The Amazing Race: When To Chase a Loose Puck
The race for a puck between a goaltender and an attacking player is not something that happens with great frequency, but when it happens it’s an exciting play for both players and fans.
This is of course due to the unpredictable outcome and decision-making on the part of the goaltender.
So why does a goaltender sometimes decide to take this course of action and are there any set guidelines as to when this should – or should not – be attempted?
The reality is the skating proficiency of the modern player is too good for a goaltender to have to cover too great a distance in a short period of time. Most goaltenders don’t even get to their own blue-line since the distance (as noted) is too far and the risks too great, if errors occur. The goaltender may skate to quiet areas, to the side wall, or straight up the slot through the hash-marks in an effort to reach the puck first.
The reason for wanting to beat an opponent to the puck is of course to prevent a goal-scoring opportunity by arguably the most exciting play in hockey – the breakaway.
The key thing to remember is that the decision-making process is immediate. There is no hesitation and absolutely no second guessing your decision. This author’s advice to students has always been “if you’re gonna go, go!”
The reality is there are no set rules or algorithm to help a goaltender make this decision. There are nevertheless some things that you may want to consider ahead of time in training:
- What is your skating proficiency?
If you are generally a poor skater then this play may not be for you since speed is of the essence.
- What is your puck-handling proficiency?
If you generally do not handle the puck well, don’t possess strong passing or shooting skills, racing for the puck may not be the best course of action. It is one thing to get to the puck first, but not having the skill set to manoeuvre the puck really makes “the race” ill-advised.
- What is your confidence level and success rate with the breakaway?
If you have both confidence and great past success with the breakaway it may be in your best interest to stay in the net and let the play come to you.
- What previous experience have you had with this situation?
The fact is no one has experience with this play until they actually have experienced it, however, this is another situation which can be taught in private sessions and for which there are several related drills. Therefore, as with so many other situations, a young goaltender can obtain confidence through practice first in goaltender-specific training sessions and then through trial and error during team practices.
- What are you going to do with the puck if you win the race?
This is a dynamic decision-making process relying solely on your visual input system and how quickly you mentally process the visual information given to you. Where are your teammates and where are the opposing players? Are there any clear passing lanes or must the puck be cleared off the boards or the glass? If you pass, will it be straight up the strong side, cross-ice or maybe rimmed around the net depending on where you are located? Also, are you fearful of potential serious physical contact with an on-rushing opponent?
- What are you going to do if it looks like your decision to race out was flawed and you could lose the race?
The author’s preferred way is to get as wide and low as possible and make it almost impossible for the puck to get by you and the opponent must either jump over you or otherwise avoid a collision. Some goaltenders like to stay more upright in the butterfly but this may leave you at greater risk for injury since the advancing opponent may choose to blow you right over at the waist.
Hockey is both a sport and a source of entertainment. The author is not suggesting that one should race for the puck to provide fans with entertainment based on flawed decision-making; however, this is an exciting play and can prevent great scoring opportunities if goaltender is confident with the situation and knows what to do with the puck.
Provide students with drills and instruction to introduce them to the situation first.
Thereafter, trial and error during scrimmages will allow them to determine which gap length, between the opponent, puck and themselves, can be successful managed and which gap is ill-advised to attempt. This will add another element to the goaltender’s game.
Whether it is ever needed is a different matter.