Nearly 20 years ago, Kevin Weekes and goaltending coach Sudarshan Maharaj rented some ice time at a Toronto arena with a Chinese food buffet above them and worked on the fundamentals of the position.
It took Weekes’ game to a new level and he was reminded of the extra work as he watches these unusual NHL playoffs. Goaltenders are putting on a clinic in the crease, combining for a .922 save percentage through 66 games, up from .910 in the regular season and .916 in the playoffs last year.
”It’s as if they’ve had the opportunity to go to goalie school right before playoffs start,” said Weekes, an NHL goalie for 11 seasons who is now an NHL Network analyst. ”I’ve heard several guys tell me that they feel like their focus is even sharper.”
The improvement can be traced to a combination of things: Goalies had time to recuperate after the season was called off in March. They were able to practice on fundamentals before the playoffs began. And they are playing in empty arenas without distractions, with all due respect to the lights and music from the NHL production staffs in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta.
Little if any ability to sharpen specialized skills while quarantined threatened to put goalies at a disadvantage when the season resumed with 24 teams in the playoffs – and eight of them facing elimination right away. Suddenly, every save mattered after months of not being able to put on gear, let alone face live shots.
”It was really tough,” Dallas goaltender Anton Khudobin said. ”I was going to the gym and stuff like that. I was working off the ice. But I wasn’t able to find the ice in my city at that time because everything was on quarantine and was closed. Me and my coach back home, he found a way how we’re gonna work and I only skated on the ice just a little bit, only five times.”
Getting back on the ice for voluntary workouts and training camp allowed netminders to get back to the basics. There have been fewer bad goals allowed and more stellar performances from the likes of Montreal’s Carey Price, Columbus’ Joonas Korpisalo, Arizona’s Darcy Kuemper and Calgary’s Cam Talbot.
There have already been 12 shutouts through 66 games after just nine the entire 2019 playoffs (87 games).
”It’s amazing the goaltending that’s been played so far,” said Kirk Muller, who has taken over for Claude Julien coaching Price and the Canadiens 27 years after winning the Stanley Cup with goaltender Patrick Roy.
”If there’s one area that if someone said you could make a comparison of when we played and today’s game, I’d say the most improved obviously is goaltending: the teaching, these guys now, they’re in such great shape, they’re athletic, they’re competitive and they’re big,” Muller said. ”It’s difficult to score on these goalies today.”
Two coaches who have successfully rotated goalies in the playoffs have different theories on why that is.
Peter DeBoer, who coached New Jersey to the Cup Final in 2012 with Martin Brodeur and San Jose there in 2016 with Martin Jones, knows goalies have more energy than usual in this situation. That was on display when his Vegas Golden Knights put up 49 shots and lost because of Chicago’s Corey Crawford.
”A lot of these guys come playoff time have already got 50, 60 games under their belt of wear and tear, and you’ve got a bunch of healthy goalies out there right now that are ready to play,” DeBoer said. ”We’ve played enough games now they’ve got their timing down, so they’re getting better every day.”
Carolina’s Rod Brind’Amour thinks defense is outpacing offense after a long layoff and that playmakers are a little rusty. Still, he marvels at the play in net around the league and what the Hurricanes’ Petr Mrazek and James Reimer have done after committing to adjustments before training camp.
”I know our guys put in a lot of work,” Brind’Amour said. ”Especially in that pause, I think Reimer picked up his game where maybe a lot of guys would have not. He found a way to get better.”
No fans may help, too. The sight lines aren’t much different than normal, but the tarps put in place by the NHL over the empty seats in the lower bowls of the arenas allow for uniformity in vision and might even make it easier to see.
”Once the game starts, I haven’t really noticed there’s no crowd there,” Kuemper said. ”It’s only between the pauses and the anthem and things like that that you really notice the empty building.”
Cup-winning St. Louis goalie Jordan Binnington compared it to being inside a video game. Washington’s Braden Holtby enjoys that the lack of noise allows him to hear more. Philadelphia’s Carter Hart, who shut out Montreal on Sunday night, praised the NHL for transforming the arena with video screens and those tarps to make it feel more full.
Weekes said he loved to play in front of crowds from the time he was a kid to when he hung up his pads for good. Absent the energy of that, the goaltending fraternity has become ”more lasered in” without the risk of outside distractions.
”When the puck drops, you don’t even think about it,” Korpisalo said. ”There’s one thing and one thing only: I try to stop the puck.”