Sunday, February 27, 2011

EXCLUSIVE: OSGOOD IS GOOD TO GO



For hockey fans wondering if Chris Osgood will return soon from his Jan. 11 surgery for "groin issues" and a hernia, I can report that he definitely will be back. And it looks like it will be very soon.

In fact, I had the opportunity to watch Osgood and the Red Wings put in a hard practice Sunday afternoon at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California, a day before their game against the L.A. Kings (and less than 24 hours after defeating the Sabres in a shootout back in Buffalo).

Osgood looked sharp and did all the drills along with Joey MacDonald and Jimmy Howard that goalie coach Jim Bedard put them through.

Osgood's lateral movement was strong. He played every shot with intensity. He had a smile most of the practice and seemed to be having fun. If he has any serious soreness from his injury, it didn't show. As a matter of fact, Jimmy Howard, who shared a net with Osgood most of the practice, let in more shots than Osgood did.

Safe to say, Ozzie will be back in a flash. Ozzie told reporters a few days ago that “there’s no doubt I’ll be back, it’s just a matter of when.” In my opinion, you will see him back this week, perhaps even by Wednesday's game in Anaheim (a member of the Wings entourage suggested this would be the case).

Check out my pics from today's practice and see for yourself.





A BIG COMEBACK IN A SMALL PACKAGE



Assuming you're a human being, you've had one of those days where no matter what you do things just don't go your way.

If you're a goalie, these days manifest themselves in the form of letting in goals you think you should have stopped, the puck bouncing in the other team's favor and your team just not being there for you when you need them (like, say, when you make four saves and your defensemen just stand there and watch until the opponent scores on the fifth try).

Well, this is what happened on Saturday to one seven-year-old goalie whom I coach.

Playing in his first-ever playoff game, the Mite goalie lost 5-1 and was, understandably, very disappointed.

"It was all my fault," he said afterward. "We lost because I let in five goals."

"It wasn't your fault that you lost," I replied. "You probably could have stopped a couple of them, but you're not Superman. You're just a goalie. You can't always be Superman. Some days you will be, but you can't always be."

I told him tomorrow was another day and if he tried as hard as he did today he would probably have a better outcome.

"Okay," he said, still defeated.

Then the next day - and next game - came. It was for third place in the league. Win or lose, it would be the last game of the season.

The young goalie skated out with purpose, put in a solid warmup. It was very obvious from his body language that he wanted - and expected - a different outcome than before. One minute into the game, his first shot was a breakaway - a pad save, the first of many that would come.

An hour later, the game was over and the score, like the day before, was once again 5-1. Only on this day, his team was the winner. This time, he was the winning goalie.

He didn't let the previous bad day linger. He didn't let a few bad bounces the day before turn into more bad bounces the next game. Indeed, he made tomorrow a new day, won the game and, hopefully, learned a valuable life lesson.

I was proud as a coach. But even more proud as a dad. Because this comeback kid also just happened to be mine.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

SAVE OF THE DAY: THE ONE TOMAS VOKOUN NEVER HAD TO MAKE




Sometimes the best save is the save you never have to make.

Because you were in such great position the shot went wide. Because you were so patient the shooter ran out of options. Because you had nerves of steel and let the shooter self-implode.

This is exactly what Florida's Tomas Vokoun, yet another Child of the Korn, did masterfully in a shootout Friday night (interestingly enough, versus another Korn disciple, Chris Mason of Atlanta, who also made some expert saves in what was ultimately a losing effort.)

Atlanta's Nik Antropov came in on Vokie, who just stood strong, didn't flinch and never even went down on his knees as he watched Antropov whistle the puck wide to his right.

The patience it takes to pull this off is almost mind-boggling. Equally vexing: The fact that I can't find video of the great non-save. (But you can enjoy the rest of the highlights, including some sweet saves by Mason, in above video clip).

As a Child of the Korn myself who benefited from the great wisdom of Nashville Predators coach Mitch Korn, as I watched both Vokie and Mason play the shootouts so impressively I knew it was due in no small part to their former coach (both of them used to play for the Preds). In fact, everyone out there in the Goalieverse can take note of one of Korn's "do's" on a breakaway:

"Show patience by not reacting to the players first move, . . . . wait him out for the "real move." Stay on your feet as long as you can. Do your best to stay with the shooter."

Judging by last night's Mason vs. Vokoun display in the shootout, at least two goalies learned this lesson well.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

TRADES ARE ONLY A SHORT-TERM CURE FOR GOALIE-TILE DYSFUNCTION



Don't believe the hype. Cialis isn't the new Viagra. A good goalie trade is!

With the Colorado Avalanche earlier this season, Craig Anderson performed inconsistently and struggled to stop da puck with a bloated 3.28 GAA. After being traded to the Ottawa Senators earlier this month, Anderson, 30, went from losing seven straight with the Avs to winning his first two with Ottawa and becoming the hottest masked man in the league with a .986 save percentage.

Trade-stimulated performance enhancers have happened before. When Jean-Sebastien Giguere was traded from Anaheim to Toronto, the Robo-goalie went from a dead Duck to red-hot Leaf. The new scenery appeared to resurrect his career. As we know, the honeymoon didn't last for Jiggy. And a similar fate could easily befall Anderson (or Dan Ellis or Curtis McElhinney for that matter).

Why am I so quick to pee on the fun-to-watch Anderson's puck-stopping parade?

Simply because, to a goalie, a trade can be like Viagra. At first, it gives you a boost. You're thinking... This team wants me! I have a fresh start! Now I have to prove myself! A trade gets the, uh, blood flowing.

But, as Grampa Fred may tell you, the pill wears off (Giguere, for example, was still weak up high). Likewise, Anderson, an extremely talented goalie with superior athleticism, is also historically prone to mental lapses.

The lesson here is that a trade can give a goalie a temporary boost. But, long-term, if a goalie doesn't strengthen his flaws then his game will go back to being as soft as Glenn Hall's chest protector.

Monday, February 21, 2011

OH, BOY! GIRL GOALIES ARE THE RULE



"Girls rule. Boys drool." Or so my 6-year-old daughter (and, yes, Mini-Mite player) likes to chirp to her older brother.

Obviously, she has a good point, but is it a valid one when it comes to guarding the goal?

After reading this really cute story by Buffalo-based writer Randy Schultz in USA Hockey Magazine, I'm starting to think there's a really good argument.

The story is an account of two sisters - Zoe and Lexi Shannon - who serve as the goalies for a Pee Wee A boys team in Saratoga, New York, not too far from where I grew up.

“We would both love to play on the USA National Team,” said Zoe. “It’s the one big goal we have right now.”

“Playing in the Olympics one day would be great,” added Lexi. “We know that we have a long way to go, and this is just one step along the way.”

Just twenty years ago, you were far more likely to find girls their age doing lutzes in white figures skates than getting bruises in white goalie skates. So the fact that you now have two girls (sisters, mind you) backstopping a travel team in Upstate New York is one micro-cosmic example of thousands proving how far girls hockey has come. And it's awesome.

These winds of gender change hit me with a stiff breeze a couple years ago when I was coaching at a Mitch Korn summer goalie camp in Buffalo. I noticed that the group of goalie girls generally seemed more attentive to my instruction, more focused, certainly more flexible and, well, just more mature than their same-age males.

When I mentioned this observation to one of my fellow coaches, he replied, "Yeah, the boys are idiots."

I wouldn't go that far, but all those drooling boys out there better step up their game. If they don't, my daughter will be the first to give them a bib.

(Photo courtesy of USA Hockey Magazine)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

BACKSTROM BELLY FLOPS TO EARN SAVE OF THE DAY





Life's simple pleasures do it for me. Walks on the beach. Drinks with friends. A slab of albacore sashimi drenched in soy sauce. Re-runs of Reno 911. And a save so good that it can be viewed as a metaphor for life.

Case in point: Niklas Backstrom's belly-flopping glove grab today against the Red Wings' Dan Cleary.

Backstrom butterflies ... Cleary holds and swings right on his backhand ... Backstrom goes paddle-down ... Cleary still holds.

Watch the video above to see what happens next. While a nice instructional moment for young goalies everywhere, it's also a save containing a life lesson: Never Give Up.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

CAREY PRICE'S NEW MASK SCARES THE PUCK OUT OF ME

AL MONTOYA? MORE LIKE "ROCKY" MONTOYA



The biggest smile in the NYC area had to be the one I saw on the face of New York Islanders goalie Al Montoya after he notched a shutout tonight against the LA Kings.

He should be happy. It was a rare high point of what has been a rocky career. Uh, let's make that a Rocky career.

Montoya is just 25 but has been knocked down more than Apollo Creed in"Rocky IV" (you know, the one where that scary Russian kills him just as cornerman/pal Rocky B. throws in the towel to stop the fight). Luckily for Montoya, he hasn't thrown in the towel, though you can't blame him if he has considered it.

When drafted in the first round by the New York Rangers while at University of Michigan, Montoya was hailed as the second coming of Ryan Miller. But a certain Swede got in his way to Madison Square Garden that relegated him to the AHL. Then he was traded to the Phoenix Coyotes in 2008, but went straight to the minors, playing just five respectable games for the Coyotes but not getting a shot (mostly thanks to a certain Russian, although not a boxer in this instance).

But just days after getting traded to the Islanders for the rough equivalent of a roll of tape, Montoya suited up for his first game and blocked all 35 shots, thus the big fat smile.

No one likes a comeback more than I do. That's why I'll be rooting for Rocky Montoya.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

SIZE, UM, DOESN'T ALWAYS MATTER: THE NHL'S TOP 3 TINY 'TENDERS



Before big men like Ron Hextall and Tom Barrasso began the giantization trend between the pipes in the late '80s and early '90s, NHL goaltending was dominated by guys of fairly average stature. That is to say, if you were even close to 6 feet tall you were "big."

Nowadays, anyone under the 6-feet benchmark is considered a "small" goalie (at, at 5'11," this includes yours truly).

But, clearly, a closer look at today's top goalies reveals that "small" isn't a synonym for "sieve." In fact, these sub-averagers are among the best.

Here's my rank of the top five tiny 'tenders:

#1: TIM THOMAS: At 5'11" (on a good day, as sources confirm to Stop da Puck that he's closer to 5'10"), TT plays so square and his posture is so upright and technically sound that it almost boggles the mind how he clogs the net like a much larger man. His league-leading stats and All-Star status prove his smaller size just...doesn't...matter.

#2: CHRIS OSGOOD: Haters can call him old (39), deride him as "Wuz-Good," and might even call him Shorty McShorty because he's basically 5'10." But I call him a Stanley Cup winner, a poised goalie and one of the top in-the-crease battlers in the league (when he's healthy).



#3 JAROSLAV HALAK: With his bubble hockey goalie stiffness, this 5'11" Wall of Czech Humanity isn't the most dynamic performer, but he sold me on his puck-stopping skills during last season's stellar playoff performance with Montreal. And, despite a recent hand injury, he's turned in a solid season so far with the St. Louis Blues.



(Yes, veterans Marty Turco and Jose Theodore get honorable mentions. Yet even this here old goalie has to acknowledge their greatest days are seemingly behind them.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

NABOKOV, ME & THE MEANING BEHIND "STOP DA PUCK"



The name of this blog is "Stop da Puck," which probably seems like a sort-of clever name I conjured while sitting at the keyboard wracking my brain for sort-of clever names for a blog about goaltending.

That'd be a really good guess, but, guys, I have a confession: The dirty little secret is that I can't take sole credit for calling this sort-of wondrous bit of web publishing "Stop da Puck." Rather, the inspiration came from something once said to me by none other than former San Jose Sharks goalie turned KHL defector Evgeni Nabokov. Let me explain...

Back in the olden days - before Facebook and Twitter, before Martin Brodeur was an oldster - I came out of retirement to take a jolly-good stab at playing pro hockey in the West Coast Hockey League (now the Pacific division of the ECHL). It was a crazy adventure that, well, required me to be crazy.

Among the crazy things I did as part of my comeback training was swing by the Sharks' practice rink one day to ask the then-broken-English-speaking Evgeni Nabokov for advice. His coach, former U.S. Olympic team goalie coach
Warren Strelow, had loosely invited me to come pay a visit after I pestered the legendary coach for weeks.

It was September 2001 and I was just days from leaving the Bay Area for Bakersfield. Warren, now deceased, was in a sour mood that day because he had taken a puck on the shin during a morning skate. Nonetheless, Warren (appearing surprised, and slightly annoyed, that I actually showed up) met with me in the locker room.

And, well, here is how I told the comedy of what happened next in my book "They Don't Play Hockey in Heaven:"

Fortunately, Warren shows some charity and chimes in, “Nabby, I want you to meet someone. This is Steve Baker. He’s a goalie, trying out for Bakersfield in the West Coast League.” (I let it slide that he keeps calling me Steve.)

Nabokov played three seasons in the AHL and IHL before making the Sharks in 1999. He has to be aware of the WCHL. He takes off his blocker and kindly shakes my hand. He looks at me not like a peon, but like a member of a fraternity, that of pro goalies. With respect. I feel I’m in the presence of royalty, which I am.

“How’s it going?” I ask nervously.

“Getting ready,” he says. “It should be good year. We see.”

“Got any advice for me?”

“Any what?” Nabokov asks Strelow. “What duz he say?”

Warren saves the conversation from sinking into total absurdity, shouting on my behalf, “DO-YOU-HAVE-ANY-ADVICE-FOR-HIM?”

Somehow, Warren’s nurseryschoolspeak works.

“Oh, oh,” Nabokov says apologetically. A few seconds later, he looks me in the eye and says, “Stop da puck.”


Not the most eloquent words of wisdom. But certainly accurate.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

ECHL ALL-STAR GOALIES LOOK LIKE NHL'ERS



A few times a year, I try to make it up to watch my former team, the ECHL's Bakersfield Condors. Last month, I brought my Hollywood pal Kevin Connolly up with me to check out the AA league's annual all star game.

Besides enjoying watching Kevin shoot pucks into a hole at intermission for Make-a-Wish, I was really impressed by two of the goalies I saw at the entertaining exhibition game.

One was Michael Ouzas of the Las Vegas Wranglers (that's him in the above pic, on Kevin's right shoulder). At 5-foot-10, Ouzas is definitely on the small side, but his positioning and lateral movement was in the Chris Osgood mold. Ouzas, 25, a former Toronto Maple Leafs property has a strong, efficient butterfly push that gets him side to side as fast as you can say "Ozzie." (And after the game he was even funny, inviting Kevin to come party "Entourage" style with him Vegas). Hopefully, he can get another shot in the show -- and I'm not talking the kind you find a few blocks off the Strip.

The other impressive ECHL goalie I saw that night was the ginormous Tyler Beskorowany of the Idaho Steelheads. At 6-foot-5 and just 22 years old, the Dallas Stars prospect has a massive (no pun intended) upside potential - that is, as long as he keeps working on improving his system and staying square on the puck.

Obviously, Tyler fills the net. And he is surprisingly agile and gets his pads down flat and fast for a big man. Yet for the lanky up-and-comer to reach the level of the similarly performing Anders Lindback (also 22), he probably just needs more PT and to face more rubber. His biggest challenge in escaping the minors may be outshining fellow Stars prospect Jack Campbell. Gonna be a fun fight to watch.

Most important, I got to hang out with Ouzas and Beskorowany after the game in Bakersfield, and they are, like most goalies, smart, cool guys whom I reminded to enjoy every second of their pro careers - even at the AA level - because, I assured them, it is most fun job they will ever have. They both agreed.

RYAN MILLER NEEDS A BETTER BACKUP




Ryan Miller is a world-class goalie. He has won the Vezina, been an NHL All Star and carried Team USA to the 2010 Olympic gold medal game. Ryan also is the starting goalie for my hometown Buffalo Sabres and someone I've had the pleasure of meeting and spending time with for his charity. In short, he's my hero.

Despite his eminent greatness, and despite the fact that the Sabres' current #2 'tender Patrick Lalime is well liked by Ryan and his teammates, the fact remains that Ryan needs a more legitimate backup goaltender if he is to continue to grow as a goalie and for the Sabres to find any legit shot at success beyond a first-round playoff appearance.

Why?

Because even the best goalies in the world play better when they know there is a young-and-hungry keeper ready to takeover his job.

Because even the most physically and mentally fit athletes can't play more than 65 games a seasons without either burning out or getting hurt (Ryan's 7-goal loss the other night was a sign of pending exhaustion).

Because a team with two capable puck-stoppers is always better than a team with just one. Always better. Just look at the LA Kings, Nashville Predators, Boston Bruins, Vancouver Canucks.

Enough said.

It's nice to see that the Sabres recently have called up their erstwhile #3 Jhonas Enroth from the AHL affiliate, and I suspect the team's management knows what I do: Despite being on the small side, Enroth, who has competed well this season when called up, is a far better insurance policy than Lalime, not to mention a kid who could put even more eye of the tiger into Ryan's already great game.

Monday, February 14, 2011

WHAT I LIKE ABOUT GOALIE-ON-GOALIE ACTION






First off, let me just say that I don't think goalies should have to fight. That is the job of the dumb lugs without giant pads on who are paid to protect a hockey team's most prized asset. The primary job of a goalie, after all, is to stop da puck.

But there are those rare occasions when we masked wonders have no choice but to drop the gloves, and recent 'tender scraps involving the Pens' Brent Johnson and Isles' Rick DiPietro (who, by the way, should be nicknamed for DiPeJawblow -- see why here) got me thinking a couple things:

1) If goalies must fight, it should only be with each other a) Because goalie-on-goalie action looks more funny and b) There's less of a chance of them getting hurt (usually).

2) This is the all-time best compilation of goalie brawls. Enjoy:

My favorite fight is the Patrick Roy-Chris Osgood wack-a-thon. What about you? Tell me in the comments.