NHL goalies do best to prepare for unexpected, unpredictable

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — NHL goaltenders prepare for the unexpected and unpredictable, ready for pucks deflecting off sticks, bodies, feet or even a divot in the ice past all the gear designed to help defend their net.

The freaky, fluky or simply weird goals can be laughed off by goalies who know sometimes the puck just takes a funny bounce.

The goals that eat away at a goalie are those he believes he could’ve – and should’ve – stopped. Not the goal allowed by Dallas goalie Anton Khudobin where the puck bounced off a Nashville forward’s back and over the net before hitting the back of the goalie’s helmet, then off his back and into the net.

”It stings anytime you give up a goal,” Predators goalie Pekka Rinne said Tuesday. ”That kind of goal, there’s nothing really he could’ve done. It’s a freaky goal, and I feel like those things maybe happen once, twice in a season. But yeah, the ones that hurt the most as a goalie, it’s the ones that you feel like you should’ve had it.”

Stick-handling in the NHL has improved right along with players’ speed and skating thanks to offseason workouts. That also has boosted the creativity for shooters looking to do a bit more than a simple slap shot, wrister or snap shot.

”There’s a lot of talent in the league, more maybe so now than there has been in years past,” Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog said. ”These young guys coming up, everybody has their own skills coaches and things like that. There’s a lot of skills. I don’t doubt there’s more highlight-reel goals.”

Goaltenders have to be ready for the next move dreamed up by the league’s stars to put the puck over the line. Scoring is up with the average number of goals scored per game increasing in each of the past four seasons, and the current average of 3.06 goals per game is on pace to be the highest since the 2005-06 season, according to Hockey-Reference.com

”Maybe it’s the skill of the players too, finding that one spot,” Colorado goalie Philipp Grubauer said. ”(Evgeny) Kuznetsov in Washington, he’s so sneaky in terms of what he wants to do and doesn’t want to do. He puts the puck in spots. Maybe you get a weird bounce, hit a guy’s shin pad or something like that.”

The NHL also keeps downsizing goaltenders’ pads, most recently chest protectors . Grubauer sees teams also changing how they break out on offense, attacking faster and giving goalies less time.

”Back in the days, you always used to go back and regroup and break out as a unit,” Grubauer said. ”I feel like the last couple of years, it’s always like, (snaps fingers) and up (snaps fingers) and up.”

Sometimes goalies get lucky, too.

Buffalo goalie Carter Hutton appeared to be losing his balance Sunday in the first period against Winnipeg with Adam Lowry coming in on a short-handed breakaway. Hutton put his glove down at the exact moment Lowry tried to slip the puck between the goalie’s legs for the save.

”You definitely get some fluky saves where you’re beat and a guy just hits you,” Hutton said.

The Sabres goalie also recalls being on his goal line when the puck came up, rolled over the top of the net, hit his neck and went in. He had another puck slip past him on a penalty shot in December against Florida.

”You make the initial save, and it lands on my pads sideways and just slowly rolls off,” Hutton said. ”That’s one where if it’s during a game, a D-man’s probably there to stop it or that puck lands flat on my pad and doesn’t go in. It’s unfortunate that it lands sideways and rolls off my pad. So that’s one that I would say this year that’s been fluky.”

There’s one goal so weird it’s called the Butt Goal.

Defenseman Mark Pysyk, now with Florida, got his first goal of the 2013 season right before Christmas in overtime after jamming at the puck, sending it into the air and into the pants of Coyotes goalie Mike Smith who then backed into his own net.

”I didn’t think they would call it a goal, because I didn’t think they’d see it, but they did,” Pysyk said. ”It was in his pants and he backed in. I think you could see me point at it. They counted it a little bit after, obviously, so I didn’t have a chance to celebrate normally. It was pretty funny.”

SURPRISING ISLANDERS

The New York Islanders are atop the Metropolitan Division in coach Barry Trotz’s first season despite losing John Tavares last offseason to Toronto. They just snapped a three-game streak Tuesday night with a 3-1 loss in Buffalo but are 6-2-2 in their last 10 games and remain second overall in the Eastern Conference.

To Buffalo coach Phil Housley, credit Trotz using the same philosophy and structure from coaching in Nashville and winning the Stanley Cup with Washington last summer.

”I really had a pleasure to work with him for one year and learned a lot from him,” Housley said. ”You can see he’s had success wherever he’s went.”

RIVALRY SERIES

The best of women’s hockey are back at it this week with the United States and Canada playing each other in a rare three-game ”Rivalry Series” that ends Sunday in Detroit at the home of the Red Wings. The U.S. beat Canada nearly a year ago for Olympic gold and then won a fourth straight Four Nations Cup title last November. Kendall Coyne Schofield will be the U.S. captain for the series, which will be aired on NHL Network.

”That’s something we’ve been fighting for, is more chances for us to play against Canada,” U.S. forward Dani Cameranesi said. ”It’s not that often that we get to play at the highest level. We don’t really have that many chances for that, but for them all to be … on NHL Network too and for us to get coverage on that is a really big deal.”

GAME OF THE WEEK

The Washington Capitals visit the San Jose Sharks on Thursday night in a matchup of two of the NHL’s top 10 teams.

LEADERS (after Monday games)

Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 38; Assists: Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay), 60; Points: Kucherov, 84; Ice time: Drew Doughty (Los Angeles), 26:45; Wins: Marc-Andre Fleury (Vegas), 29; Goals-against average: Robin Lehner (N.Y. Islanders), 2.05; Save percentage: Robin Lehner, (N.Y. Islanders), .930.

Sabres goalies need to shake off tough month

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When the Buffalo Sabres look back on this season, they may consider January the month that broke their playoff hopes — or the month they survived.

Things certainly haven’t been easy lately, and you can see the strain most clearly in the way Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark have struggled.

Before the calendar hit 2019, Hutton went 13-11-3 with a .916 save percentage, while Ullmark managed an 8-1-3 record and .922 save percentage. Things went sideways in January, however:

Ullmark: 2-3-0, .893 save percentage.
Hutton: 2-2-0, .860.

That’s troubling, particularly since the Sabres seemed to decide to continue the transition from veteran Hutton (33 years old) to intriguing young netminder Ullmark (25).

It’s not all doom and gloom for the Sabres or their goalie duo, though. Consider a few factors:

  • Even with this slump, Buffalo’s enjoyed better team save percentage (.912) than the league average of .908.
  • The Sabres have found ways to win some of these tough games. Wednesday’s game against the Stars in Dallas won’t be easy (they’re closing off of a back-to-back set after holding off Columbus), but the good news is that they’ll end a five-game road trip. After that, they’ll begin what could be a fruitful seven-game homestand on Friday:

Feb 1: vs. Blackhawks
Feb 5: vs. Wild
Feb. 7: vs. Hurricanes
Feb. 9 vs. Red Wings
Feb. 10: vs. Jets
Feb. 12: vs. Islanders
Feb. 15 vs. Rangers

  • Having such a promising set of home dates is one reason why Buffalo’s goalies should shake off this slump. Another is simple enough: it’s still just a small sample size. You could probably zero in most precisely on the last six games as especially tough, as they’ve allowed 27 goals during that span.
  • Buffalo managed not to sink too far in the standings amid this turmoil. While they trail the Pittsburgh Penguins for the East’s second wild-card spot, it doesn’t seem like an insurmountable gap:

The Sabres face the Penguins two more times this season, and also have one more game remaining against the Canadiens, who sit at the third place in the Atlantic with 61 points in 51 games played (26 ROW), so Buffalo can influence its closest competitors, too.

None of this is to say that this will be an easy journey for a franchise that sorely hopes to end its playoff drought, but the Sabres could make up some ground if their confidence hasn’t been shaken.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

PHT Morning Skate: All-Star tweaks; Best goalie tandems

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Maple Leafs signed Trevor Moore to a two-year contract extension. (NHL.com/Maple Leafs)

• The Hockey News looks at the five off-season acquisitions that have provided the least amount of value to their new teams. There’s more than one Dallas Star on this list. (The Hockey News)

• Take a look back at the Ryan Johansen for Seth Jones trade three years after it happened. (On the Forecheck)

• Caps forward Jakub Vrana has all the tools to become a young star in the NHL. (Washington Times)

William Nylander‘s struggles aren’t a big problem for the Maple Leafs right now. (Toronto Star)

• It’s time for the Florida Panthers to make some significant changes. (The Rat Trick)

• Pens defenseman Kris Letang is making a case for the Norris Trophy. (Pittsburgh Tribune)

• The Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington looks at a few small tweaks that could help All-Star weekend. (Buffalo News)

• Sabres goalie Carter Hutton got off to a great start, but he’s struggled pretty badly over the last few weeks. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson uses his psychology background to help him with his game. (NHL.com)

• Find out which teams have the best goalie tandems in the NHL. (ESPN)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Blues’ Binnington taking full advantage of his opportunity

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You’d be forgiven if you had no idea who Jordan Binnington was before last week.

You’d still be forgiven if you have no idea who he is while you’re reading this, too.

The 25-year-old had just one NHL appearance under his belt prior to this season, coming in for 13 minutes of relief, giving up one goal on four shots back in 2015-16 with the St. Louis Blues, who drafted the 6-foot-1 netminder in the third round in 2011.

From there, it’s been time spent with three American Hockey League teams, where a steady improvement in his numbers (and the inconsistent play of Jake Allen and his .896 save percentage, and loss of Carter Hutton to free agency) have offered him another chance in the Show.

And while it’s not exactly the largest sample size, it’s offered Blues fans some semblance of hope, a respite in a season that wasn’t supposed to go this way after a summer of retooling.

Binnington turned his first NHL start into a 25-save shutout. That effort will often earn a goalie another outing, which Binnington again took advantage of, stopping 28-of-29 to give him his second win in his second kick at the can.

“He’s played well,” Blues coach Craig Berube said Saturday. “He looks confident. He looks aggressive in net, which is good.

This leads us into Saturday, where Binnington has been granted a third round with a .937 save percentage now in four appearances this season. It’s hardly a surprise, of course. One goal allowed across two NHL games — regardless of the opponent (which in this case was the Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens) — isn’t going to get you sent down.

Binnington, arguably, is in for his biggest test as the hot hand in St. Louis against the Dallas Stars. The latter have worked themselves into third place in the Central Division after two of its best players — Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn — were compared to the excrement of a ranch animal.

Binnington is not expected to save the world, at least not yet.

But what this could be is the start of an AHL journeyman finally making it to the next level and sticking there.

Mackenzie Blackwood in New Jersey is starting to carve out a role for himself. Pheonix Copley has shown some good signs with the Washington Capitals. Jack Campbell has been exceptional when called upon (and healthy) on a lowly Los Angeles Kings team.

Binnington has a long way to go, but there are some signs of life in his game. A couple of big outings when given the chance has spawned confidence.

“I’m just going to try and worry about what’s in my control,” Binnington said. “Just hopefully try and be part of the solution.”

In St. Louis, that means solid goaltending.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Examining Sabres’ current slide

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Buffalo Sabres fans finally had reason to believe.

After years of being stuck at the bottom of the NHL standings, the Sabres finally looked to be returning to relevance thanks to an incredible start to the 2018-19 season that featured a 10-game winning streak throughout most of November.

It was easy to get caught up in it (I did! Maybe you did! Most people did!)

When they won that 10th consecutive game on Nov. 27, the Sabres were sitting with a 17-6-2 record (by far their best start in years), had the best record in the league, and looked to be a near lock to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2010-11 season.

Keep in mind, between the 2005-06 and 2017-18 seasons there were 37 teams that won at least 17 of their first 25 games to start a season.

Only two of those teams (the 2015-16 Montreal Canadiens and the 2017-18 St. Louis Blues) ended up missing.

Not only would it have taken a massive collapse over the final three-quarters of the season to have that cushion get erased, but everything was going the Sabres’ way. Jack Eichel was taking another step toward superstardom. Jeff Skinner proved to be everything the front office could have possibly hoped for him to be when they traded for him over the summer. Carter Hutton solidified the goaltending position and top draft pick Rasmus Dahlin was making an immediate impact on defense. They were also getting every possible break.

But even with all of those positive developments there were some red flags as to whether or not the Sabres would be able to continue winning, and in the month-and-a-half since that winning streak ended their season has started to slip away from them a little.

A lot of those positive developments are still very much there. Eichel and Skinner have been magnificent together, while Dahlin is having one of the best seasons an 18-year-old defender has ever had. He looks like he has a chance to be the cornerstone defender the team has needed during this ongoing rebuild.

So what has gone wrong that has resulted in them sliding from the top spot in the NHL standings all the way down to the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, with just a one-point lead over the ninth-place Canadiens?

Let’s start with the obvious and point out that the 10-game winning streak was a huge anomaly.

That is not meant to be a knock on the Sabres because any team (even a great one) that goes on a 10-game winning streak has a little bit of luck and good fortune involved. You do not win that many games in a row at this level without a few breaks and bounces going your way.

The Sabres took that to the extreme during their streak. Nine of their 10 wins were decided by a single goal. Seven of those games were won in overtime or a shootout. Both of those numbers are impossible to maintain because one-goal games (especially overtime or shootout games) can come down to one weird bounce, one play, or one call. When every game is basically one giant coin flip, eventually your luck is going to run out.

Since their streak ended the Sabres are only 1-4 in games that have gone to overtime or a shootout. They were 7-0 in such games during the streak. For the season as a whole, they are 1-6 in overtime or shootout games outside of the winning streak.

In other words, when you live by overtime and the shootout, you will also probably die by overtime or the shootout.

They are also only 2-6-2 in all one-goal games since the end of the streak. They did not suddenly forget how to win those games. That is just the nature of the beast that is the NHL when so many of your games are decided by a single goal.

But why are they involved in so many one-goal games? Well, it’s probably because they just don’t have that much talent to separate themselves from everybody else, while they are totally dependent on their top line. They are getting nothing — almost literally nothing — outside of that top group.

For as good as Eichel and Skinner were during their winning streak, they were not the only players producing offense. Yes, Skinner had 10 goals during that stretch, including several game-winning goals, but the Sabres were getting contributions from other lines when it came to providing offense.

During those 10 games the Sabres only outscored their opponents by an 8-6 margin when the Eichel-Skinner duo was on the ice during 5-on-5 play.

As a team, they actually outscored their opponents by a 13-11 margin when neither was on the ice.

They received at least one goal from 17 different players. Seven players scored at least two goals. Six different players had at least seven points. Some of that was driven by a couple of hot streaks, some spikes in individual shooting percentage and again, maybe a little more good luck. All of it has dried up.

In the 17 games that have followed, the Sabres’ top-line (Skinner, Eichel, and Sam Reinhart) is dominating even more than it did during the winning streak. Reinhart has 23 points. Eichel and Skinner are both over a point-per-game. When all three are on the ice during 5-on-5 play the Sabres are outscoring teams by a 15-6 margin. They are, for the most part, carrying the play.

It is when they’re not on the ice that everything falls apart.

How little production are they getting out of the rest of the team?

When none of Skinner, Eichel, or Reinhart has been on the ice since Nov. 28, the Sabres have been outscored by a 19-9 margin. Only two players outside of that trio have more than five points over the past 17 games, and they’re both defenders. Rasmus Ristolainen has 12 points and Dahlin has six. Almost all of their points (nine of Ristolainen’s and all six of Dahlin’s) have come with the top-line on the ice.

No other forward on the team has more than three points over their past 17 games.

How can you win with so little production from three of your lines? The answer, of course, is that you can not.

That is the problem the Sabres still have to fix before they can solidify themselves as a playoff team and take the next step in their development.

Big picture, they are not as good they looked during their 10-game winning streak. A lot of things fell perfectly in their favor at the exact same time.

They also may not be as bad as they have looked since. Their current record is probably an accurate representation of what they are. And what they are is a team that has one great line, not much else after it, and on most nights will find itself relying on a coin flip to determine whether they win or lose.

They are better than they have been over the better part of the past decade and they have taken some big steps, but they are not quite there yet.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.