Random San Jose Sharks Thoughts, Jan. 5, 2012

THIS ENTRY OF “SHARKS THOUGHTS” DELVES INTO THE SHARKS SHOOTOUT SUCCESS THIS SEASON, THE PSYCHOLOGY OF TODD MCLELLAN’S “THREE GOALS” MANTRA, AND MORE.

It’s called shootout, not dekeout! And not just because “dekeout” sounds horrible. The Sharks keep winning shootouts, having lost only one this season, and the way they’ve done it tells us a lot about shootouts in general. Think about it, who is the best shootout guy on the Sharks? I would say Joe Pavelski. What about the best shootout guy to have faced the Sharks recently? The guy who bit them the most? Over the last season and a half I would probably say Jarret Stoll of the Los Angeles Kings. Then think of all the stars who aren’t good at the shootout, like Alex Ovechkin. How can Jarret Stoll be better than Alex Ovechkin at the shootout, the “skills competition?” Is Jarret Stoll actually more skilled at stickhandling, and/or in anything, than Alex Ovechkin? No way. Is he even a better shooter? Also no.

But he shoots. He chooses to shoot every time. Same with Joe Pavelski and most of the Sharks. What am I seeing now is that skill level in the shootout is not nearly as important as decision-making, specifically making the decision to pick a corner and shoot the puck rather than stickhandle (or “deke”). In fact, it would seem that truth actually puts high-skill players at a disadvantage, as the more skilled the player, the more tempted he will be to stickhandle instead of simply shooting the puck. But that is the mistake many players and teams are making. If you’ve yet to witness the phenomenon with your own eyes, I believe you will if you start to take note of how players are scoring in the shootouts you watch. In the meantime, just consider the logic behind the notion.

Think about it. When you get to skate right up to the goaltender and aim your best wrist shot at one of the top corners, there is really nothing a goaltender can do. Yes, NHL goaltenders are good, fantastic even, but they’re not superheroes. Just as humans cannot surpass the speed of light, goaltenders cannot surpass the limit of human reflexes and reaction time. An intelligent example someone once made up and told me to go along with the stupid one I just made up myself is that, if a player shoots a puck at 80 MPH from 10 feet away, the goaltender has something like nine-hundreth’s of a second to react (if I remember correctly). That means, when you pick your corner on the shootout and just fire it, yes, sometimes it will hit the goaltender’s glove or blocker with him just holding it there, and sometimes the goaltender will flash his glove up and get a piece of the puck just by a combination of the big glove, the timed movement of it, and last second reflex. But, the other, say, 40-50% of the time, it will go in. And even 40% efficacy in the shootout is elite.

It is really just about playing the percentages. You pick a corner, fire it, and you have about a 50% shot of it hitting the goaltender and a 50% chance of it going in. Because really, there is not much the goaltender can do but cut down the angle as best he can by challenging the shooter, swipe his glove or blocker, and hope the puck hits him. Firing a 75-80 MPH wrist shot from 10 feet, it’s just too close for a human to consistently react with the precision needed to save the puck. And when you factor in that the shooter is coming with speed, the puck is moving along the ice so there is no set release point for the goaltender to focus on, and the shooter could release it at any second, potentially even off different points of his stick, it’s just too much. Not to mention, a shot from 10 feet out is really only half that distance from the goaltender, since goaltenders tend to challenge a few feet out of their net. So change 0.09 seconds to react to more like 0.05. That’s about ten times less than baseball players have to react to 95 MPH fastballs. So you keep picking corners from that close and firing your best shots at them, and you are going to score at a fair clip, a much higher one than if you keep trying complex moves that have too many steps and just require too many things to go “right” for them to work consistently.

The first-to-three mantra. Todd Mclellan talks all the time about the NHL being a “first to three (goals)” league, where the team that scores three goals first in a given game will usually win. Many other coaches believe the same thing, as they should, given that it’s true, but I’m not sure anyone preaches it much as Mclellan does, and I wonder if there is both good and bad that comes with saying it so often to a team.

On one hand, whenever the Sharks get that 3rd goal first, you imagine they would play with renewed confidence and conviction, believing they will win that game through whatever obstacles.

But does it work the other way? Your coach keeps telling you, whoever scores the 3rd goal first wins, say, 90% of the time; what happens when the other team gets that 3rd goal first? It may only be a one-goal game, 3-2, with plenty of time left, but if you’ve been beat over the head with the notion that the first team to three goals wins 90% of the time, can that deflate your confidence if you find yourself on the other end?

I don’t have a definitive answer, and the Sharks have been pretty good at coming back late in games regardless of the score, but it’s just something to think about.

Teams should not try to score low-corner* on Niemi. Really, teams should not try to score low-corner, period, on anyone.

*By low-corner, I mean low or along the ice anywhere other than between the goaltender’s legs. So low along the ice to either side.

Why not? First, let me touch on the five-hole (that came out wrong). You used to be able to score through the five-hole with regularity, then goalie pads got bigger, goalies got better and started playing the butterfly style, and five-hole goals, while still a regular sight in the NHL, are much harder to score than they used to be.

But even more rare than the five-hole goal in the history of the NHL is trying to score the puck along the ice…to either side of the five-hole. What’s that? That’s because there are pads to either side of the five-hole? In fact that’s why it’s called the five-hole, because it’s the only hole for the puck to fit through along otherwise covered ice?

Well tell that to Bobby Ryan.

With the Anaheim Ducks leading 1-0 against the Sharks (a couple minutes ago as of writing this, last night as of publishing) at the end of the second period, Bobby Ryan made a beautiful backwards spin move coming down the left wing, beat his defenseman, and came barging in alone on Niemi, from left to right. He deked backhand quickly while nearing the left post, then brought the puck back forehand, across the top of the crease towards the right post. With the entire net gaping, he did what I’ve noticed a lot of forwards doing now, he tried to beat Niemi’s pad to the far post, along the ice. Sure enough, just as he was about to put the puck into the bottom right corner of the net, Niemi’s left pad shot out and sealed off the post, blocking everything along the ice. It was a fantastic save, but a save that would not have been possible if Bobby Ryan had just elevated the puck, which he could have done easily if he had planned his final deke for a top-corner shot instead of a bottom-corner one.

It’s not just Bobby Ryan. I’ve seen this move used a lot in recent NHL seasons. I don’t know if it was the shootout, or if this gained elsewhere, but NHL shooters figured out they could beat goaltenders every once in a while by trying to beat them from post to post along the ice, and now they’ve started trying it way too often. It’s not working anymore guys! Even at its peak, this fad had mild success at best, and like with all new supplemental ways of scoring on NHL goaltenders, and all fads, for that matter, the goaltenders figured it out, fast. As they say of many things, the classics are classics for a reason. As long as there has been hockey, and as a long as there will be hockey, top-corner shots score goals. Shots under the armpit and above the pad will score goals. But along the ice under the pad? On butterfly goaltenders? Especially Antti Niemi who has a specific reputation of hard to beat low? No. Of course it will work on rare occasion against anyone, but you’re always better off going upstairs when you have the choice. On Niemi especially.

Luckily for Sharks fans, the Sharks understand this better than any team. You will see the odd deke here and there by experienced players who know how to use their reaches to score (not just hands, but reaches, another concept the Sharks understand better than most), but mostly they just pick corners and snap ’em in. I feel that forever reeason there are things the hockey fan notices that the people actually running these NHL teams (coaches, GMs, etc) don’t, and this is one of them. Except, while in many of these instances the people running the teams never learn, I think this will actually be common knowledge in a few seasons. Maybe someone who reads this will tell someone who knows someone who knows someone in the NHL, and it will spread. Or more likely, more people will see it for themselves, and eventually, once the last hockey fan on the planet notices it, then the coaches and GMs will start to. It’s something that’s so obvious, all that’s missing is context. NHL GMs and coaches seem to be focusing too much on their own teams in relation to all the other teams. If your team mostly dekes in the shootout, and your goalie mostly gets deked against, then you might not be able to notice a trend just from watching your team. Since I watch all the Sharks games and have seen them win almost every shootout this season by shooting the puck while the other team tried to deke, it would be easier for me to question whether it’s a trend even if I hadn’t already.

As usual, the Sharks coaches are doing a much better job of actually doing their jobs than most other NHL coaching staffs. And I got proof of this while watching the latest Sharks vs. Vancouver Canucks matchup, which the Sharks won 3-2 in a shootout. First off, let me say that, unlike some Vancouver Canucks fans who have also only analyzed their own team and its problems without the context gained from analyzing the other teams, too, I believe Alain Vigneault is one of the league’s truly elite coaches. Or him and his staff, that is. Who knows who really runs the engine. What I do know is that the Vancouver engine runs about as well as anyone’s. They play so smooth, the systems work they do is executed with great precision; their hockey just flows, a result of the great systems their coaches have implemented in addition to the team’s talent. Both their special teams, power-play and penalty kill, were top-three in the NHL last season. They’re the leagues best faceoff team except for when they’re playing the league’s actual best faceoff team, the Sharks.

The Vancouver Canucks are extremely well-coached. However, while watching the Sharks play the Canucks two nights ago, a game that was actually televised on NBC Sports Network, the commentator between the benches mentioned, right before the shootout, that he overheard the Canucks shooters asking goaltender Cory Schneider how they should shoot on Niemi, what types of moves or shots would work on him, etc. Antti Niemi, a goaltender who has been a starter for over two seasons in the NHL, and who the Canucks in particular have played two playoff series against in the last three years. Shouldn’t they know what works on him by now? They shouldn’t have to ask their 25-year-old backup goaltender at the last minute! And the proof was in the pudding. According to the NBC commentator, Schneider advised them to try an over-complicated move where they would shot-fake Niemi with a deke towards him, which would supposedly get him to go down, and then, unknown to Schneider at the time, where they would have to dodge his backwards poke-check while taking the puck forehand, and then elevate it over his pads from close in-tight.

The Canucks went 0-3 on the shootout, as their first two shooters tried to deke and missed. Their third shooter, Ryan Kesler, wisely decided to shoot, but made the mistake of coming in at a poor angle and aiming by Niemi’s pad, where there was so little room it forced Kesler to be overly precise. He ended up aiming about a quarter-inch inside the post, and missed by a quarter-inch.

In what is becoming a theme around the NHL, the Vancouver Canucks came into the big game against one of their biggest conference rivals unprepared for the shootout, and unprepared for the opposition goaltender even though they’ve played two playoff series against him in the past three years. It’s hard to make sense of these things, but something I keep getting the sense of is that NHL teams do not scout each other to anywhere near the extent that Major League Baseball and National Football League teams do. This is yet another area where the Sharks can inch ahead of their competition just by “doing their jobs,” so to speak, and looking at their shootout record, it seems they have.

Teams should not try to score low-corner* on Niemi. Really, teams should not try to score low-corner, period, on anyone. Why not?

*By low-corner, I mean low or along the ice anywhere other than between the goaltender’s legs. So low along the ice to on either side.

First, let me touch on the five-hole (that came out wrong). You used to be able to score through the five-hole with regularity, then goalie pads got bigger, goalies got better and started playing the butterfly style, and five-hole goals, while still a regular sight in the NHL, are much harder to score than they used to be.

But even more rare than the five-hole goal in the history of the NHL is trying to score the puck along the ice…to either side of the five-hole. What’s that? That’s because there are pads to either side of the five-hole? In fact that’s why it’s called the five-hole, because it’s the only hole for the puck to fit through along otherwise covered ice?

Well tell that to Bobby Ryan.

With the Anaheim Ducks leading 1-0 against the Sharks last night at the end of the second period, Bobby Ryan made a beautiful backwards spin move coming down the left-wing, beat his defenseman, and came barging in alone on Niemi, from left to right. He deked backhand quickly while nearing the left post, then brought the puck back forehand, across the top of the crease towards the right post. With the entire net gaping, he did what I’ve noticed a lot of forwards doing now, he tried to beat Niemi’s pad to the far post, along the ice. Sure enough, just as he was about to put the puck into the bottom right corner of the net, Niemi’s left pad shot out and sealed off the post, blocking everything along the ice. It was a fantastic save, but a save that would not have been possible if Bobby Ryan had just elevated the puck, which he could have done easily if he had planned his final deke for a top-corner shot instead of a bottom-corner one.

It’s not just Bobby Ryan. I’ve seen this move used a lot in recent NHL seasons. I don’t know if it was the shootout, or if this gained elsewhere, but NHL shooters figured out they could beat goaltenders every once in a while by trying to beat them from post to post along the ice, and now they’ve started trying it way too often. It’s not working anymore guys! Even at its peak, this fad had mild success at best, and like with all new supplemental ways of scoring on NHL goaltenders, and all fads, for that matter, the goaltenders figured it out, fast. As they say of many things, the classics are classics for a reason. As long as there has been hockey, and as a long as there will be hockey, top-corner shots score goals. Shots under the armpit and above the pad will score goals. But along the ice under the pad? On butterfly goaltenders? Especially Antti Niemi who has a specific reputation of hard to beat low? No. Of course it will work on rare occasion against anyone, but you’re always better off going upstairs when you have the choice. On Niemi especially.

Sheldon Brookbank, thank you. 3-1 Sharks.

Written by Shark Circle

To be notified when new blogs are posted, enter your email address in the top-right corner of the screen and click “Subscribe!” or Follow The Blog on twitter by clicking HERE and then clicking the “Follow” button on the twitter site itself.

MORE SHARKS BLOGS

Will Antero Niittymaki Be Traded? A look at the S.J. Sharks goaltending situation and potential trade options.