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Rask vs. Crawford: Breaking Down Cup Final Goalies

Rask vs. Crawford: Breaking Down Cup Final Goalies

Stanley Cup Final Tale of the Tape

sketches courtesy of Jay Demarco/SmallSaves.com

Much has been made of their paths to the Stanley Cup Final, of two goaltenders that have finally arrived on the National Hockey League’s biggest stage after watching from the sidelines – or the stands – as their puck-stopping predecessors succeed on it before them.

Tuukka Rask had a front row seat from the bench as the Boston Bruins’ backup when Tim Thomas returned from hip surgery to take back the No.1 job and win both the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2011.

The year before, Corey Crawford was in the stands as a Chicago Blackhawks’ Black Ace, a third-string goalie called up from the American Hockey League to provide a playoff practice target, when Antti Niemi, who had started the season with him in the minors, backstopped a championship.

Now they face each other for a chance to win a Stanley Cup of their own, but as much as this year’s Final is about two goaltenders stepping out of the shadows of those who hoisted hockey’s hallowed trophy before them, it’s also about a contrast in styles. At some level it is about having success with two different ways of playing hockey’s most important position. In some ways, it is the stereotypical Canadian- (and more specifically Quebec-) raised butterfly goaltender against the athletic Finn.

In that light, InGoal takes a quick look at the differences between Rask and Crawford’s approach to the position:

Corey Crawford has shown off good reactive hands in the playoffs, even if the first default is usually a butterfly drop, and then a reaction out. (InGoal file photo by Kevin Woodley)

Corey Crawford has shown off good reactive hands in the playoffs, even if the first default is usually a butterfly drop, and then a reaction out. (InGoal file photo by Kevin Woodley)

Corey Crawford

Crawford may be Quebec born and raised, and a long-time summer student of new Colorado Avalanche goaltending coach Francois Allaire, but it would be entirely unfair to categorize him as nothing more than a pure drop-and-block puck stopper.

In some ways, it was Crawford’s desire to erase any such stigma that led to struggles last season, his first as the unquestioned No.1 in Chicago. Seemingly eager to prove he could be more than just a sound technical and positional goaltender, and end questions about whether he had the athletic ability to succeed in a game that had become more dynamic and required more reactive saves, Crawford was overly aggressive last season, chasing the puck – often outside of his crease – rather than his next save position.

It wasn’t working.

Goaltending coach Stephane Waite met with Crawford late in the season to suggest a more conservative initial depth, even showing him film of New York Rangers’ star Henrik Lundqvist and his infamously deep inside-out approach in an effort to reel in some of the over pursuit in Crawford’s game. Like many before him – Cory Schneider in Vancouver, Devan Dubnyk in Edmonton and countless others around the NHL – the idea was to simplify his positioning and lessen his movements, allowing him to reach his next save position quicker because he didn’t have to cover off, or recover from, as great a distance as he did from a more aggressive initial depth.

After some struggles in the playoffs last year, the move paid huge dividends this season as Crawford combined with backup Ray Emery to win the William Jennings Trophy for the fewest goals allowed and lead Chicago to the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top team.

Playing deeper, however, doesn’t mean Crawford is no longer a reactive goaltender.

It’s just allowed him to scramble only when needed, rather than far too often like he did two seasons ago.

While he still tends to react from his knees – Crawford’s default is most often a butterfly drop and then a movement out towards pucks on his perimeter, either with the hands and (slightly less so) the legs – he has shown off some great reactionary saves with the glove and blocker throughout these playoffs. And while it doesn’t always look smooth, which may be a product of the straight-and-stiff pads he prefers because they form a “V” in front of him for pucks off the chest and upper legs to safely drop into after blocking saves, Crawford has also shown he still has the ability to scramble madly when needed.

Crawford did a nice interview with ex-NHL goalie Kevin Weekes of the NHL Network before the series started:

Boston Bruins Goalie Tuukka Rask

Rask’s does not always default to a butterfly, but rather reacts from his skates whenever possible. (InGoal photo by Scott Slingsby)

Tuukka Rask

If there’s one key difference in Rask’s game that defines the Canadian-Finnish contrast, it’s how he moves laterally.

Where Crawford and most goaltenders trained in North America from an early age use a traditional t-push for long lateral moves, Rask and many of his Finnish-rasied counterparts utilize the shuffle a lot more often. We have even seen Rask pull out the rare “hop-step” during this playoff run, using a pair of quick consecutive shuffles with a leap in the middle to build momentum for a big move.

Without getting into too much detail here – for more on the Finnish preference for shuffles, read the InGoal Magazine article on bringing Finnish techniques back to North America from Mind The Net Goaltending – the biggest difference is you don’t have to open up the lead leg the way you do with a t-push. With a shuffle, the skates are always pointed towards the puck even while moving laterally, so if the play quickly goes the other way, the goaltender already has an edge they can use to push back across with it, whereas a t-push would require them to first turn and close that lead skate before pushing back the other way.

Goalie coaches can debate the merits of it all they want, and certainly, as with most things goaltending, there is a time and a place to pull out each tool in the toolbox. But there’s no question we have seen it pay off for Rask at various times throughout this run to the Cup Final with quick lateral shifts that have prevented him from getting caught on plays and shots “against the grain.”

Rask, who also uses more sculls and c-cuts than many of his North American peers, plays a more aggressive initial depth than Crawford, often outside of his crease, and has more backwards flow in his game, relying on powerful skating (and when needed butterfly slides) to recover the extra distance.

Rask retains active hand positioning even through most lateral movement, which allows him to catch and steer pucks even when he’s not stationary. And while he’ll still go down into a standard butterfly block when he reads it as his best option, he tends to react to shots from his skates rather then dropping to the knees and then reacting, which leads to more purely reactive, non-butterfly saves.

It should also be pointed out that for all the focus on his Finnish roots, Rask has received a lot of North American goalie training since coming over to play six years ago, both through Bruins’ goaltending coach Bob Essensa and his relationship with World Pro Goaltending schools. And for all the talk about his skating and edge work, Rask’s post integration and use of the so-called “reverse VH” on plays from dead angles and behind the net is also exceptional, moving easily from post to post on his knees.

Rask also talked with Weekes, sharing that he had his first goalie coach at age 6:

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