Sunday, November 20, 2011

In all alone: Shooter vs. Goalie

There aren't many situations in the sporting world that are more exciting than a breakaway in hockey. It is hard to find a moment in a game that is more suspenseful than the one-on-one battle in hockey between the goaltender and the attacking player with the puck.

Depending on the player, there are several different things that can happen when trying to score on a breakaway. Some players go for the elaborate deke to confuse the goaltender, and to try and make the highlight reel play. For other players, the strategy is about as simple as it gets.

"I just try to see if there is an open spot, and then I try to put the puck in the back of the net," said Nashville Predators rookie forward Craig Smith.

While simple in theory, that strategy can be very effective. Breakaways make life difficult for a goaltender simply because of the unpredictability of the shooter. The shooter doesn't have the luxury of taking the time to plan a move. A decision has to be made, and it has to be made quickly.

"When you're on a breakaway, it's spur of the moment. You've got about half of a second to figure out what you're going to do before you get there," Smith said.

For goalies, being forced to try and make the save on the breakaway is obviously not the ideal situation. It's a lot easier to play effectively when the team is playing good defense in front and preventing the breakaway. However, goalies have to be ready at any time for a breakaway to occur. Once it's happening, all of the focus shifts toward reading the shooter.

"I just try to wait for them and see what they are going to do," said Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne.

Waiting can be a hard thing for goalies to do on a breakaway. There is no way of knowing what sort of move that the player is going to make beforehand, so letting the shooter make the first move can be a bit challenging.

"Sometimes it's hard to stay patient because guys are so quick on their moves, and they can shoot whenever, so you just have to be ready for that," Rinne said. "But I try not to think about too much. Just read and react."

Breakaways are definitely hectic for both the shooter and the goalie. But what happens when it's a penalty shot or a shootout? Does the mindset change?

"When you're on a breakaway in a game, it's a little different. You have to worry about somebody behind you so you have to keep your speed. In a shootout, you have more time to plan your move and more time to think," Smith said.

Given that players have more time to plan their moves in the shootout, there are a lot of players that use similar moves on almost every attempt. Those developed tendencies are studied by goaltenders, which seems to help them in the shootout.

"There are some patterns a lot of times with what guys are using. They seem to do the same kind of stuff that they've been successful with. A lot of times that helps when you've seen the clips from other games and you know what they've done in the past," Rinne said.

The numbers certainly reflect the overwhelming advantage goalies have in the shootout. During the 2010-2011 season, shooters only scored on 324 out of 1,059 shootout attempts around the league for the entire season, which is a success rate of only 30.59 percent. That means that goaltenders are stopping nearly 70 percent of all shootout attempts.

Regardless of whether it is a breakaway or a shootout, it's an exciting thing to watch. It's as much of a mental competition as it is a physical one. The battle between the crafty skill of the shooter and the incredible hand-eye coordination of a goaltender is something to behold. And that one-on-one struggle is what makes it so exciting, and so unique, in the world of sports.