August 5, 2013

Goalie Guru: Bouncing back, developing mental toughness

By Brion O’Connor

Chicago’s Corey Crawford and Boston’s Tuukka Rask both played huge roles in getting their teams to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Crawford not only rebounded from a disastrous 2012 playoffs, but also a less-than-stellar second-round series against the Detroit Red Wings to backbone the Blackhawks when they knocked off the defending champion L.A. Kings.

Rask, though, was even better through the early rounds. After the Bruins’ miraculous comeback win over Toronto in Game 7 of the opening round, Rask settled down and was the major reason Boston jumped out to a three-games-to-none lead over the New York Rangers. Then, in Game 4, with the Bruins holding a 2-0 lead, Tuukka had his fall-down-go-boom moment. Just 54 seconds after the Bruins went up 2-0, Rask appeared to catch an edge when moving right to left, stumbled and fell just as New York’s Carl Hagelin threw a soft backhander on net. Rask, sitting on his backside, took a swipe at the puck but missed as it trickled over the line.

It was the kind of goal that gives goalies nightmares. Worse, Rask’s gaffe opened the door for the Rangers, and the Blueshirts ultimately tied the game on a strike from Brian Boyle (Hingham, Mass.) and won it on a deft redirection in overtime from Chris Kreider (Boxford, Mass.).

Adding fuel to the fire was that Rask has a history of histrionics. His talent is undeniable (the trade of Andrew Raycroft to Toronto for the young Finnish prospect in 2006 was one of the best by the Boston brass), but he hasn’t always exhibited the requisite maturity to deal with bad goals, or losses. Don’t believe me? Just Google “Tuukka Rask” and “temper tantrum” for a sampling.

But this is not Tuukka Rask circa 2010. He has grown up considerably in the past three years, harnessing all that fire and talent with a steely resiliency. Rask quieted the naysayers, providing airtight goaltending in the Bruins’ series-clinching Game 5 win over New York. He then was absolutely lights out in the Eastern finals against the vaunted Penguins, stifling Pittsburgh’s high-powered offense and allowing only two goals in four games. Which leads me to this month’s topic — the importance of bouncing back from a bad goal.

Mental toughness has always been a hallmark of great goaltenders. Of course, for many, many years, they had to be tough, period, due to the ridiculously inadequate “protective” equipment goalies once wore. With the recent revolution in gear, goalies today don’t face the same prospect of physical harm (though it still takes guts to stand in front of a 90-mile-an-hour slap shot). Which makes the mental game one of the key factors in determining just how good you’re going to be.

Dealing with the pressure — the mental anguish — of goaltending is nothing new. In his 1973 classic, “Goaltending,” the late, great Jacques Plante quoted another excellent netminder, Roger Crozier: “There is no way people will understand our particular kind of pressure. Anyone who isn’t a goaltender probably won’t experience once what we experience hundreds of times; even players don’t know what the goalies go through in a game.” Hall of Famer Tony Esposito was more succinct, calling it “plain torture.”

It’s not enough to simply develop a thick skin and deflect any criticism that comes your way (justified or not). You have to be able to bounce back. “Oh, you’ll goof once in a while — who doesn’t — but try not to make a habit of it,” said Plante in 1973. “You must firmly believe that you can stop every shot, or you’ll never be an A-1 goalie.”

Joe Bertagna (Arlington, Mass.), who is celebrating his 40th year of goalie coaching, wrote in 1976: “Russian Coach Anatoli Tarasov once said: ‘The concept of courage must be identical to the word hockey player. There is simply no place in the game for cowards, squeamish or weak-willed people — there is simply no reason for such people to come out on the ice.’”

“If this is true for hockey players in general, it is even more so for goaltenders,” wrote Bertagna.

That’s because no goalie is perfect. Brian Daccord of Stop It Goaltending says the No. 1 rule of goaltending is that “you’re going to give up goals.” Of course, you try to make sure that your opponents “earn” their goals. But what about those howlers, the goals you should have had? What enables a goaltender to bounce back from a bad goal? Start by forgiving yourself. Be secure in the knowledge that it’s happened to every goaltender who has ever strapped on the pads.

“The first thing to realize is that simply because you have been scored upon doesn’t mean the world has come to an end,” wrote Fred Quistgard in 1996, in his book “Controlling the Crease: A Survival Guide for Modern Goaltenders” (you have to love that title). “If you feel the weight of the world on your shoulders each time your opponents score, you are taking the game too seriously. Put a goal in proper perspective. One goal doesn’t signify a bad game unless you allow it to.”

I really like Quistgard’s advice. Hockey is still a game, and sometimes we forget that (OK, it’s a job for Rask, but I’m talking about the other 98 percent of us). Lighten up. Coaches and parents should take note of that point as well. Don’t forget that your response can either relieve or ratchet up the pressure on a goalie.

Meanwhile, goalies have to remember that what’s done is done. Once a puck gets past you, it’s in the past, and there’s nothing you can do to change that. In game, I try to encourage my goalies not to let one bad goal lead to a second bad goal. Shake it off, and stay positive.

After the game, take stock. Bertagna recommends quiet, unemotional analysis of each goal, so you can evaluate what you might have done differently and make adjustments. Over time, you may begin to see a pattern, and then you can get to work to address those flaws. Work breeds confidence, which is really the key in handling the occasional bad goal. It’s similar to a student who goes into finals well-prepared, compared to one who was up late the night before cramming, just “hoping” to do well. Self-assured goalies are less likely to get rattled.

“Confidence, that’s the key to goaltending,” said Daccord. “You got to feel like you’re going to stop the puck. You can’t be worried about letting in a goal, you have to be thinking about stopping the puck.”

Brion O’Connor is a Boston-based writer and owner of Inspired Ink Communications. He is also a longtime hockey coach and player, specializing in goaltending instruction. Learn more at TheGoalieGuru.com.

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