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Goaltending in the NHL is undergoing a revolution, one that
almost seamlessly is changing the way the position is played and
heralds a new golden age of goaltenders, one that harkens back
to the late 1950s and early '60s when Hall of Famers Johnny
Bower, Glenn Hall, Jacques Plante, Terry Sawchuk and Gump
Worsley so gloriously minded the nets. Any way you cut down the
angle, last season the masked bandits between the pipes
dominated the game. Consider the following from 1996-97:

--The Buffalo Sabres' Dominik Hasek, who stopped 93% of the
shots fired at him, became the first goalie to be named the
league's MVP since Plante earned that honor in 1961-62.

--Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils allowed a stingy 1.88
goals per game, the lowest average since Tony Esposito's 1.77 in
1971-72. Brodeur's 10 shutouts were the most in 20 years.

--As the Detroit Red Wings won their first Stanley Cup in 42
years, Mike Vernon, who was traded to the San Jose Sharks in
August, stopped 102 of 108 shots by the Philadelphia Flyers in
the Cup finals to sew up the postseason MVP award.

--As a group NHL goalies had a record 127 shutouts in 1,066
games, an average of one every 16.79 chances. Compare that with
Worsley, who had 43 shutouts in 851 career games, or one every
19.79 chances.

--Save percentages, which have been climbing in recent years,
reached the stratosphere. In 1983-84, the first season during
which the NHL kept that statistic, only one goalie who played 20
or more games had a .900 or better save percentage. In 1988-89
just two goalies reached that plateau. In 1992-93 only five
attained it. Last year? Thirty-one of the 47 goalies who played
at least 20 games met that standard, led by Hasek and his record
.930. Brodeur and the Chicago Blackhawks' Jeff Hackett tied at
.927, followed by the Colorado Avalanche's Patrick Roy at .923.

--Andy Moog, the 37-year-old goalie for the Dallas Stars who
signed as a free agent with the Montreal Canadiens in July, had
the NHL's second-best goals-against average of 2.15, a number
that was more than a goal less than the 3.25 he averaged in his
previous 16 NHL seasons. He was one of several veteran
goaltenders who had career years. Roy, playing in his 13th NHL
season, had his lowest goals-against average (2.32), as did the
St. Louis Blues' Grant Fuhr (2.72) and the Florida Panthers'
John Vanbiesbrouck (2.29), who played in their 16th and 15th
seasons, respectively.

There are a number of reasons for the spike in save percentages.
Referees' increased tolerance of interference by skaters--a
trend that saw power-play chances drop about 25% from 1995-96 to
1996-97 and that effectively drove Pittsburgh Penguins star
Mario Lemieux into early retirement--has led to scorers being
smothered before they even touch the puck. The defensive
strategy known as the neutral-zone trap has rendered odd-man
rushes a rarity. Finally, hockey may be going through what
future generations will refer to as the Dead Puck era, an
offensive Stone Age brought on by a dilution of talent wrought
of overexpansion. (Since 1990-91 the NHL has gone from 21 to 26
teams.) The goalies, clearly, have benefited.

"The save percentages are great these days, but the quality of
the saves isn't," says Jacques Caron, the goalie coach of the
Devils. "You don't see as many two-on-ones or three-on-ones. We
track great scoring chances, and the Devils [the NHL's best
defensive team] allow an average of only about four great
chances a game."

"Save percentages are high because guys are firing the puck from
everywhere," says Hall of Famer Billy Smith, who is the
goaltending coach for the Panthers. "Defenses have the middle
[neutral zone] blocked off. Teams are more defensive-minded, and
the Panthers are a prime example. When Roger Neilson coached
them their first year [1993-94], his philosophy was, Let's keep
the puck out of our net and win 1-0 or 2-1. [Current coach] Doug
MacLean has continued that approach. We've had games in which we
haven't allowed more than two or three good scoring chances, but
the goalie has [faced] 30 shots."

Florida's suffocating style helped the Panthers become an
immediate success: They were a .500 club their first season and
reached the Stanley Cup finals their third year. Other teams,
naturally, adopted a similar style, the result being that NHL
goals-per-game totals have dropped every year but one since
1992-93. During that span the number of goals per game has gone
from 7.2 to 6.5 to 6.0 to 6.3 to 5.8--the lowest since 1969-70.
Not incidentally, the 1969-70 season featured no fewer than nine
Hall of Fame goalies in the 12-team NHL: Bower, Esposito, Hall,
Plante, Sawchuk, Worsley, Gerry Cheevers, Ed Giacomin and Bernie

So why has goal scoring gone down so dramatically? Is it because
there's a goaltender bonanza featuring
Hall-of-Famers-in-the-making Brodeur, Fuhr, Hasek, Moog, Roy,
Vanbiesbrouck, the Edmonton Oilers' Curtis Joseph, the Toronto
Maple Leafs' Felix Potvin and the New York Rangers' Mike
Richter? Or is it simply because of the more defensive style of
play, which could make your Aunt Millie look like Vladislav

"It's a combination of things," says Ottawa Senators goalie
coach Phil Myre, who played for six teams during his 14 NHL
seasons. "Tighter checking, better equipment, better coaching
before the goalies get to the NHL and better coaching once
they're in the league."

The concept of a goalie coach is relatively new. Myre was 31 and
had been in the league for 10 years before he had his first
goalie coach, in 1979-80. "We learned by watching, and by trial
and error," he says. "No one talked to us. The only person you
had to talk to was your goaltending partner, and you were
competing with him. Back then it was always said that goalies
reached their peak at 27 or 28. That was true because no one
taught us anything. Now kids go to goalie schools starting from
the age of eight or nine. They learn proper techniques so
they're not making the same mistakes year after year. Plus
they're getting more ice time. Some of these kids play 11 months
a year. Their skating skills are better. They have people
directing them all the way along. There are goalie coaches
throughout the minor leagues."

According to Esposito, now the director of scouting for the
Tampa Bay Lightning, another factor contributing to the goalies'
success is the semicircle crease, which made its NHL debut in
1986-87. It is 24 1/2 square feet larger than the old
four-by-eight rectangular crease. The added space gives the
goaltender more room to move unimpeded and cut down angles, and
also forces forwards to set screens and deflect shots farther
from the net. What's more, referees are strictly enforcing the
rules protecting the goalies' territory. "If a forward has a toe
in the crease, even if he's not involved in the play, a goal
will be disallowed," Esposito says. "The officials never used to
do that. I'll bet I didn't have five goals reversed in my
career. These days every goal seems to be reviewed."

Certainly goalies are more athletic now. They are lifting
weights and doing flexibility exercises with the rest of the
team, which they didn't do as regularly in the past. Some are
taller--the Flyers' Ron Hextall and Garth Snow and Tampa Bay's
Daren Puppa are 6'3", and the Carolina Hurricanes' Sean Burke is
6'4"--though height is not the determining factor in the success
of a goalie. The majority of the topflight netminders are of
average height or smaller. Roy and Potvin are 6 feet. Hasek,
Richter, Ed Belfour of the Stars and Bill Ranford of the
Washington Capitals are 5'11". Joseph is 5'10". Vernon and Fuhr,
who have won six Stanley Cups between them, are 5'9", while Moog
and Vanbiesbrouck are 5'8". "I like size in a goalie, of
course," says Caron, whose star pupil, Brodeur, is 6'1", "but if
a big guy's not flexible enough, height creates a lot of holes.
Many of those smaller goalies, like Richter and Vanbiesbrouck,
play big because they stay on their feet. And when they do go
down, their torsos remain upright. The shooters still can't see
a lot of the net."

Goaltending was once a skill that primarily required lightning
reflexes, with the majority of saves being made by kicking the
skates out toward the corners in a split or using the glove to
catch a high shot. Now goalies mostly position themselves to
block the puck and control the rebound, and therein lies the
importance of size. Because most shots are fired along the ice,
the first area goalies protect is down low. "The split save is
almost obsolete," says Myre. "The butterfly style has become the
way to go, where you create a wall with your body and legs and
arms, instead of kicking out with a 12-inch blade."

The butterfly style, in which the goalie drops to his knees and
fans his pads out in a wide V, was pioneered by Hall in the
mid-1950s. But he played most of his career without a mask and
only used the butterfly when the puck was close to the net and
unlikely to be shot high. "The mask is what changed the
position," Hall says. "We were all conscious of how the puck
could injure us. Even with the early masks, a permanent eye
injury was an occupational hazard. With the masks they're using
now, goaltending has gone from one of the most dangerous
positions in sports, to the least dangerous position in hockey."

"Perfect protection" is how Ken Dryden, the Hall of Fame goalie
for the Canadiens and now the president and general manager of
the Maple Leafs, describes the modern mask. Most of them have a
wire cage that extends in front of the eyes, nose and mouth,
surrounded by a molded fiberglass shell that protects the rest
of the face and head--a style first introduced in the late 1970s
by Ken's older brother, Dave. "Until then goaltending had always
been an unconscious compromise between safety and
effectiveness," Ken says. "You stood upright to protect your
face, and that became the model for goaltending."

The upright style first came into prominence in the 1970s with
the success of Esposito and the Soviet star Tretiak, both of
whom spent more time in the butterfly position than
traditionalists thought proper. However, shots that struck them
in the arms or chest were painful--even debilitating. Chest
protectors and arm pads at that time were made of thick felt and
afforded minimal protection against pucks traveling more than
100 mph. But in the '80s, upper-body armament became lighter and
much stronger, and many goalies began using throat guards,
further adding to their sense of security. "The last five years
I played," recalls Smith, who retired after the 1988-89 season,
"I'd get hit in the shoulder or arm, and I wouldn't even feel it."

A puck striking the torso was easier for the goalie to control
than a shot stopped with his leg pads. Suddenly, instead of
having to use the catching glove or blocker to stop shots above
the thigh, goalies allowed pucks to hit them in the shoulders
and arms--even in the mask--with impunity. They could drop down
in a butterfly and protect against low deflections before the
shooter had even released the puck. If screened, instead of
staying upright or going through contortions to get a glimpse of
the shooter, the goalie could simply dare the shooter to thread
the puck into a top corner. "When you were screened, you used to
yell at your defenseman, 'Get him out of the way so I can see,'"
says Hall. "Now it's, 'I've got the angle covered, tie up his

"Roy's the guy who brought this style into the league," says
Caron. "Then Brodeur copied him. Now a lot of kids in Quebec are
copying Martin. The equipment's so good that the goalies are
playing in a relaxed way, with confidence. When you're relaxed,
you can let your skills take over."

"We had to deal with the fear factor," Myre says of netminders
from his era. "Now goalies dive in front of the puck with no
fear. More kids are playing goal because they aren't worried
about getting hurt. It has enabled them to perfect their skills."

Many hockey observers believe that improvements in equipment
have gone beyond merely adding protection. Snow wears a chest
protector that makes him look as if he has football shoulder
pads beneath his jersey. "When I played, I wore a size 48 or 50
jersey," says the 6'4" Ken Dryden. "Today goalies are wearing
size 60 jerseys, which hang down to close the holes under their
arms and between their legs. In the playoffs I was surprised
that some coach didn't dress his backup goalie with a size 120
jersey, like a balloon, as a way of highlighting the problem.
Something should be done about it."

The NHL's rules on goalie gear are so vague that it's difficult
to address this tactic. There are, for example, no size limits
on catching gloves, and they have grown significantly in recent
years. The rules do stipulate that the maximum width of each leg
pad is 12 inches, but league officials started measuring them
only last fall. When they did, they found several goalies' pads
exceeding that limit, one by as much as two inches.

"The areas in which a goalie can cheat are oversized pants, the
jersey, the chest protector and the catching glove," says Brian
Burke, the NHL's senior vice president and director of hockey
operations. "Snow's chest protector has clear protrusions on it,
and the rule book says that the goalkeeper's equipment must be
constructed solely for the purpose of protecting the head or
body, and he must not wear any garment or use any contrivance
which gives him undue assistance. This season referees may
instruct Snow to leave the ice and change his chest protector.
By next season we're determined to draft new standards because
it's clear goalies are wearing equipment that isn't necessarily
for protection."

But anyone who thinks this golden age of goaltending will be cut
short by restrictions on equipment is kidding himself. There are
too many netminders who are simply too good, and outstanding
prospects are entering the league every year. With expansion
again on the NHL horizon, brace yourself: The Age of Shutouts
has probably just begun.

B/W PHOTO: IMPERIAL OIL-TUROFSKY/HOCKEY HALL OF FAME Plante, making a save in 1959, revolutionized the position by introducing the mask. [Jacques Plante blocking shot by Toronto Maple Leafs player]

B/W PHOTO: IMPERIAL OIL-TUROFSKY/HOCKEY HALL OF FAME Hall (below) was the first goalie to use the butterfly style, which was later popularized by Roy. [Glenn Hall blocking shot by Toronto Maple Leafs player]

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO [See caption above--Patrick Roy blocking shot in game]

B/W PHOTO: IMPERIAL OIL-TUROFSKY/HOCKEY HALL OF FAME Maskless and feebly padded, Sawchuk was far more vulnerable to injury than today's goalies, such as Fuhr. [Terry Sawchuk blocking shot by Toronto Maple Leafs player]

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO [See caption above--Grant Fuhr in game]

COLOR PHOTO: RICK STEWART/ALLSPORT Last season Hasek became the first goaltender since Plante in 1962 to be named league MVP. [Dominik Hasek and Todd Krygier in game]

COLOR CHART: SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU THE UPSWING IN GOALTENDING Since the first season that save-percentage statistics were kept, in 1983-84, those numbers have risen steadily, while over the same span goals per game have fallen. Here's a season-by-season look at those two figures. [Chart not available--line graph comparing save-percentage statistics and goals per game from 1983 through 1997]

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Goalies such as Richter have benefited from a larger crease and more watchful referees. [Mike Richter and Pavel Bure in game]

The Upswing in Goaltending

Since the first season that save-percentage statistics were
kept, in 1983-84, those numbers have risen steadily, while over
the same span goals per game have fallen. Here's a
season-by-season look at those two figures.

Goals-per-game Save
NHL Season average percentage
'83-84 7.89 .871
'84-85 7.77 .873
'85-86 7.94 .872
'86-87 7.34 .877
'87-88 7.43 .878
'88-89 7.48 .876
'89-90 7.37 .878
'90-91 6.91 .884
'91-92 6.96 .886
'92-93 7.25 .883
'93-94 6.48 .893
'94-95 5.97 .898
'95-96 6.29 .896
'96-97 5.83 .902