To Cover or not to Cover the Puck, That is the Question
Despite the attempt at a Shakespearean reference in the title, determining whether or not to cover the puck is a serious decision making skill goaltenders MUST acquire. Let’s take a look at a three commonly encountered scenarios.
During a man advantage, the POWER PLAY team is moving the puck well and, despite not yet scoring, is creating opportunities and making the defending team work hard. The defending team’s bench also happens to be at the far end of the ice.
The PENALITY KILLING TEAM may not be able to gain puck possession and clear the zone.
In this scenario, the goaltender should recognize the ever growing fatigue of their teammates and themselves. If the goalie can contain the puck for a face-off, a fresh PK unit may make the difference in successfully killing the penalty or not.
If not within the goaltender’s reach, they can communicate with teammates and encourage them to pin the puck along the boards for a face-off. The need for a face-off becomes more obvious with greater playing experience and the “feel” all players obtain with age.
Freezing the puck not only allow fresh legs on the ice but enable the head coach to get the best face-off man out for a defensive zone draw. Winning the face-off creates puck possession and the ability to dump the puck down the ice.
It is close to the end of a closely fought contest and your team is leading by one goal.
The opponent has applied a great amount of pressure and your mates are unable to clear the zone during five-on-five play.
You decide to freeze the puck. The opposing head coach calls a time out and decides to pull the goalie. Your opponents win this critical face-off and score the tying goal just before time expires. You could have the same scenario but instead of a tying goal it could be a winning goal late in the game.
As was the case in scenario #1 you felt by retaining the puck you were making the correct decision since, in most cases, regaining composure prior to a face-off compared to high pressure chaos is the correct decision; however, for arguments sake if the play had continued a bit longer and a teammate had dumped the puck off the boards into the neutral zone the face-off, the coach’s timeout and the goal would arguably not have happened. This is the comment that I have encountered several times and it is not necessarily incorrect. No one, though, has a crystal ball and decision making in hockey is made in microseconds.
This scenario could be made even worse if your team, while defending against five-on-five pressure, took an untimely infraction without you freezing the puck. The opposing head coach again calls time out and pulls the goaltender. It is now a six-on-four battle and the chances of scoring are likely improved. Is this your fault as a goaltender? I think not.
The final scenario can occur with both a power play and even-strength play:
(1) It is five-on-five play and your team is in the offensive zone. The opposing team gets puck possession and upon reaching the neutral zone dump the puck into the corner. They send two fore-checkers and there is time for the goaltender to play the puck along the boards to a back-checking teammate; however, some goalies neither possess the skill set nor feel comfortable with puck play.
Hence, the goalie freezes the puck since this is a safe option. The opposing team wins the draw and the goaltender lets a soft one past him. The fans go crazy and cannot comprehend the obvious error in decision making which they would never have made. Why on earth did the goalie not play the puck ?
(2) It is now five-on-four and the penalty killing team dumps the puck in with one fore-checker. The goaltender is not the kind that likes to leave the net for a soft dump to the corner and so the defender and fore-checker arrives simultaneously at the end boards.
There is a brief battle and a face-off ensues. The goaltender once again lets a soft one past him and an unnecessary short-handed goal is scored. To make things worse, the PK team was changing on the fly and that was a reason for the soft dump.
If a puck-handling goalie had been playing he would have recognized the line change and the likely opportunity for a stretch pass to the opponent’s blue line. Your team goes in and scores a nice goal and the goalie gets an assist. This is a considerably different outcome than an unpalatable short-handed goal pending goaltender decision-making abilities, processing of visual information and skill set.
In each of these scenarios a wrong decision by the goaltender may indirectly result in a goal against when freezing the puck.
We have all seen this on more than once occasion. I fully acknowledge that this is not something that happens with great frequency but it does happen. Furthermore, I am not saying there is a direct cause and effect relationship between freezing the puck and a subsequent goal because that is not always the case.
There are nevertheless plenty of critics and analysts who like to remark on seemingly poor decisions made by goalies. Being a goaltender is the most difficult position in hockey and arguably in sports.
What may be a good decision in one case may not be the same the next time around. You will not be right all the time but here are some general guidelines that may help. Have fun and work hard!
- Avoid unnecessary face-offs in your own end. The only situation where I believe goaltender criticism is valid is when covering was not justified and subsequent to a face-off a goal was scored.
- Hockey is a possession game so move the puck to teammates with direct passes whenever possible.
- Clearing the zone off the boards or glass, although likely resulting in lost possession, can neutralize fore-checking and unnecessary play in your end of the ice.
- Understand when to cover (or not to cover) based on momentum swings, physical and emotional energy levels of both teams, the score, time remaining, player personnel on the ice and “feel” since it can make a difference between a potentially positive or negative outcome!
- Improve your puck playing and skating ability so you can take charge of more situations without relying on others!