I’ve been a bit… preoccupied of late. I’ve been watching the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs and have been far too consumed with wins, losses, and playoff beard growth to write anything coherent. The playoffs are not quite over, tomorrow we’ll be playing Game 6 of the Finals, but before then, I’d like to share some thoughts.
Roberto Luongo is stealing the Stanley Cup Finals.
Specifically, I’d like to talk about goaltending. As a hockey fan and hockey player who relatively late in life at 29, took up goaltending, I have a rather keen perspective on the game both from the perspective of an average, knowledgeable hockey fan who knows little about goaltending, but also from the perspective of a goalie. Let me tell you, from the new perspective, the game has not been the same.
It is from this perspective that I’ve been watching this years’ playoffs. With this added insight, an insight which few hockey fans ever have a chance to attain, one which I certainly didn’t have until taking up the position, I’ve had to listen to thousands (millions?) of sportswriters and Canucks fans, both casual and die-hard, decry our goaltending from their comfortably ignorant perspectives.
At times it’s as if we are watching two different games, but it’s clear to me that Roberto Luongo is stealing the Stanley Cup Finals.
Someday I’ll write-up an in-depth exposé on the cult of goaltending, an outsider’s view of the quirky and arcane art of what some call ‘the hardest position in sport’. After which I always add ‘to play well’.
For now though, let’s save that for later. Let’s stick with a few high-level goaltending concepts which may seem foreign at first, which you may not even believe, but which are indeed true and absolutely essential in understanding the position.
Once we establish a common level of understanding about goaltending, and if we can all agree on these points, at least for the duration of this post, then we can all look at Luongo’s play during the Canucks’ 2011 Stanley Cup run to date from about the same perspective. I think that will be helpful.
Key Concepts in Goaltending
Point 1: All saves are percentage plays
This point could also be called: What looks like a great save isn’t always (and vice versa). You know the save where the goalie dives across the net and plucks the puck out of mid-air with his paddle? Like this save that Ray Emery makes in Game 6 of the 2011 Ducks-Predators series.
That’s a good save, but not a great save. Ray Emery did an excellent job of filling space, knowing instinctually that the shot was probably going high, and throwing stick to the middle of the net. That’s an example of great battle, good instincts, and of never giving up on the puck, but that’s where the skill leaves off and the luck takes over.
That save was maybe a 5-percenter. With everything Emery did (and he did a lot), he gave himself about a 5% chance of stopping the puck. Had he done less, the percentages would have been even lower, but he was pretty good on that one. In that situation, 5% of the time the goalie stops the puck by making that save-attempt, but the other 95% of the time, even if the goalie does *exactly* the same thing, it results in a goal. The goalie certainly doesn’t get any credit on those goals that go in, and definitely gets too much credit for the ones that are stopped.
Don’t get me wrong, the goalie is proud of that save, but he knows that it looked better than it really was, that after he did what he could, it was purely a function of luck that the shooter hit where Emery put his stick. The goalie also knows that if it went in, nobody would have cared about the identically impressive save-attempt he made.
Contrast the above save with the following stick save by Tim Thomas in Game 5 of the 2011 Bruins-Lightning series:
Now that is an amazing save. Did you catch the difference? Many might see the Emery save as far more spectacular (which it was) and come to the conclusion that it was far better (which it wasn’t). Where Emery simply threw his stick where he hoped the puck would go and got lucky, Thomas was able to actually react to the shot and tailor his save to it. Thomas displayed the same great battle, instincts, and ‘sticktoitiveness’ that Emery did, but he was also able to add the extra reaction to the puck. Thomas’ save-action was still a fairly low percentage save, but he was able to rely a little bit less on luck to make it.
While spectacular examples of both, Emery’s save was a Blocking Save, and Thomas’ was a Reaction Save. And that leads to my next point.
Point 2: Some shots can’t be stopped
The differences between Blocking and Reaction saves are huge, and telling them apart is sometimes difficult. A Reaction Save is one where the goalie has time to react to the puck and make his save accordingly. A Blocking Save is one where the goalie does not have time to react to the shot and simply chooses the best place to put his body/gloves/stick at the time of the shot, or just before, in order to get the highest percentage of a save.
Often the goalie doesn’t have the luxury of a Reaction Save and will have to use a Blocking Save. Such was the case for Emery’s save. In that situation, he had no chance to react to the shot and had to, for lack of a better word, ‘guess’ and simply fill space.
Of course not all saves are as spectacular as the above. Far more often the goaltender is in position, between the puck and the net, and therefore has a far higher percentage of a save, whether it be Reaction or Blocking.
Take for example the following two saves by Roberto Luongo in Game 5 of the 2011 Canucks-Bruins Stanley Cup Finals. Watch carefully and see if you can tell whether each save is a Blocking Save or a Reaction Save.
So what did you think? Were each Reaction or Blocking? You heard Craig Simpson, colour commentator for Hockey Night in Canada, call the first save off the deflection a “positional save” (blocking) and the second save off the rebound a “reactive save”.
Well, Simpson holds true to form in that half of what he said was completely wrong. In reality, both were Blocking Saves.
The first save was off a deflection of a shot that was going well wide, and fortunately for Canucks fans the puck was deflected directly into the crest on Luongo’s jersey. The time between when it was deflected and when it hit Luongo’s chest was about 0.22s. While that is more than the possible human reaction time to press a button, it is far too little time to react and move a limb more than an whisker’s breath, to say nothing of picking up a new puck trajectory between the two actions. On such a scoring chance, if the deflection is aimed for open net, the puck is going in.
Had he shot at empty net, instead of at Luongo, he would have scored. It would have been an unstoppable shot.
The second save, the one Craig Simpson called a “reactive save” was not a Reaction Save, it was also a Blocking Save. For that one, the puck had bounced off Luongo before he had a chance to try to contain the rebound and it landed in the slot directly on Bergeron’s stick. Bergeron shot it and 0.20s later it hit Luongo’s blocker. If you go through frame by frame, you can see that Luongo starts his Blocking Save action before the puck is shot.
That’s not to diminish the save that Luongo made. If you watch carefully, the puck bounced to Luongo’s right, and he was out of position for the shot, he wasn’t directly between the puck and the centre of the net. As a result, and because his instincts are excellent, Luongo varied up his standard butterfly Blocking Save to focus more on his right side and higher up, as he felt that that is where the shot was going. Importantly though, he did this before reacting to the actual shot, it was a Blocking Save.
Luongo did just about all a goalie could do for that second shot, but it was still a relatively low percentage save. If you pause the video just as the puck hits Luongo’s blocker, you’ll see that Bergeron had quite a bit of net to shoot at (slightly less from the puck’s-eye view than is shown from the camera’s-eye view, but that’s a topic for another time).
Had he shot at empty net, instead of at Luongo, he would have scored. It would have been an unstoppable shot. Of course that wouldn’t have stopped many people from crucifying Luongo for not saving it.
Why did Luongo start the Blocking Save just before the shot? For the same reason all goalies do. Because he knew that the shooter was in too close, with a proper shot coming, and that he would have had no time to react to it. In such a case, all the goalie can do is block as much of the net as possible. As the position has evolved, the ‘butterfly technique’ (goalie kneeling with pads flared wide, gloves sitting atop pads) has come to the fore as the most effective blocking save technique, it covers the most amount of net, especially down low where still the vast majority of pucks are directed.
Before a shot is taken, the goalie is constantly assessing how close the shooter is and how fast a shot they can expect at the given moment. The goalie has to factor this constantly on the fly, and the moment a shot is imminent, he has to decide between making a Reaction Save and a Blocking Save.
Excellent goalies, like all those who play in the NHL, factor in a staggering number of variables to assess how fast a shot they may be expecting and where it may be going, factors such as the skill of the player, what hand they shoot with, how the shooter is handling the puck (forehand, backhand, in front, etc), whether the puck is bouncing, whether the shooter has defensive pressure or not, etc.
The key takeaway from this point is that, as the shooter gets closer to the goal, and as his ability to get off a quality shot improves, that shooter will pass a threshold where the goalie can no longer react to the puck and has to make a Blocking Save. Sometimes, if the shot is very fast, this can be as far away as the high-slot. And since all Blocking Saves can be beat by simply shooting where the goalie is not, if a shooter can get in tight, has time and space to get off a good shot, and his aim is true, it will be an unstoppable shot.
The next time you see a goal appear to go right past the goalie without him reacting, ask yourself whether it was actually a stoppable shot. Sometimes you’ll see that the goalie had no chance at all.
Point 3: You can’t stop pucks without good Defense
This point naturally follows from the above two, without good Defense, a goalie has no chance against even half-decent shooters. If a shooter can walk uncontested into the mid-slot and fire an incredibly weak 60mph wrist-shot, the goalie has under 0.2 seconds to react and move a glove or pad in front of the puck. That’s not enough at all and the goalie knows this. If the shooter is anywhere near that close and has time to shoot, the goalie makes a Blocking Save and hopes for the best. If the shooter can hit the corner, he will score every time. Obviously without good defense, these sort of scoring chances materialize more and more often, and NHL shooters will not miss many of them.
In the Bruins-Lightning series both goalies played just as well, but without their airtight Defense, they were ventilated.
If the goalie has good defensive support, not only will it dramatically reduce these golden scoring opportunities, but he can also come out further to a shot. Doing this will cause the puck to ‘see’ far less open net, making it much more difficult to pick a corner on him, even with an uncontested shot.
Tim Thomas is an excellent example of this. He frequently comes well outside the crease to make his saves. Because he is so much closer to the shooter, he fills a much larger part of the net, and therefore it is incredibly hard to both miss Thomas and hit the net with a shot. Of course, that added first-shot coverage comes at a price in that it is much harder to get back in position for a rebound. Fortunately for Thomas, he is an excellent skater and can reposition himself quite quickly, diving if necessary to get back in his net on a quick second shot.
However, because he challenges the shooter so much by skating out of his crease, Thomas is susceptible to lateral plays. He relies on his Defense to prevent those plays, and only resorts to the relatively low-percentage, but always amazing diving save on occasion.
Without that vigilance from his Defense, Thomas would not fare nearly as well. It is no coincidence that Thomas’ outstanding numbers started the year Claude Julien took over the head coaching job in Boston and brought in his airtight defensive system.
And one needs look no further than the recent 2011 Bruins-Lightning series for a perfect example of this symbiotic relationship between goaltender and defense. In this series many of the games turned into track-meets, with both teams abandoning the incredibly tight defensive play they had demonstrated in the first two rounds in favour of trading scoring chances on the rush. Both Thomas and Dwayne Roloson had put up incredible numbers before that series, but both goalies were absolutely lit up when their Defensive system stopped defending as hard.
Many blame the goaltenders of course, they see 5 or 6 goals go in and immediately assume that the goalie had an off night, but this isn’t necessarily the case, and wasn’t really for the Bruins-Lightning series. A goalie playing his same game at the same ‘compete’ level can, depending on defensive support, either get a shutout or get lit up for a touch-down. The reverse is certainly true, a goalie can have an off night behind stellar defense and let in few or no goals. The fact is that the number of goals scored is not a good indicator of the quality of goaltending.
Thomas and Roloson had played extraordinarily throughout the playoffs behind excellent defense. As a result, they had been putting up incredible stats. In the Bruins-Lightning series both goalies played just as well, but without their airtight Defense, they were ventilated.
Now that we have a bit better common ground, we can look at Luongo’s goaltending with a more analytical eye. Roberto Luongo has been a polarizing figure around the league and especially in Vancouver. A great many people love him for his play and his leadership on and off the ice. Perhaps just as many hate him though, with the reasons cited most often that he is overrated, that he has never accomplished anything major, that the fans cheer his name when he touches the puck, or that he has Italian heritage and otherwise looks ‘ethnic’, what with his darker skin, heavy beard, and ‘oily hair’.
While I don’t think much needs to be said about the criticism of Luongo’s racial stock, it is worthwhile to consider the critique of his body of work.
It is widely agreed upon in the hockey world that Luongo will always bear the lion’s share of the blame when the Canucks lose, and little or no credit for when the Canucks win. In recent years this has become a fairly common theme in analyzing a team’s success, but Luongo’s case is certainly the most extreme example, with his performance held up to the greatest of double standards.
The Vancouver 2010 Olympics
The general reaction to and conventional wisdom about Luongo’s play during the Olympics serve as an excellent example of the double-standard that he faces. After starting the tournament and posting an easy shutout against an overmatched Team Norway, Luongo drew backup-goalie duty for Martin Brodeur, who was to lead Team Canada to gold. Unfortunately, Brodeur looked a bit shaky, posting a 3-2 shoot-out win against Switzerland and a 5-3 loss against a strong Team USA.
It is forgotten that Brodeur looked decidedly poor behind that same Team Canada.
After Brodeur’s very un-Brodeur-like play, Luongo got the start in the single-elimination medal playoffs. Luongo played very well, and racked up another four straight wins on the path to Gold.
However, a prevailing feeling among much of the sports world is that Luongo was more of a passenger on the team, that he played well because the team in front of him was so good, and that Team Canada won despite Luongo rather than in-part because of Luongo. While, as we’ve seen, much of a goaltender’s play relies upon a strong team in front of him, it is forgotten that Brodeur looked decidedly poor behind that same Team Canada.
Fifteen seconds elapse between Luongo’s incredible save and The Golden Goal, but people only remember that ‘Luongo let in the tying goal late.’
Added criticism on Luongo’s 5-0 Gold Medal winning performance was levied against USA’s tying goal with 24 seconds to go in the Gold Medal game, that goal coming off a rebound that bounced straight onto Parise’s stick. Forgotten or ignored was the fact that the rebound came came off the great save of a very dangerous pinball-deflection.
And little or no hey was made about the incredible save Luongo made against Pavol Demitra with 9 seconds left in the 3-2 win over Slovakia in the semi-final, helping Team Canada get to the Gold Medal game in the first place.
Nor did Luongo get much recognition for his incredibly tough, and somewhat lucky, elbow-save off of Joe Pavelski’s top corner shot, after Scott Niedermayer coughed it up to him directly in front of Luongo. After that save, instead of freezing it, Luongo played it to Niedermayer, who passed it to Crosby, who then did a give-and-go with Iginla to score The Golden Goal.
Fifteen seconds elapse between Luongo’s incredible save and The Golden Goal, but people only remember that ‘Luongo let in the tying goal late.’ This sort of selective memory regarding Roberto Luongo’s play is not limited only to best-on-best international play, it happens during the NHL regular season and Stanley cup playoffs.
The 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs
Luongo’s playoff history appears shaky to most, but an experienced eye can see his game has been solid throughout most of his Stanley Cup Playoff career. While he did play poorly against Chicago in Game 6 of their 2009 series, much of that series was fraught with defensive breakdowns by the Canucks. As a whole, they did not play well enough to win, Luongo was not the reason for the loss.
A similar story was told in 2010 when the Canucks were again defeated by the Blackhawks. Once again, Vancouver’s defensive play was dreadful, this time due in no-small part by the fact that it was riddled with injuries and the call-ups were more of a liability than a hole in the roster would have been. In 2010, Luongo was lit up, but did not play nearly as poorly as the scoreboard might indicate.
This year, familiar shades again haunted the Canucks. After dashing out to a 3-0 series lead against Chicago, the Canucks decided not to play the next two games. Luongo was hung out to dry in the worst way, many of the goals coming off complete defensive breakdowns by the entire team. Like the following goal by Duncan Kieth in which he was able to walk across the mid-slot and wire a slap-shot top-corner. No goalie can be expected to make that save.
In no way should that chance not be buried by the shooter, yet because it came 17 seconds after Chicago’s 2-1 goal, Luongo looked bad in the minds of almost everybody.
That 2-1 goal 17s previous? It was scored by Brian Campbell, who received a quick cross-ice pass from Kane and was able to skate uncontested toward the net and lean into a top-corner snap-shot from inside the face-off dot. Once again, Luongo had no chance on a golden scoring opportunity and an excellent play by Kane and Campbell. Luongo did everything exactly right on that save-attempt, he slid across and got square to the shooter and was perfect in his Blocking Save, but it was still a 75% or so save play, if the shooter hits the corner, he will score.
It was universally agreed that the Canucks played absolutely dreadfully in Games 4 and 5 of the 2011 Vancouver-Chicago series, but still, the talk was about how poor Luongo was, even on shots which he had little or no chance of a save.
Leading up to the Stanley Cup Finals, and aside from Games 4 and 5 of the Chicago series, Luongo’s numbers had been excellent. Sports wags and fans were coming around to accepting his stellar play.
There was talk of how eerily similar Game 7 against Chicago was to the 2010 Gold Medal game, but this time recognition was being given to Luongo for his save on Patrick Sharp in overtime. This save was functionally almost identical to the Campbell 2-1 goal, a 75% or so play where Luongo again slid across beautifully in a Blocking Save position, but where Sharp shot into Luongo, instead of hitting the top corner. On similar save-actions, Luongo did his job, on the first he was the goat, and on the second he was the hero. Those who understand goaltending know that he was very good on both plays with the difference coming down to the shooter.
The Stanley Cup Finals
After doing much heavy lifting in, if not downright stealing, Games 4 and 5 against San Jose in order to send the Canucks to the Finals, after getting a shut-out against Boston in Game 1, and after coming up big in an OT win in Game 2, there was actually talk among sports analysts about Luongo winning the Conn Smythe as the Most Valuable Player in the playoffs.
That’s when things went all kinds of sideways. After going up 2-0 against Boston, and as with the 3-0 series lead against Chicago, Vancouver perhaps was guilty of over-confidence. Whatever the reason though, as with the Chicago series, Vancouver decided not to show up for Games 3 and 4 in Boston.
Right now Roberto Luongo is angry, he has something to prove, and he is very dangerous.
Once again, it was generally agreed upon that the Canucks were absolutely dreadful across most, if not all, aspects of their game, and especially defensively, but once again, almost all focus was on how ‘poorly’ Luongo played.
Not from all people of course. Some, a relatively silent minority, have had confidence in Luongo. Some with blind faith in him, knowing or hoping that he would see the Canucks through. Others, having watched the games carefully and witnessed the golden scoring opportunities that were gifted to Boston throughout Games 3 and 4, knew that, while Luongo was not perfect, he couldn’t be held accountable for most of the goals that were put past him. They knew that the team’s dreadful performances in Boston could not be laid at the feet of Roberto Luongo, and they knew that no goalie in the world could have prevented blow-outs in those two games.
However true though, that’s not the story that was told. That’s not the reality for the vast majority who laid the blame at Luongo’s feet.
After being unfairly maligned by the media and fans, after being taunted with questions about his home crowd cheering after he was mercy-pulled in Game 4, Luongo would be rightly justified in feeling as if he were left standing alone in the spotlight, on trial for crimes he did not commit, with the whole world against him.
Luongo made a statement when he smashed his stick to the ice in defiance after being named first star for his 1-0 shutout in Game 5. Right now Roberto Luongo is angry, he has something to prove, and he is very dangerous.
The Canucks have scored 6 goals in 5 Stanley Cup Final games, yet they are leading the series 3-2. That shouldn’t be the case. That can’t have been the case without Roberto Luongo.
Most of the faithful knew then and know now, after his outstanding performance in Game 5, that Luongo has a history of excellent play, of stepping up and playing incredibly in some of the biggest games imaginable. We had faith in Luongo, and we hoped that the rest of the team would show up in front of him, completing the team that we had seen play so very well all year.
Whether or not they are Canucks fans, and whether or not they have faith that Luongo can win the Stanley Cup with and for his team, all followers of this year’s Stanley Cup Finals would be well served to take note that Roberto Luongo is stealing the series.
The Canucks have scored 6 goals in 5 Stanley Cup Final games, yet they are leading the series 3-2. That shouldn’t be the case. That can’t have been the case without Roberto Luongo.
One More Win
Going into Game 6 on Monday, I know that Roberto Luongo will be ready, and I’m hopeful that the Canucks will show up and play their game. When they do, they are nearly unbeatable. If we can’t manage a win in Game 6, I am confident that Roberto will save one more game at home for us.
As a Canuck fan, I have confidence going into Game 6. I believe in the talented group of men that have been fighting all year, fighting for each other and for us fans. I believe in the heart that our players have consistently shown, abandoning any sense of self in order to always put the team first. I believe in the Canucks.
I believe in Luongo.
The debate on whether or not the goalie should be 'fair game' when he leaves his crease was recently rekindled in spectacular fashion when Boston Bruins forward hit Buffalo Sabres goaltender during their game on November 12th. It was a relatively common play that developed at about the two-thirds mark of the first period: Lucic and Miller were each racing for the puck, Miller getting there first, swatting it
As the 2010-2011 NHL Regular Season draws to a close, fans of the Vancouver Canucks have a lot to cheer for. Vancouver's 40th anniversary in the NHL has been a superlative year in most respects, the team smashing club record after club record, winning for the first time the President's Trophy by finishing as the best team in the league, and perhaps most importantly, being the odds-on favourite to win