How will long layoff affect goalies in NHL's 24-team postseason?

How will long layoff affect goalies in NHL's 24-team postseason?

Goalies are creatures of habit. Their daily routines are more sacred than those of the players at other positions. They prepare more extensively and they have to be the most dialed-in on the ice. 

Throw in a global pandemic that's greatly diminished their reps and thrown off their rhythm ahead of the NHL's 24-team playoff format set to begin August 1 and what happens?

NHL Network analyst and former NHL goalie Kevin Weekes is here to tell us.

"As a goalie, the challenge of that is it's such a feel-intuitive sport and it's almost like golf: you have to play and play often, even your practice rounds, just to be able to have your touch, your timing, your reads, your spacing, your positioning, your instincts, all those things," Weekes told NBC Sports Chicago over the phone on Wednesday. 

"So the challenge with being a tender is when that's limited or when that's compromised, it certainly impacts you. But right now, I think for those guys, pending their bodies and what they can handle, I think at least one way to counteract that is see as many pucks as possible right now."

The league's netminders will at least have the opportunity to see pucks for two weeks with their team starting on Monday when formal training camps leading up to the postseason at hub cities Edmonton and Toronto begin.

Weekes — who tended goal in the show for 11 years and helped lead the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup Final in 2002 — says a number of goalies, depending on where they've been on the grid, have been able to keep some of their skills sharp during the NHL pause that began on March 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

He mentioned goalies like Henrik Lundqvist, who went back home to Europe, have been able to skate almost the entire duration of the pause.

"Then, there are other guys who, let's say are in Florida, I know (Sergei) Bobrovsky started skating a while back, Andrei Vasilevskiy in Tampa has been skating for quite some time," Weekes added. "So, depending on where you're situated, where you're located geographically, that kind of had a big impact on whether or not you were able to get to a rink."

But what about goalies who weren't able to get on the ice or see shots?

According to Kevin, they've had to come up with ways to stay fresh and ready at home beyond throwing a tennis ball against the wall like you see them do in the tunnel before games.

A lot of goalies had already upgraded from ball-on-the-wall to tennis ball machine prior to the pause. Others have been doing online vision training and vision exercises according to Weekes

"It's literally been all over the map," he said. "Some guys have been able to play tennis and feel like that's helped them with their footwork and their conditioning and just tracking, having something directed at them. 

"So it's literally been all over the map for different guys that I've spoken with but nothing can fully simulate it, guys are just trying to do the best that they could. What was challenging for some guys is some guys were stuck in situations where that's all that they had available to them and then they go on Instagram and for example see Henrik skating, which he should be, which is awesome."

Come the start of the tournament, it may be obvious who was able to keep their last line of defense weapons sharp. You can only cram so much into two weeks.

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How Blackhawks are trying to stay positive despite postseason-high 12 iron shots 

How Blackhawks are trying to stay positive despite postseason-high 12 iron shots 

Goal posts apparently aren't kind to the city of Chicago in the playoffs. (Nobody needs a reminder of the double-doink).

So if you hear a ringing sound, you’re not alone. 

The Blackhawks are six games into their postseason run and have hit 12 iron shots so far — 10 off the post, two off the crossbar. Twelve! That’s an average of two per game and a pace of 164 across an 82-game season. For reference, they hit the iron 58 times — 48 off the post, 10 off the crossbar — in 70 games during the regular season.

No team has hit more iron than the Blackhawks (12) since the NHL's 24-team Return to Play tournament started and it's not even close. The next highest? Toronto at six. An incredible gap.

"It's always tough hitting the post," said Drake Caggiula, who's hit one crossbar this postseason. "You’re close to scoring a goal but that’s hockey. It’s all about bounces. Sometimes you get them, sometimes you don’t, you've just got to stick with it. It's just something where you've got to keep shooting the puck and trust that you're going to get your chances and make sure that you try and capitalize. But hitting the post is never a fun feeling unless it's going in the net. We've just got to make sure it doesn’t discourage us."

Here's a list of where each team sits when it comes to iron shots, through Thursday's games:

  • 12: Blackhawks
  • 6: Toronto
  • 5: Boston
  • 4: Calgary, Colorado, Columbus, Montreal, N.Y. Rangers, Vegas
  • 3: Florida, N.Y. Islanders, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh
  • 2: Carolina, Dallas, Edmonton, Nashville, Tampa Bay, Washington, Winnipeg
  • 1: Vancouver
  • 0: Arizona, Minnesota, St. Louis

The Blackhawks hit five posts in Game 3 against the Edmonton Oilers, but it was easier to swallow because it came in a win. It wasn't so easy in a Game 2 overtime loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday.

Patrick Kane, who leads all skaters this postseason with three shots off the post, hit another one with 43 seconds left in the first period on Thursday when the Blackhawks were trailing 2-0. He beat Robin Lehner five-hole, but the puck rang off the pipe and bounced out. 

You could see the frustration in his face:

The Blackhawks did, however, get a nice break on Dominik Kubalik's power-play goal that tied the game at 2-2. His shot went off the inside of the post and in.

But the one that kept Chicago awake is the crossbar shot in overtime. 

Just 1:53 into extra time, Dylan Strome fired a 35-foot wrist shot from the right faceoff circle and rang it off the bottom part of the crossbar. He lifted his hands in the air thinking it was a goal. It was centimeters away from going bar down but bounced out instead.

The Blackhawks are certainly getting their chances. It's challenging to stick with it when the puck luck isn't going your way, but you have to earn your bounces and the Blackhawks must keep pushing through. That's the message.

"We've had our chances," head coach Jeremy Colliton said. "Sometimes it's like that. The key is, how long can we stick with it? How long can we be persistent when we face adversity? We've faced some adversity here over the first couple games. Do we have the character to overcome it? It's an opportunity for our guys.

"You play all year to be in these games, so now we're here and we've faced some adversity. So what? Just keep playing and believe in what we're doing and believe in the guys in the room and we're going to give them a run."

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Former Blackhawks goalie Robin Lehner remains unbeaten with Vegas Golden Knights

Former Blackhawks goalie Robin Lehner remains unbeaten with Vegas Golden Knights

On Thursday in Game 2, the Blackhawks tested Robin Lehner more than they did in Game 1 of the first round Stanley Cup Playoff series, when he only had to save 19 of 20 shots.

The Hawks were able to put 25 pucks on the Golden Knights' net, with three getting past Lehner to take the game to overtime where Vegas would triumph to take a 2-0 series lead.

"It was a little bit of a weird game," Lehner said following his Game 2 win. "There was not that much to do and I thought they had some good chances. I thought that Chicago played really well. Everyone keeps saying they're (the) underdog, but you look at their team: the experience, the skill... it's Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane out there. It's a lot of skill and they're world class players, so when they get opportunities it's hard. I got to look at the tape, I think I can be a little bit better, but a win's a win."

Related: Former Blackhawks goalie Robin Lehner's birthday cake is ureal

With the victory, Lehner remains unbeaten in the 2020 postseason (4-0) and unbeaten as a Golden Knight. 

The 29-year-old netminder went 3-0-0 with 1.67 goals-against average and .940 save percentage with the Knights during the regular season ahead of the NHL Pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 12. 

Related: Robin Lehner opens up on getting traded by Blackhawks

Lehner was traded from Chicago to Vegas ahead of Feb. 24's trade deadline. He was 16-10-5 as a Hawk this season with a 3.01 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage prior to the move.

Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, a three-time Stanley Cup champ with the Pittsburgh Penguins, may have lost the starter job to Lehner, at least for now. Fleury was only in net for one Golden Knights' round-robin game, with Lehner starting the rest of the postseason contests so far.

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