defensive breakdowns creating sweet offensive opportunities. Once you know a team well enough, it’s like those Magic Eye puzzles, where you can relax your vision and a new shape emerges from the chaos.
But my primary focus is always the goalie and always has been, even before I knew I was obsessed with goalies. I thought everybody did that, and I was shocked to learn that most people prefer to sit in their team’s attacking end rather than closer to their own team’s goalie.
Perhaps it’s a result of cutting my teeth as a fan under Kevin Constantine, coaching a group of Aeros who were basically all 3rd and 4th liners. Suffocating defense and goaltending were the keys to even the most moderate success for that bunch.
Like Pavlov’s Dog, I came to associate great defensive play and magical tendies with winning, so that’s what I like to watch.
As an aside, there’s definitely a little “neener neener” in my heart for the Chicken Little media folks (it is just media, right? Normal fans aren’t actually thinking this, are they?) bellyaching about the “lack of offense,” the “too much shot blocking,” and the “too good goalies.” Yeah, these playoffs have been SO boring, you guys…
All that said, you can imagine I’m pretty jacked for round 3 between a bunch of defensively sound, well-tended teams. Anybody who appreciates a bit of goaltending intrigue should be, too.
As such, let’s just take a moment to wallow in how thrilling these match-ups are from a goaltending perspective:
The Illusionist: Jonathan Quick
Until you’ve actually put your thighs, groins, glutes, and core to the test of playing goal, it’s tough to appreciate how unnatural and difficult the position, just from a physical perspective. And nobody on Earth makes it look easier than Quick, he is so fluid and effortless in his movements.
Here, try it at home and get a taste of what it’s like:
Get on your knees with your heels as far away from each other as you can get them and your toes pointed out to the sides. Don’t worry about that searing pain in your hips.
Now, hop up to your feet in one swift movement.
Didn’t work? Gravity too heavy? Well, try spreading your knees as far apart as you can get them. Keep that torso upright though, and don’t go down on your hands. Now try it.
Still stuck to the floor like glue? Well, try it again with a couple of 18 lb weights in your hands, on a sheet of ice, with knives strapped to your shoes.
Quick does all of this 100 times a game and makes it look as easy as a regular person walking down the street. He makes everything about the position look that easy. It’s pure magic.
The Revelation: Mike Smith
Smith used to play for my Aeros. Actually, he used to play for a lot of teams.
He has been on the path of a journeyman most of his career: time in the AHL, time in the NHL, not really the golden boy in any organization, so he never really got great opportunities, but was instead always battling to steal a spot. Though I think many felt he had a hint of something more within him.
But, while his athleticism and competitiveness were evident, and he was lauded for his puck moving abilities and fearlessness, his game needed polish. He finally got that from goalie coach Sean Burke (read an excellent feature on Burke’s tweaks to his game here).
It happens occasionally where a team in the right place at the right time doing the right things can go deep with a journeyman goalie, but maybe Smith is beyond that label now. As the pressure of the playoffs increases, so too will the revelatory nature of Smith’s season.
The Legend: Marty Brodeur
Perhaps the ultimate proof of Brodeur’s legendary status (if you needed more, you curmudgeon) is to win a cup despite not really needing to. The man has done it all and then some, and to have the drive and hunger and focus and, frankly, the physical well-being to continue to compete at this level is a marvel.
Further, with the Devils shaking their “boring trap” reputation and flashing some offensive guns, the old “he had a lot of help from those trap-playing puck killers in front of him” doesn’t hold much water anymore. And yet, here he is, four wins from playing for another Stanley Cup as a 40-year-old.
Also, raise your hand if you wish Sean Avery was still a Ranger. *raises hand* What I wouldn’t give for another episode of Fatso and Bratso. It would be like a season of Real Housewives AND a hockey series all wrapped up in one. The regular ol’ Devils/Rangers rivalry will have to suffice, I guess.
The King: Henrik Lundqvist
Here’s your second challenge for this post: Find one bad thing about Lundqvist. I can’t do it, other than maybe he’s too perfect. But unlike Shane Doan, he doesn’t smile constantly, so I don’t even get the feeling he has bodies buried somewhere.
He’s handsome, suave, debonair, well-dressed, well-spoken, handsome, Swedish (lovely accent), a good sport, handsome, and really, really good at stopping pucks. He also visits sick kids in hospitals and plays guitar well enough to do it in front of an audience. Good grief.
Lundqvist has always been good, but he has become great in recent years. Steady, reliable, a cornerstone in the locker room and on the ice for this Rangers team. Much like Brodeur with the Devils, I can’t imagine Broadway Henrik as anything but a New York Ranger*.
*Well, okay, maybe as an LA King. Ooo, now I want that match-up in the finals. Imagine the NHL.com headline puns!
He may be playing against The Legend in this series, but he’s rapidly becoming a legend in his own right.
Usually, by the third round, I’ve mentally checked out of the playoffs. I watch, but I’m not particularly excited because there’s just not enough hockey happening and all the teams I like are out. One game a night? Blackhawks v. Vancouver? Bleh. Take me back to Round 1, please.
But not this year. The teams are interesting and the match-ups are great, all the way to the end, and a big reason for that is the aforementioned puckstoppers. I get the distinct feeling that for the remainder of these playoffs I won’t be the only one saying, “I dunno. I was watching the goalie.”