If you thought the New York Islanders defense couldn’t possibly get any worse, think again. Not only are the Isles last in the league in terms of goals against per game, they’re also allowing the most shots per game, over 36 to be exact. The Islanders hardly allow under 30 shots against, and strangely enough, the last time they did so was against the Buffalo Sabres, a game they lost 4-3. Also, the team allowed a combined 95 shots against the Hurricanes and Rangers, but won both games 3-0. Why such a disparity, and why aren’t the Islanders faltering when they seem to be allowing so many shots. The answer lies with the men tasked with keeping the puck out of the net.
Goaltending is the hardest position in sports. Former NHL goalie Arturs Irbe referred to the position as “the guy on a minefield. He discovers the mines and destroys them. If you make a mistake, someone gets blown up.” The pressure on goaltenders is intense. As a goalie myself, I know that one missed save can cost your team the game because I have practically no control over how the puck gets to, and ends up in, the other net. My only job is to keep it out of my own.
Goaltenders need tremendous mental strength to stay focused during the critical moments of a game, before and after every save, and during times when most people wouldn’t expect goalies to need great mental strength. Every single second of a hockey game is imperative to its final outcome. But the way most goalies cope with this stressful but exciting job is paradoxical. The truth is that there are many goaltenders who enjoy facing many shots in one game.
I play hockey on my high school’s varsity team. We play in an interscholastic floor hockey league which, for goaltenders at least, might be harder than ice hockey. In early February, as our team was making a playoff push, we played two very different games over the course of a week. The first one was against an injury riddled team that was all but eliminated from playoff contention. We won the game 9-1 and I faced very little shots. Our game a week later was in a much smaller gymnasium, and the playoff stakes were much higher. The game ended in a 3-3 tie, and we were heavily outshot. The way I played each game, however, was very different. In the first game, I only saw about 15 shots the entire game. I went long periods without having to make saves. After whistles, instead of going for a drink of water, I would stretch out and keep myself loose. The second game I did just the opposite, trying to catch my breath whenever I could. Even though I allowed more goals the second game, I had a much better rhythm and felt like I was making stronger saves. Our playoff game the next week was somewhere in the middle between these two extremes. I had an excellent rhythm, made some excellent saves, and we won the game 2-1.
Watching Halak and Greiss battle in net, I have a hunch that they might feel the same way. Facing a lot of shots establishes a rhythm in one’s head and the game seems to flow much more than when you’re watching the play from 200 feet away. Obviously, too many shots isn’t good either, but Islanders fans should feel good knowing that they have two confident goalies who are ready to work pretty much every night.