On Nov. 13 at Denver’s Pepsi Center, as Avalanche forward Jarome Iginla circled out of the left corner, Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask faced a decision. Rask could have dropped into reverse VH (vertical horizontal), leaning his right shoulder into the strong-side post with his lead pad down on the ice and right foot tucked inside the pipe, playing the percentage that his ex-teammate would fire a puck on goal.
Instead, Rask stayed on his feet. It was the right decision.
Iginla didn’t shoot. The ex-Bruin passed the puck to Eric Gelinas at the point for a one-timer. Had Rask been in reverse VH on Iginla, he would have had to shift his weight and reposition to his left to get in front of Gelinas’s shot, either by sliding on his pads or scrambling to his feet.
By staying upright, Rask had to make just one slight corrective step to his left to square up on Gelinas’s shot. Rask couldn’t handle Gelinas’s steamer, leaving a rebound for Mikhail Grigorenko. But because Rask was square to Gelinas, he was in position to lay out and stuff Grigorenko’s rebound bid.
With two straight saves, Rask nullified Colorado’s threat. They were two of Rask’s 21 stops in a 2-0 win.
Through 15 appearances this season, Rask can be classified as unconscious. He is 11-4-0 with a 1.67 goals-against average and .938 save percentage. After slipping last season (31-22-8, 2.56 GAA, .915 save percentage), Rask is back atop the Everest of goaltending, the peak where Carey Price regularly plants his flag. During five-on-five play, Rask has a .948 save percentage, trailing only Devan Dubnyk, Price, and Corey Crawford.
Bob Essensa, the Bruins’ goaltending coach, has a theory to his student’s improvement. When coaches started teaching reverse VH, popularized by Jonathan Quick, several years ago, Rask was a natural at it. The entire package — lead pad on the ice, trail pad cocked at a 45-degree angle, shoulder jammed against the post, glove or blocker eliminating any short-side holes — came easily to Rask.
Because of his flawless technique, Rask’s post coverage rivaled that of any goalie in the league. He spent more time in his net than outside it, staying down on his pads and pushing from side to side.
The issue, however, was that Rask got locked in to reverse VH. It became his go-to move every time. That’s not always a good thing for goalies. Shooters rapidly develop books on goalies and their tendencies.
“The problem is he got married to it,” Essensa said. “Now, he becomes so predictable that teams try and take advantage of it.”
The problem wasn’t with Rask’s post coverage. He still gave shooters nothing on the strong side when he dropped into reverse VH. Rask preferred to tuck his lead pad inside the post to create an airtight seal.
The trouble was how Rask couldn’t transition from reverse VH into his next save as quickly as he would have liked. So if a would-be shooter snapped a cross-ice pass instead of putting the puck on net, Rask couldn’t get over in time to snuff an attempt on the other side of the ice.
“It became second nature to me, so I started doing it all the time,” Rask said of reverse VH. “Once you do it, when there’s a guy open, you can’t really get to the backdoor because you’re locked in to the guy with the puck. I don’t know if that’s too predictable or getting too comfortable, or trusting your D too much in a way that you don’t feel the necessity to be aware of that backdoor play at all.”
Last season, on April 3 against Chicago, when Artem Anisimov took the puck behind his net, Rask quickly went into reverse VH in anticipation of a strong-side jam. Rask stayed down, even as Torey Krug steered Anisimov out of the trapezoid and away from danger. Anisimov made a terrific move by backhanding a pass, a maneuver most goalies wouldn’t have anticipated, out front to Patrick Kane. Last season’s MVP beat Rask far side.
It took two excellent plays to beat Rask. But had the goalie been on his feet instead of on his pads in reverse VH, he would have been more square to Kane’s shot and possibly gotten a piece of the puck.
“As long as you can stay on your feet, the better it is,” Rask said. “Then you can move better sideways. It’s a read. There are still times where you can get exposed. But this year, it’s been a lot better because I haven’t been so predictable and I’ve been changing my seals.”
Staying on his feet and using regular VH when necessary — lead pad up, trail pad down — is the way Rask used to play. But the technique has required practice and concentration to resume. Reverse VH had become a habit. Those are not always easy to break.
“Being a little bit unpredictable so far has worked for him,” Essensa said. “His numbers have certainly gone up from where he was at this point last year. That is the biggest thing and the biggest improvement we’ve made in his game as a goaltending group.”
Rask still believes reverse VH is the best way to seal the post. The way he uses it, shooters don’t see any holes. But he’s become more selective when he uses it.
By staying on his skates, Rask cedes a strong-side opening or two but gives himself more options. The odds are in Rask’s favor that he’ll stop the first shot. He’s positioned better for a rebound or cross-crease pass. Because of his speed, Rask can get across quickly to stop one-timers or snap shots.
“When the shooter’s looking at you and you’re still on your feet, he’s got to make a decision whether to force that pass sideways or whether he’ll try to create a rebound with a shot,” Rask said. “You’re trying to get in his head in a way that he makes a bad decision.”
So far, the adjustment is working.
RISK WORTH TAKING
Sharks’ Burns a special case
Brent Burns will be 40 by the conclusion of his eight-year, $64 million extension. It is the definition of a risky contract because of the projected drop-off in his legs, which are the forward-turned-defenseman’s primary weapons in playing his singular game.
In comparison, the Jets struck a friendlier deal with Dustin Byfuglien, Burns’s only comparable, when they signed the mammoth defenseman to a five-year, $38 million extension. Byfuglien will be only 36 in the final season of his deal. Although Byfuglien may be fit to keep playing for another deal, there’s less risk involved than with Burns’s contract. Those last two years of Burns’s deal could be tough ones for the Sharks to handle.
All that said, the Sharks had little choice but to give Burns his payday. Had he reached unrestricted free agency, teams would have lined up to cede eight-year term and perhaps even more dough to Burns because of one simple market force: supply and demand.
“The word I use for him is unique,” general manager Doug Wilson told San Jose reporters following the signing. “You see his size, skill set, and shot, and how the game’s evolved, there’s not many players like that who can create offense from the back end but also defend well. He’s using his size to his advantage. The coaching staff’s done a real good job getting that out of him. I feel he’s coming into his prime. The World Cup experience was great for him. With expectations, I think it’s very realistic that he’ll continue to grow as a player.”
With Burns pushing for maximum term, the Sharks considered how other players have aged. They are intimate with two exceptions: Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, both 37 and still humming at high speed. Wilson also looked at Jaromir Jagr (44) and Marian Hossa (37). It may be a small sample size, but all of the aforementioned players are bigger than average.
“If you take a look at guys around the league playing at the high end, they’re big, strong people who’ve been healthy and love the game,” Wilson said.
Perhaps by the end of Burns’s extension, neither he nor Byfuglien will be the sport’s outliers. The cap requires every GM to exercise the most efficient maximization of roster assets. What hybrids such as Burns can offer is flexibility. While Burns is a defenseman, the Sharks can break glass in case of emergency and deploy him as a forward. Players understand this is the league’s reality. They will know their chances of making and staying on NHL rosters expand if they can give their bosses options.
So while San Jose had to pay up to extend Burns’s one-of-a-kind services, the price would have been lower had there been other choices in the player pool. As players continue to become bigger, stronger, and faster, they will see Burns as an example of someone who struck gold by being such a smooth-moving beast capable of playing multiple positions.
Adding some fun to boring drills
It is all well and good for youth hockey coaches to teach the basics. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Regardless of age, hockey players would rather be participating in competition than performing endless drills on edgework, positioning, and crossovers.
That’s why the good coaches practice deception.
On Nov. 19, during the Bruins’ coaching symposium, USA Hockey regional manager Roger Grillo led players from the Walpole Express through on-ice drills at Warrior Ice Arena. Grillo demonstrated how introducing competition to practice fools players into working on skills by making them believe they’re playing a game.
Grillo picked two players to play a game of tag around a bumper pad. Grillo introduced two parameters to the game. First, each player could only hold his stick with one hand. Second, their sticks had to stay in contact with the pad. As the two darted around the pad, engaged in what they considered a 20-second game of tag, something else was taking place. They were practicing edgework, changing directions, crossovers, stopping and starting, and making reads. Good luck to the coaches who try to get their kids to practice these things as standalone activities.
“They’re having fun. They’re competing,” Grillo said. “The intensity level goes up. So now I’m tricking them into doing some edgework.”
Some other tricks:
■ For teams missing a goalie, practicing on an empty net isn’t enough. Shooters slip into lazy habits of taking stoppable shots. Coaches should place empty cans high inside the netting for the players to hit. That way, they keep their heads up and lift pucks.
■ Players can start a drill with a non-hockey maneuver, such as a somersault or barrel roll. Kids think this is fun and will try to outdo each other. But it introduces athleticism into the drill. It’s not always easy to get back on your skates after a tumble. Practicing nontraditional moves helps.
■ Before going on for a change, players need to tag the hands of those coming off. This encourages the players finishing their shifts to engage in races. It reinforces the need to make swift changes instead of floating off the ice at the end of a shift.
Restrictions not worth the trouble
After an honest period of thinking, the only All-Star Game moments I can recall in the past decade are the following: the John Scott charade, the costume pageant featuring Patrick Kane (Superman) and Alex Ovechkin (weird Canadian guy), and Phil Kessel being picked last. That is, I remember nothing from the All-Star Games themselves — not a goal, not a save, and certainly not a body check. In other words, the All-Star Game is an empty-calorie treat, nothing to be taken seriously. Yet the NHL, in preparation for the 2017 version, built restrictions to make sure a Scott repeat doesn’t take place when the fans do their deed to vote in a fringe player. Under this year’s rules, players eligible for the All-Star Game have to be on an NHL active roster as of Nov. 1. If he’s assigned to the AHL or any other minor league team between Nov. 1 and Jan. 26, the player becomes ineligible. The All-Star Game is a punchline. There’s no need for the league to treat it so seriously.
Hamburglar appears to be done
Twenty-nine teams could have had Andrew Hammond for nothing. Instead, Hammond cleared waivers Monday, indicating what the rest of the league considers the 28-year-old: an AHL goalie. It was the book on Hammond both before and after he went on a one-of-a-kind tear in 2014-15. That season, Hammond went 20-1-2 to propel the Senators into the playoffs and knock the Bruins out of the top eight. The Hamburglar became a sensation because of his hot streak, even prompting some Ottawa fans to chuck burgers onto the ice after wins. But goalie watchers believed Hammond was the beneficiary of good fortune, considering his vanilla pedigree as a four-year collegian at Bowling State and two more seasons of AHL data. Hammond’s small-sample performance was enough to sell the Senators on a three-year, $4.05 million extension. He has not lived up to his contract. Last season, Hammond went 7-11-4 with a 2.65 GAA and .914 save percentage as Craig Anderson’s backup. This year, a groin injury put Hammond on the shelf at the same time as Anderson took leave upon his wife’s cancer diagnosis. Mike Condon, acquired from Pittsburgh for a 2017 fifth-rounder, has outperformed Hammond. Anderson is back with the team. Which leaves Hammond on the outs, most likely for good.
When it comes to right-side defensemen, it’s a close race between St. Louis (Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko, Kevin Shattenkirk) and Winnipeg (Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers, Jacob Trouba). All six are good at moving pucks, joining the rush, and contributing in the offensive zone. Shattenkirk, a pending unrestricted free agent, is due for a raise, although it’s unlikely it will come with the Blues . . . Injuries to Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad have forced Florida coach Gerard Gallant to lean on Vincent Trocheck. Through 20 games, Trocheck was averaging 20:46 of ice time. That’s three minutes more than he logged per game last season . . . Traditional shot blockers are big, rugged, stay-at-home defensemen. Kris Russell, Dan Girardi, and Erik Johnson are among the best in the business. One exception is Erik Karlsson, the lanky puck-moving wizard. Karlsson blocked a game-high eight shots against the Bruins on Thursday, giving him 53 blocks through 19 games, one off the pace of league leader Mark Giordano. Part of this is because of Karlsson’s high ice time and Ottawa’s tendency to cede possession more than control it. But Karlsson has mastered the maneuver of blocking a shot, finding the puck quickly, and going immediately on the counterattack. Nobody moves the puck like Karlsson.
The Lightning will be missing the injured Steven Stamkos (torn lateral meniscus) for a few months, but they’re used to pushing on without him. This is the third time in four seasons that the high-scoring center has faced a lengthy injury-related break, and Tampa Bay got along fine without him the previous two instances.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.