You’ve seen it a million times. A player takes a routine shot. The goalie goes down on his knees even during the windup. The puck sails into the net over his glove. “What the...!!” you say to yourself. If the goalie had only stood there, just DONE NOTHING, the puck would have hit him in the chest and he would have made an easy save. Instead, it’s 1-0.
Goalies call it the butterfly position because they stand square to the shooter with knees together and skates apart, allowing them, in theory, to go down and back up as quickly as possible while covering more of the most important part of the net, the lower half. But in truth, it is an evermore frustrating strategy that can leave a fan fuming when a goalie gives up a goal which a netminder 25 years ago would have stopped without the slightest effort.
If Ryan Miller had stayed on his feet, stick on the ice, on Sidney Crosby’s overtime shot...
What went wrong? And, why?
First, a little history. When the NHL first opened its doors in 1917, goalies were not allowed to fall to the ice at all. If they did, they’d get a minor penalty. (And worse, they’d have to serve it themselves, but that’s another story!) But it became clear that playing goal was about maintaining balance, losing balance and falling, re-gaining balance. Surprising a goalie with a deke or fake could cause him to fall, and making saves often required a goalie to fall. The rule was tossed into the shredder with anachronistic relief.
Goalies in the Original Six were bare-faced crazies who tried to maintain a solid position in the net. This meant pads together, glove out to the left, right arm bent so the stick could lay flat on the ice. Tony Esposito was the first goalie to change this. He liked the butterfly style and was, of course, very good at it, but when he’d allow a goal through the five-hole, Hawks fans would get upset. “If he just kept his pads closed like every other goalie, he would have made a save any ten-year-old could make.”
Most goalies still kept pads together and staying on their feet as their style throughout the 1970s and into the ‘80s, though. The big change, the one that persists to this day, began with Patrick Roy, he of the over-sized equipment and heroic goaltending for Montreal in 1986 and 1993. He had a goalie coach named François Allaire. Together, they created a philosophy around shooters and habits and determined that the overwhelming majority of goals came on low shots. Take away the lower part of the net, and those goals become saves.
Of course, Roy perfected the butterfly and had a hall of fame career using the technique (not to mention a size 146 sweater or something, but that, too, is another story), but shooters aren’t stupid. They see goalies going down instinctively, as if to say, “I know you’re going to shoot low even before the puck has left your stick,” and the players counter with, “if you go down instinctively, I’ll shoot high instinctively.”
Of course, it’s much easier to shoot the puck along the ice than to the top corners. Just ask any six-year-old. But with time and practice, players have become so good at shooting high that the goalie no longer has an advantage merely by taking away the lower part of the net prima facie. And, as Crosby proved with Miller, even when the goalie does go down, if he doesn’t go down quickly enough, or isn’t positionally perfect when he does so, there is still space in the five hole.
But here’s the frustrating part. A player can react in the blink of an eye and change direction to avoid a check, or cut and dart to make a deke during the heat of action. A coach can change lines in an instant, react to game situations as they’re happening to adjust his matchups or re-think his strategy. So why does a goalie have to be so predictable and use the same style not just for minutes of a game but for years of his career?
This is what made Dominik Hasek such a great goalie. He contravened both the old-fashioned style of pads together, stick on ice and the new butterfly to such an extent that HE was the one shooters didn’t know what to expect from, rather than the other way around. After all, a goalie’s greatest dilemma is always to figure out where the shooter is aiming (or, where the puck is going – ask any shinny player – the two are not always the same!).
But shooters could never figure out what Hasek was going to do. Sometimes he stood there like a statue; sometimes he twisted and tumbled like the Tasmanian Devil. He could stop a high shot with his glove on one play, and his pad on the next.
Goalies must learn to react more to times and circumstance. Goals today are scored by high shots, by passes to the back side, by one timers on passes east-west rather than north-south. If a goalie today had to nerve to say to himself, “I’m going to stay on my feet the whole game,” he would have more pucks hit him and would make more saves than all the butterflying and splits and dancing in the crease in the world.
The truth is that players now always try to shoot high. A smart goalie would stand there and take the TOP half of the net away these days. Sure, he’ll let a few more low shots get by him, but he’ll prevent many more goals up high. Times change, players adjust. Let’s see a few more goalies adjust right back. Fans deserve a little peace of mind.