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Tuesdays With Hildy: Gooooalie, Goooooalie, Gooooooalie... You Suck?

I'm pretty sure that I covered the good offense/good defense line of hockey strategy in a previous column. One of the options in the poll was if the goalie was responsible for the outcome of the game totally by himself. A good many of you voted "no way," and I agree in principle. But... how many of you have been to a game where the offense was pretty good, the defense kept the SOG down... but your team still lost 5-2 or some such score like that because your goalie was having an off day, or just basically sucks * cough Toivonen cough*. The question posed this week is... do you hold the goaltenders ultimately responsible for the outcome of the game?

Naaaah, it's the team's fault.

We're all guilty of it. Watching a game, either at home or on TV, and in goes a soft goal. The mid-ice shot on Toskala last season is probably the biggest example that I can think of with this. An entire arena just stopped, and probably yelled at the same time "How'd he miss that? Good lord, he should have had that one," or something to that effect. We've all seen a wonky shot bounce in, and in our inner armchair goalie rips into the guy. But, well... if your team allows a disproportionately high number of shots, like Toronto, Florida, or Atlanta last season, there is a higher possibility that a flukey weird one will trickle past. It's the law of averages. Yes, they should stop it. but the defense needs to figure out a way to keep those shots from happening.

A lot of times the average SOG allowed stat is thrown out there to justify a goaltender's high GAA: "Well, with 50 SOG a game, duh he's going to let in about three or so every time, maybe more. 3.18 isn't bad at all!" People focus on the save percentage - if you're facing 50 SOG a night, and your save percentage is above .900, that's pretty damn well not bad. Kari Lehtonen is a pretty good example of this. Last season the Thrashers allowed an absurd amount of SOG per game. His GAA was 3.06. Not very stellar for a starter. His save percentage, though, was a .911. When you consider the fact that he was getting peppered with 32 shots a game on average, some nights as many as 50, that's not too shabby. Don't allow so many SOG, and your goalies' stats aren't unpleasant.

No, Really... YOU SUCK.

Going back to Lehtonen for a sec (because you all know how much I love him /sarc), there are a few factors that matter as much as the SOG, and can almost render that stat irrelevant: off ice conditioning. Goaltenders do have to condition differently than other players, and focus on other areas of their body and game - instead of speed, they look for flexibility, for example. What if said goalie isn't fully conditioned? He can't move quickly enough to block shots, and if he's a butterfly style goalie (Kari's a hybrid, really) he can't drop to that position - a position that notoriously screws up your hip joints and wears away the bone anyway. That puts the team at a disadvantage. It doesn't matter how many SOG they take, if they know you can't drop to close the five-hole quickly, well gee. Where do their shots go? Or, if they know you're not fast enough glove side, boom. That's where they hit you. Not to mention lack of conditioning starts a cycle of re-occurring injuries that take the goalie out of the mix entirely and really could hurt the team.

There's another kind of conditioning that's important. Mental conditioning. Being able to have confidence is helpful. If you believe that you can't do something, you can't. Legace last season is a shining example of this. Year before last, he was an All-Star. He has a Stanley Cup ring on his finger (though since it's w/Detroit I like to pretend it doesn't exist). Last year, the Blues decide to bring in a backup that used to be a starter, and they paid him close to what Manny was making, without offering Legace a contract renewal with a raise. Did this"spur competition" and make Manny play better? No. It led to a crushing blow on his self confidence that just killed his season dead. His .885 SV% and 3.18 GAA were not only a career aberration, they coiuldn't even be defended by the "the Blues allow too many shots on goal" defense, since we were about average for the league. Heck, in his shortened season, he only faced 669 counted shots, and blocked just 592 of them.

He started off on the wrong foot, and by the end of his time with the Blues was a shell of his former self, both on and off the ice. Emo Manny was born, and the Blues didn't really break free of that cloud until Mason solidly had control of the number one slot.