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NHL Analysis: Hiller and Importance of Timely Saves

NHL Analysis: Hiller and Importance of Timely Saves

I’m often asked what part of coaching goalies I love the most. To be honest, it’s a long list. But, if I had to pick one, it’s helping goalies understand their role within the team game. It’s easy to get caught up in the whole notion that a goalie is alone “back there.”

An aspect of this is understanding the need to make timely saves.

On Monday, the Calgary Flames faced off against the Carolina Hurricanes. Flames forward David Jones put his team up 1-0 just over halfway through the first period on a power play goal.

And then this happened:

It’s obvious that’s a goal Hiller wants back. You can tell by his reaction. There’s an important lesson to be learned.

Over the years, especially the past three as a member of the Carleton Place Canadians in the Central Canada Hockey League, I have learned a lot about what it takes to prepare an entire team to compete and perform at the best of its ability. So, it came as no surprise to see Flames head coach Bob Hartley refer to the team’s effort on the road trip as “okay.”

Hartley expanded on his comments in an article on the team website following the game against the Hurricanes:

“There’s the mix of the two,” he said. “I felt that tonight we got the first goal and you get the first goal on the road game, you did your job. But after this, we just let them come on us. That’s not typically of this hockey club. We’re better than this and we know it. Tomorrow morning is going to be okay but this is a hard one to swallow.”

If you’re a goalie or parent of a goalie reading this, maybe you’ve heard comments like these before.

If you’re a coach, maybe you’ve felt like and/or said something similar.

From a coaching perspective, I can help you read between the lines and tell you why that goal against Hiller was especially difficult:

– The Flames ended the month of October on a five game home stand. Their record: 2-1-2.

– To kick off the month of November, they started a five-game, 10-day road trip through the Eastern conference with stops in Montreal, Washington, Tampa Bay, Florida, and Carolina. That’s 10 points up for grabs. Their record after four games: 3-1. They have six of eight points in the bag and are set to face the Hurricanes in their fifth and final game before returning home.

– The Hurricanes have started to turn the corner, picking up wins over Arizona, Los Angeles, and Columbus twice (once on the road and once at home). Their only loss in November up until the game against the Flames came against the Capitals in overtime.

– Leading 1-0, and outshooting the Hurricanes 4-3 (thanks, graphic in the top left corner), the Flames are just minutes away from taking the lead into the first intermission. At that point, that’s the best case scenario.

Now, for the technical breakdown. There’s nothing complicated about it.

For one, the play developed at centre ice (actually, you can even see it unfold from inside Carolina’s blueline in the video clip).

Hiller breakdown Image 1

As a goalie, your immediate thought is to identify the situation as it reaches centre ice. It’s a developing 1-on-2 that turns into a 1-on-3, all in favour of the Flames. When it’s a 1-on-2, you have to know your team has the advantage just based on the numbers and you need to make sure you’re not giving the shooter any more space than they might have just based on where they are on the ice. Flames defenseman Dennis Wideman (6) kept Boychuk to the outside the whole time. He’s doing his job and being defensively responsible.

Hiller’s in pretty good shape as the play reaches the face off circle. Look at his positioning here:

Hiller breakdown Image 2

To me, his depth is good and not an issue for the whole play. I realize some coaches might want to see him be a little more aggressive, but I think this is just fine.

This is where things start to go wrong. Notice how he is no longer square to the puck and starts moving towards the post. Also, count the number of Flames players already back in their own zone.

Hiller breakdown Image 3

Finally, this is his positioning on the goal:

Hiller breakdown Image 4

Now, here’s what the goalie coach in me takes into consideration after watching the video clip.

– Up until that point, Boychuk had two goals on the year. It’s possible Hiller didn’t think he was going to shoot and anticipated him carrying the puck into the corner or around the net. Remember, there was one Flames player on him and two others in the zone. Boychuk was the lone Hurricanes player.

– For a split second, it looks like Wideman might have been able to poke the puck away from Boychuk, delaying Hiller’s reaction to stay square  – possibly. While we’re talking about the responsibility of players on a team, sure, maybe Wideman could’ve played the situation differently (e.g. poked the puck off Boychuk’s stick or played the body). But, still.

– And, yes, it was a good shot (I think it might have even hit Hiller on the side of his mask and went in).

Here’s the thing: None of that matters.

Whether you’re facing a two goal scorer or a 20-goal scorer, that’s a save you need to make.

We file that under timely saves. Some are more timely than others, some are bigger than others, and some are just routine. The point is that they’re made. A goalie’s decision making is often amplified given the appropriate context.

Take into account everything I mentioned above and Hartley’s comments. In Hiller’s situation, that shot could’ve just been a routine, timely save. It’s about reading the situation from centre ice. It’s about the fundamentals of staying square to the shooter. Better positioning would’ve given him a better chance of stopping the puck and he could’ve reacted a number of different ways to do just that.

I’ve said this before, being mentally tough as a goaltender is more than getting over a bad goal or poor outing. Mental toughness is being able to consistently make the right decisions. I don’t like excuses. I recognize and accept the fact that fatigue and other factors may have been part of the equation, but I don’t think using it as an excuse does anybody any favours.

It’s easy to get caught up in the technical parts of the game sometimes. I’m guilty of it. We all are. But, let’s not lower our standard of what’s an expected save and what isn’t. Let’s especially not lose sight of the fact that, sometimes, your team just needs a save. It doesn’t matter how big or small.

What does matter, though, is recognizing this. It’s important to be aware of situations like these in a game. And, while you’re being aware of what’s happening in a game, it’s important to consistently make the right decisions.

About The Author

Elias Rassi

~ Eli Rassi is currently the goaltending coach with the Carleton Place Jr. “A” Canadians in the Central Canada Hockey League. He is also an instructor and consultant with Complete Goaltending Development (CGD). CGD offers on-ice group, semi-private and private training programs, and consulting services for minor hockey associations, for goaltenders at all levels in Ottawa at its training facility in the city’s West end, the Complete Hockey Development Centre. For more information, please visit or


  1. Bryan

    Sigh.. I didn’t like the goal but you are being pretty hard on Hilly. Especially because he has been so good all year, how about that save he made against the caps with one second left? Was that timely enough? If we were talking about a guy making big bucks and not living up to expectations I would agree with you but Hiller has been great this year and one of the main reasons for the Flames success. I agree there were a number of things he could have done to seal the bad angle shot there but he isn’t the reason why they lost that game. They were terrible in the second and third periods and there wasn’t much Hilly could do.

    • Eli Rassi

      Hi Bryan,

      Thanks for taking the time to read the article and for your feedback. There is no denying Hiller has been great all year for the Flames. The topic of the article isn’t about him, though. It’s about using that specific goal against as an example to highlight the importance of timely saves while, at the same time, taking into account the many other factors that are part of the game.


  2. James

    No expert, here, Elias – I’m just an amateur goalie and would defer to you on anything. But just wondering… Hiller looks pretty square to me. And Boychuk is looking at what seems to be about 6 sq inches of net there. Sometimes it feels like that old line about every goal containing a defensive mistake gets pinned on the goalie unfairly. It’s a bad angle, true, but even still, Hiller can’t make the net vanish – he’s gotta leave something open. It was a great shot – Boychuk doesn’t hit that one again in 10 tries. So was it such a weak goal afterall?…

    • Matthew

      James, I’m no expert myself but I agree with what the article was saying. I think that the biggest reason this is a weak goal is his lack of squareness. It’s a side effect of the RVH, going down early and not being square opens up holes that wouldn’t exist if you were simply square and on your feet. Just moving the foot outside the post could prevent a goal and maybe have changed this game.

      • Eli Rassi

        That’s the way I see it, Matthew. Thanks for chipping in!


    • Eli Rassi

      Hi James,

      Thanks for your comment! If you take a look at the difference between the second and third photo, you’ll see where Hiller stops being square to the shooter (Boychuk), Now, while I agree with you that Hill can’t make the net vanish, the net does change slightly depending on the angle. Here’s a really good article on InGoal that explains it:

      And, yes, it was a good shot. But, as I explained in the article, was it a good enough shot to beat Hiller if the played that situation differently and stayed square? Probably not.

      Thanks again, James.


      • James

        Thanks, Eli – great article (both yours and the one you recommended!) Appreciate your willingness to share what you know…


  3. James

    Reminds me of another Flames lefty who could not make timely saves – Roman Turek……..

  4. Paul Ipolito

    You spent a lot of time discussing 90% of the issue. What, in your opinion, would have been the “proper” save selection in this case? VH? R-VH? Dead-arm knee drop with a reverse triple axel? A lot of choices to make in 2 or 3 seconds.

    • Eli Rassi

      Thanks for your comment, Paul. Personally, I would have liked to see him stay square and then react to the shot. As I said in the article, Hiller had more than just a few seconds to realize what was happening (Boychuk started carrying the puck at centre ice and was the only Hurricanes player in the offensive zone).The type of recognition helps goalies start to think about their decision making a lot sooner so that it doesn’t become something they have to decide at the last minute.


  5. Ryan

    Good article, thanks Eli;

    I have similar issues on plays such as this where there is a skater coming down at a bad angle, and with a fairly wide stance if I stay square to the shooter my foot is outside the post and I have to go into an overlap, which is fine if the shot comes as in the video. But when the shooter holds onto the puck and goes behind the net it can create issues, mainly having your skate and part of your body outside the post and the shooter banking it in from behind on the short side. The other issue is it makes it tougher (not impossible) to get to the far post. This is a good example of transitioning from overlap to get tot the far post

    While Elliott makes it look easy here, there is a point where Ennis could have put the puck in Elliott’s feet on the short side with bad results for the Blues. I have been in that position a few times, and have yet to have a shooter try the bank play but it makes me feel uncomfortable, that and I can’t get to the far post as smooth as Elliot does here.

    With all this in mind I find myself over thinking how long to stay square and when to bring my foot inside the post. What are you teaching tenders to use as a rule of thumb on when to bring their foot inside the post? Or is it all just reading the play and reacting to what the puck carrier is doing and has for options?

    • Eli Rassi

      Thanks for your comments, Ryan. I can ensure you that you’re not alone with how you’re analyzing the game. I’m happy to answer your questions in order:

      1) I think it depends on a few things (for me, height is one of them). In any case, as a very general rule of thumb, putting your foot against the post when the puck is behind the goal line is a safe bet. Now, if the puck carrier is deep in the corner and the puck is on their stick just in front of or behind the goal line, it’s still okay to put your foot against the post. Just remember to alter your body’s position accordingly (i.e. be more square). As the play starts heading behind your net, you can flatten out and still keep your foot against the post.

      2) Yes. The most important thing to remember that any technique or decision is situation dependent and personal preference.

      To address your other points, goalies often don’t realize they have more time than they think to recover to the far side post like Elliott. It does take good skating and edge work, but it’s entirely possible. And, there’s nothing wrong with having to stretch across if need be. Desperation attempts are part of the game.

      In fact, I think Elliott played that situation just fine. There’s a reason why Ennis didn’t pass the puck on what looks like a 2-on-1: The Blues’ backchecker tied up the open man. So, that leaves Elliott to play the puck carrier (Ennis) almost like a one-on-one situation and stayed with him all the way. Elliott even maintained strong visual connection as Ennis started the wrap around. There was a lot of good things Elliott did here, for sure.

      Could Elliott have moved into a VH or RVH based on the point where Ennis carried the puck into a dead angle/close to the goal line? Sure. You see goalies to it all the time.

      And, of course, there is always the possibility of *something* happening. If a player banks the puck in off a goalie’s skate or leg or other part of their body – well, I hate to say it, but that happens. Does it mean a goalie has to change their tactic entirely? I wouldn’t say so, unless it becomes a major problem. You just have to be ready when they try. That goes for any type of situation, though.

      If you’re interested, check out what myself and other goalie coaches I work with wrote about in March (Overlap Reverse Post Integration Technique):

      Please keep in mind that this idea came from the fact that it helped just one goalie when it was first introduced. We’ve received feedback that it has helped many others, as well. That’s the whole point of what we do – find a way to help.


      • Ryan

        Thanks for the replay Eli,

        I’m on the taller side (6’4″) and I usually use an imaginary line from the hashmarks to the near post as my guide to get my foot on the post. Another thing I need to consider is the size of the rink that night (we play in some small barns). I got the imaginary line from another article on here.

        I agree with having more time than you think and attempt to keep that in mind and stay more controlled in recoveries and transitions. I also agree that Elliott played that play correctly, or at least how I would have wanted to play it, I just had concerns about the bank. But like you said, it could happen, but it hasn’t happened to me yet and I haven’t seen it happen to anybody else, so maybe I’ll just keep my mouth shut before shooters catch on haha.

        I have read through the Overlap Reverse Post Integration (along with pretty much all InGoal articles) and found it a great read. I have played with it in practices and used it a few times during games. The Overlap technique article was great as well, I utilized that a lot last year.

        Thanks again.

  6. Robbie

    Great Article!

    Could never understand why the Ducks let Hiller go, it’s obvious with their “merry-go-round” of goaltenders this season they are still not happy. When you have to go Jason LaBarbara then you know your desperate! Watching Hiller play I have always marveled how he takes up so much of the net and makes big saves while on his knees, he looks like he came out of “roller hockey” with that style. I am 47 and still playing in the beer leagues but could remember as a kid being taught to stand up and face the shots, heck, if I played like Hiller back in the 70’s and 80’s my coaches would have benched me! Shows how much our style has changed and adapted to the much quicker game of the 21st century.

    I really like to watch Hiller play, a very underrated goalie in my opinion and his style is so unique. I personally like the more adventurous goalies like a Tim Thomas who ventures out of the net more, but if I could somehow learn a “crossbred” style between Hiller and Thomas, that would be awesome!


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