Want to make a goalie miserable? Put a shooter up high. Send a guy back-door. Plant a puck tipper in front. With all those variables in play, the goalie’s mask is likely to pop off his head.
“You’ve got to see who’s around you first,” explained Ottawa goalie Ben Bishop. “That will show you how aggressive you can be. If there’s somebody back-door, you’ve got to be a little deeper. But if it’s just you and him, you want to be right on him. So if he tips it, it’s going to hit you.”
These days, goals are harder to find than the loot from the Gardner Museum heist. Goalies are big, athletic, competitive, and geared up to tackle Mount Everest. Coaches demand that their skaters block shots. The body armor is so impenetrable that blockers think nothing of jamming their shin pads in front of a Shea Weber rocket.
But there is little defense against a well-tipped shot. When a goalie goes down into his butterfly position and the puck suddenly changes its flight plan, even the most athletic puck-stopper isn’t Gumby-like enough to adjust for a tip. All a goalie can do is stay as big as he can, then pray that his equipment catches the tip.
“You just try and be real patient and close at the last second,” Bishop said. “You don’t want to get too small too fast.”
The current shot-tipping king is Thomas Vanek. The Buffalo sharpshooter hits all the check marks: finding the right seam, staying there, then manipulating his blade perfectly to tip pucks past helpless goalies.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. Former teammate Daniel Paille recalled that, even when they were in the AHL (Rochester), Vanek would work on his technique and his curve to get both perfect.
Gregory Campbell knows the difficulty of the art. As a boy, Campbell recalled hitting the rink with his father, ColinCampbell, after Rangers practices. Dad, the Rangers coach at the time, would rain countless pucks toward his son. Gregory would tip and tip and tip, trying to get the touch just right.
Now, as a Bruin, Campbell still concludes practices by standing in front of the net and tipping pucks. As an NHLer, Campbell hasn’t found it as easy to score as he did in Kitchener.
“I had a ton of goals in junior by tip,” said Campbell, who helped then-teammate David Clarkson with the practice. “It was almost comical. I almost never scored a goal outside of 5 feet.
“It’s an art. Tipping pucks is definitely an art. It’s not only the hand-eye coordination. It’s the position you get yourself in, especially with the new rules.”
In his prime, Ryan Smyth might have been the NHL’s best tipper. Smyth mastered the first step — using his backside to claim his net-front real estate.
Using his body to eclipse the goalie’s sightline, Smyth would then stretch out his stick. He would instruct defensemen to shoot wide and aim for his blade. When the puck hit his blade, Smyth would almost corral the rubber to redirect it on goal.
“What that does is it makes the goalie look around him,” Campbell said. “Then it leaves that whole side of the net open.”
In today’s league, it’s not as straightforward as rooting out space in front and waiting for pucks to arrive. Goalies have adjusted. When a tipper approaches the crease, a goalie’s best counter is to be aggressive and stand in his back pocket. That way, if the forward tips the puck, the goalie has eliminated the space where it can change direction.
Defensemen have also adapted. They are stepping in front of tippers and fronting shots to prevent pucks from getting through. They’re engaging tippers before they gain net-front position. They’re reading their approach trajectories and muscling them out of the way.
On the occasions when the tipper gets set up and the defenseman can’t front him, he must be in line with him — side by side leads to a screen — and watching his stick. By tangling a tipper’s stick at the right time, the defenseman can prevent a deflection.
The toughest spot for goalies and defensemen to monitor is the high slot. It’s the one remaining soft spot where a tipper, especially if he times his arrival right, can pick a goalie apart. The net-front defenseman is usually positioned closer to the crease. Forwards can be slow to collapse.
Campbell cited a power-play goal that Montreal’s Michael Ryder scored against Florida March 10. As P.K. Subban shot from the point, Ryder slid between the circles and ticked the puck with his blade. Jacob Markstrom, expecting a low shot, waved at Ryder’s tip.
“He was in between the hash marks and just lifted the puck slightly,” Campbell said. “It went over the goalie’s glove. I think that’s an area that is good — above the hash marks as a third man high.”
Goalies are the best they’ve ever been. But they can’t be like Neo from the Matrix, moving at blur-like speed to stop a tip. With all the factors leaning against today’s shooters, a well-placed tip might be their last reliable maneuver.
Where visor meets the fist
On March 11, Ottawa’s Patrick Wiercioch saw Adam McQuaid plaster Chris Neil from behind into the Scotiabank Place boards. Wiercioch is not a fighter, but his first reaction was to engage McQuaid in a scrap to answer for his hit.
It was only after the fight, when Wiercioch saw 19 minutes on the scoreboard next to his name, that he realized his infraction. Wiercioch, who wears a shield, had drawn an extra two minutes (after instigating, fighting, and a 10-minute misconduct) for initiating a fight while wearing a visor.
In retrospect, Wiercioch said, he had time to dump his helmet. But he didn’t think of it as he approached McQuaid, an opponent he knows as a tough cookie.
“Especially for a guy who doesn’t fight very often, it’s not the first thing that’s running through your mind,” Wiercioch said.
Instigating while wearing a shield may become irrelevant. The NHL is trending toward mandatory visor use. Even the tough guys, who believe visors get in the way of their fisticuffs, will be shielded up.
The question is whether players will dump their helmets, along with their shields, before they fight. Before some scraps, when players discuss their intentions, there is time to remove helmets. But in spontaneous situations, like the Wiercioch-McQuaid dustup, gloves drop and fists fly off the hop.
Shawn Thornton’s concern is with how fights end. Most scraps conclude with one fighter landing on another.
“I don’t want to take off my helmet every time I fight someone bigger than me,” Thornton said. “What happens? Does insurance cover me if I fall on my head and I took off my own helmet?”
In 2006-07, the AHL made visor wear mandatory. That season, Thornton was in Portland, Anaheim’s AHL affiliate. According to hockeyfights.com, Thornton logged five AHL fights. By his recollection, Thornton took off his helmet for some fights, but kept it on for others.
“Your hands get pretty beat up, but that’s the least of my worries,” Thornton said. “I’m more concerned about head injuries. You’re more susceptible to getting hit behind the ear too when you don’t have a helmet on.”
Thornton’s idea is for a pop-off visor. If an equipment manufacturer can devise a shield that can be removed easily before or during a fight, helmets could stay on.
Thornton suggests that such an invention could be more lucrative than hockey reporting.
“Put a patent on that before you write about it,” he said.
Fighting leads to checking
On March 9, Shawn Thornton asked Zac Rinaldo to fight after the Philadelphia forward sent Johnny Boychuk flying with a crunching hit. Thornton acknowledged the hit was clean, but that Rinaldo had been running around for most of the game. Thornton gained control of the fight with a string of uppercuts. To cap the fight, Thornton floored Rinaldo with a straight right behind the left ear. On Jan. 31, Thornton had learned first-hand how dangerous such punches can be when Buffalo’s John Scott gave him a concussion by tagging him behind the ear. So at the end of his fight with Rinaldo, Thornton asked his opponent if he was OK. Rinaldo responded yes, nodding his head. Just another example of honor in fighting, as oxymoronic as that might sound.
Not bolting Tampa Bay
As of Saturday, Tampa Bay was in second-to-last place in the Eastern Conference, 5 points out of a playoff spot. GM Steve Yzerman would have taken countless calls had he placed Nate Thompson on the trade market. But Yzerman signed the ex-Bruin to a four-year extension Saturday. Thompson had been due to reach unrestricted free agency in July. Because of his speed, toughness, and flexibility, just about every playoff contender (including the Bruins) would have welcomed the center.
Plugged into Bruins
Jarome Iginla will be the Flames’ biggest chip if they go for a rebuild. The Bruins will be talking with Calgary until the April 3 trade deadline. Calgary assistant GM John Weisbrod is familiar with the Bruins’ feeder system, having served as the club’s director of collegiate scouting through 2011. Among the ex-collegians the Bruins signed, acquired, or drafted while Weisbrod was on the job: Carter Camper, Matt Bartkowski, Justin Florek, Zach Trotman, David Warsofsky, Kyle MacKinnon, Colby Cohen, and Alexander Fallstrom. Weisbrod knows the keepers among the bunch.
Kicking it around
Colleague Nancy Marrapese-Burrell wrote recently of Boston College defenseman Patch Alber, who returned after ripping up his knee while booting around a soccer ball with his teammates before a game in December. It’s a standard warmup in the NHL. Surprising that there aren’t more such injuries. The players kick the ball around in the bowels of the rinks, where there are chairs, pipes, sharp corners, and other such obstacles. The Lightning incorporate a metal gate into their game. Naturally, being hockey players, they take the soccer game as seriously as the one on the ice.
The long way
When chatting about sticks, Nathan Horton wondered why penalty killers don’t swap out their usual twigs for a longer shaft. Makes sense, when an extra inch might mean breaking up a cross-ice pass. Bruins assistant equipment manager Jim Johnson recalled that former NHLer Marek Malik opted for a longer stick on PKs.
The Bruins kicked the tires on Ryan Smyth in previous seasons, but he has one year remaining on his current deal. The Bruins, like most teams, would rather not take on term before the trade deadline . . . The eight-year deals that Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry signed with Anaheim this month could serve as a model for Patrice Bergeron’s next contract. All three were picked in the 2003 draft. Don’t see Bergeron landing the $8 million-plus that Getzlaf and Perry will get starting next season. But he will push for similar term, especially given his concussion history. Bergeron’s current contract expires after 2013-14 . . . The Bruins and Capitals will square off in the regular-season finale. It might be a meaningless game for Washington in the standings, but the Capitals should have one final answer for Shawn Thornton and Adam McQuaid, who cornered Matt Hendricks March 16. Washington was without rugged defenseman John Erskine in that game. Still, it was surprising to see the lack of response after Hendricks’s fight with McQuaid . . . NHL personnel with Boston University ties believe it’s a three-man race to replace Jack Parker: David Quinn, Mike Sullivan, and John Hynes . . . Miss the All-Star Game this season? Didn’t think so.