goalie run

On Saturday night Minnesota Wild rookie Erik Haula took the puck wide past backchecking forward Cody Eakin, stuck his leg out and drove hard to the net. If you’re Haula’s coach, you consider that an encouraging, aggressive move that you like to see from a young player. The problem was, at some point his feet got tangled with Eakin’s, he got stuck in the train tracks, and smashed Kari Lehtonen back into his own net. Lehtonen’s head hit the crossbar after his helmet popped off, and it sounds like he sustained a concussion. There was no supplemental discipline for Haula on the play.

So, could he have avoided the play? Do guys actually try to run goalies? Are they instructed to?

Stars coach Lindy Ruff certainly thought it was a bad play:

“He hit the crossbar hard and all likelihood is, it’s a concussion on just a dirt play.  He should be suspended.  A fourth-liner kicks out our goaltender.”

And, the players on the Stars reacted like Haula meant to, jumping immediately on his back.

My thinking on that particular play is that he probably found himself on a collision course with the opposing goalie, and while he could’ve bailed entirely, figured he’d keep pushing for the goal knowing it might come at the “cost” of hitting the man in the crease. His certainly wasn’t the most egregious “uh-oh I might have put myself in a situation that involves hitting the goalie oopsie” play we’ve seen in recent years (he does seem legitimately tied up), but I still think he knows the play he’s in the midst of making may end poorly for Lehtonen, he’s just doesn’t care because his priority is trying to score.

The “oops” play is absolutely a real thing guys try to pull off any time they think they can get a lick in on an opposing goalie. That makes it hard to judge intent when a guy like Haula hauls-a into the net and plows over your goalie – he probably didn’t fully mean to (and definitely didn’t plan to), but pro hockey players are remarkable skaters with terrific balance and edge-work…there’s a reasonable chance he could have at least avoided Lehtonen with a full-on bail out. It’s funny how often guys get tied up or blow a tire right in front, isn’t it?

The idea with “running the goalie” isn’t that you want to hurt the guy, it’s that you want him to start to feel like it’s happening so much that he needs to be worried about it on every shot. A team that crashes the crease aggressively is bound to find some rebounds, get some screens and tips, and oh yeah, fall onto the goalie occasionally. Much in the way you want defenseman to subconsciously feel like “Man, every time I touch the puck these guys finish their check on me, I better move the puck a second earlier than I’m used to so I can brace for this hit,” you want goalies keeping tabs on their periphery in hopes they lose the puck for a split-second somewhere in their divided focus.

The “oops” play is rarely premeditated, it’s just sort of an understood thing with forwards – if you can get away with falling on the opposing goalie, or getting “pushed into him,” you might as well make his life more difficult. These guys rarely make mistakes at the highest level and they’re on the other team – why help them out any?

I would say the legit kill-mission “I’m going to run the goalie” play probably happens only a handful of times a year around the league, and you can usually feel something like that developing during a chippy game. I had one coach on one team who did used to assign goalie running duty (“Run into him, turn around, flip off your gloves and take the first comer”), but I’m pleased to report I’m not the type of player who would ever get the tap for that, and that disappears as you move higher up the ranks. (Of course, it is occasionally subtly implied with stuff like “We’re making it too easy on Goalie X, let’s start making his job a little more uncomfortable.“)

I really do believe that players respect goalies and don’t want to hurt them, so again – pain isn’t the goal with bumping a ‘tender every chance you get. Thinking of running into the goalie as a tactic similar to playing 21 with a buddy who’s draining shot after shot from the free throw line, so you pass him the ball poorly to make him move off his spot and hopefully pull him out out of his rhythm – it’s about disruption. (Only, y’know, 100 times more dangerous with a higher risk of head trauma.)

I’m not advocating players do this, I’m just explaining that a lot of those plays that look unavoidable simply aren’t. Half the time a d-man pushes a player into his own goalie the guy he’s “pushing” probably could stand up to the shove just fine, if there were reason to.

It’s a fast, contact sport, and part of a goaltenders job is finding their own bit of serenity amidst the chaos. As skaters, we tend to feel like it’s our job to provide as much of latter as possible.