The word smacks of action: a bolt of adrenaline, a dash to
freedom, an all-out flight from hot pursuit. Breakaway! In the
blink of an eye a crack opens, and in a few frantic seconds the
moment will have passed. In between is hockey's pith, a
mano-a-mano high-speed showdown featuring skill and a battle of
wits. The breakaway, simply, is the most exciting play in sports.
Well, it's not really a play. It's an electrifying and
unpredictable turn of events. Unlike a punt return for a
touchdown or a game-winning home run, a breakaway can't be
anticipated. Coaches can't devise breakaways on a chalkboard,
like Hail Marys. Breakaways are like comets, arriving out of
nowhere, and they can either bedazzle or be duds. A team can go
eight games without one, grinding out every scoring chance, and
then get two breakaways in a shift without changing tactics. A
flash of individual brilliance? A boneheaded breakdown? It could
be either, or both.
Coaches despise breakaways, since they represent the triumph of
anarchy over order. A defensive scheme hasn't just failed; it's
melted like butter on a grill. "I hate them," Colorado Avalanche
coach Bob Hartley says of the play that can shift a game's
momentum. As a case in point he cites a match last January when
his most accomplished breakaway artist, center Joe Sakic, hit the
post against the Edmonton Oilers' Tommy Salo in a tie game:
"Edmonton went right up the ice and scored. That breakaway took
two points from us."
A goalie who stops a breakaway feels invincible. A forward who
fails to convert one knows it's probably not going to be his
night. "You miss on a breakaway, and you can't think of anything
else for a long time," says Calgary Flames forward Jarome Iginla.
Wayne Gretzky, the greatest scorer in the history of the game,
was notoriously weak on breakaways for reasons no one, least of
all he, can explain. Many people believed that the Great One
thought too much on his way in. "You don't want to overthink,"
says Sakic. "It's more reacting to what the goalie gives you."
Hockey manuals don't contain chapters on how to score on
breakaways, and coaches, beyond sometimes holding drills at the
end of practice, rarely teach breakaway moves. "We ask them to
try their usual offensive tricks," says Toronto Maple Leafs coach
Pat Quinn. "Their shakes and bakes, or whatever they have. More
important, we want them looking up and carrying the puck
properly--off to the side--so they can get a shot off. Guys who
carry the puck out in front of them have little success."
That opinion isn't shared by Brian Sutter, a former NHL coach who
scored 303 goals during his 12-year playing career. "You have to
keep the puck in front of you," he says. "If you have it to the
side, you have to pull it all the way across to go to the
backhand, so you're telling the goalie what you're going to do."
Speed is the most crucial element to getting breakaways, which is
why outstanding skaters like the Florida Panthers' Pavel Bure and
the Anaheim Mighty Ducks' Teemu Selanne are breakaway threats
every time they're on the ice. One step and a crisp pass, and
they're gone, free from the hook, the hold or the sweep check
from behind that can neutralize slower men.
Fine stickhandlers such as Anaheim's Paul Kariya and the
Pittsburgh Penguins' Jaromir Jagr can sometimes spring
themselves on breakaways using eel-like jukes that leave a
defenseman feeling like a turnstile at the cineplex. But in this
era of big, mobile defenders with tentacle-like arms, those
one-on-one fakeouts have become rare. More often it's a broken
play that leads to a breakaway--the bad bounce, the poor line
change, the blocked shot at the point.
"It's still the superstars who get them," says former Boston
Bruins star center Derek Sanderson, who played 13 NHL seasons and
was one of the best breakaway scorers of his day. "People think
it's lucky, but it's an art. You have to read the play. The
puck's bouncing along the blue line, and chances are the
defenseman's not going to control it. Tip it off the boards, and
you're on your way. Hitters--guys like Jeremy Roenick or Keith
Tkachuk--get a lot of breakaways. The defenseman sees them coming,
and he's not paying 100 percent attention to the puck."
For goalies, stopping a breakaway can have lasting repercussions.
When John Vanbiesbrouck played for Florida in 1995-96, he
remembers thwarting the Penguins' Mario Lemieux, generally
considered the best breakaway artist ever (box, left), in Game 1
of the Eastern Conference finals. That stop buoyed
Vanbiesbrouck's confidence so much that he led the surprising
Panthers past the Penguins in seven games and on to the Stanley
Cup finals against the Avalanche. "I fed off that save the rest
of the series," says Vanbiesbrouck, now a New York Islander.
"These kinds of things can be powerful. It cuts hard both ways,
depending on whether you stop the puck or it goes in. It's
probably the ultimate challenge for goalies."
It's a challenge that many goalies don't mind. "There's a jolt of
excitement in that split second you recognize a breakaway," says
former Montreal Canadien and Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden,
who's the president of the Maple Leafs. "There's no time to feel
dread. It's more an intense, heightened awareness, almost like
your ears pricking up, as you move out for the confrontation.
It's a showdown without compromise. You don't need to worry about
anything or anybody else but that one shooter."
Goaltenders are used to fighting through clutter: screened shots,
deflections off pads and skates. A breakaway is a pure test, and
one in which, statistically, the goalie has the advantage. The
NHL doesn't keep stats on breakaway goals, but netminders stop
three penalty shots in five on average. "The goalie ought to stop
a breakaway 65 percent to 75 percent of the time," says former
Bruins netminder and Hall of Famer Gerry Cheevers. "That wouldn't
hold true if you were facing someone like Pavel Bure all the
time, but you're not."
Patience is the key for the goalie. He must force the forward to
make the initial move. On the other hand the forward is waiting
for the netminder to blink. It's a high-speed game of chicken. "I
always felt on a breakaway that a goalie could make the shooter
do what he wants," says former Islanders netminder Billy Smith.
"That's why you see goalies coming farther out of their net. They
take away the angle to make the guy deke and get him close enough
to maybe use a pokecheck."
The pokecheck is especially effective when the shooter is coming
off the wing. Most goalies find this angled attack problematic,
because they must move both across and back, which inevitably
opens the five hole. An even riskier move is the kamikaze blitz,
when the goalie, perhaps seeing the forward barreling in with his
head down, dives out at the shooter with his stick extended,
hoping to catch him by surprise. St. Louis Blues second-year
netminder Roman Turek did it successfully at least half a dozen
times last season. "But you must hit the puck with your stick,"
says Turek. "If you miss it, you're done. You're down with your
stick out, and it's a goal."
It's difficult for netminders to establish a book on shooters
these days since teams face one another only a few times a
season, and with a number of clubs using the neutral-zone trap,
breakaways are becoming increasingly rare. Such unfamiliarity can
lead to cases of mistaken identity. "I try to identify who has
the breakaway," says Curtis Joseph of the Maple Leafs, who makes
everyone's short list of top goalies against breakaways, "and
then go through my mental Rolodex of the guy's favorite moves.
But I've misdiagnosed before, when I thought it was a certain guy
with a certain move, and it turned out to be someone else."
Says Avalanche center Peter Forsberg, "You have to figure out
who's in net and what his strengths are, and try not to play to
Some believe a forward needs to master only one move. "It's like
a Roger Clemens fastball," says Dryden. "Even when you know it's
coming, you can't hit it."
St. Louis's Pavol Demitra is one of these one-move wonders. "It's
quick," he says of his breakaway tactic. "I fake the shot, and
the goalie goes down because almost every goalie plays the
butterfly style. Then I go to the backhand and shoot high. That's
my move. I do it every time. I do it every day after practice.
Nobody can stop that."
Sutter is another who believes one move is all that's necessary
for success, and he offers Jagr as proof. "Jagr can roof it on
his backhand," says Sutter. "If you go backhand and can roof the
puck, you score 100 percent of the time."
So why don't shooters score 100% of the time? The perfect
breakaway move has to be a shot on goal, and any shot on goal has
a chance to be stopped. The New York Rangers' quick and flexible
Mike Richter is virtually undekeable, as Bure discovered when
Richter stuffed him on a penalty shot in Game 4 of the 1994
Stanley Cup finals. But Richter is susceptible up high. Dominik
Hasek? Good luck putting together a book on him. Probably the top
goalie against breakaways, Hasek is so unpredictable that he
intimidates guys before they shoot.
Lemieux was the perfect breakaway machine: deceptively fast afoot
and a master stickhandler with a quick release, an accurate shot
and a big wingspan. "With his long reach and long stick he could
take a puck on one side of the net and bring it all the way over
to the other side," says veteran Flames netminder Mike Vernon.
"He could make goalies look foolish."
"Any NHL player can beat you, but Mario was the only one who'd
embarrass a goalie," says Dryden, who retired before Lemieux
entered the NHL. "He'd make the goalie look like a
seven-year-old. You almost expected him to pat you on the head
afterward. Usually you know what you'd like to have done
differently when you get beat on a breakaway. With Mario, you
come away thinking, I'm not sure what I'd do next time."
Bure is often cited as today's best breakaway scorer. "He comes
with a lot of speed, and you don't know if he's going to go to
his forehand or put it five hole," says Colorado goalie Patrick
"It's his quick release that can freeze you," says Joseph.
"He's got the puck in a shooting position all the time," Panthers
coach Terry Murray says of Bure. "It's not in front of him. He's
not looking to stickhandle. One little opening in the five hole,
and the goalie's in trouble."
"Most of the time you're waiting to see what the goalie does,"
says Bure, who scored a breakaway goal on Saturday. "You don't
have too much time to think because it happens so quickly.
Usually a defenseman, or sometimes two, are behind you trying to
check you. You want to take advantage of your chances because in
today's game you don't know when your next chance will come."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO BACKHANDED COMPLIMENT Bure, who failed to score against Richter on this occasion, is one of the NHL's top breakaway artists.
COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA MAKE OR BREAK Flyer goalie Brian Boucher tried a risky pokecheck against Canuck Markus Naslund, who went wide and scored.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO
COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA ONE-ON-ONE Even though Richter is virtually undekeable, the Islanders' Claude Lapointe got the best of him here.
COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL GOTCHA! Flyer Simon Gagne used his world-class speed to beat the defenseman and then backhanded the puck past the Stars' Ed Belfour.
SI SENIOR WRITER Michael Farber rates the NHL's top 10 breakaway
artists since the league expanded in 1967-68.
1. Mario Lemieux (above) 1984-85 through '96-97
2. Pavel Bure* 1991-92 to present
3. Kent Nilsson 1979-80 through '94-95
4. Jaromir Jagr* 1990-91 to present
5. Rick Middleton 1974-75 through '87-88
6. Mike Bossy 1977-78 through '86-87
7. Blaine Stoughton 1973-74 through '83-84
8. Rene Robert 1970-71 through '81-82
9. Hakan Loob 1983-84 through '88-89
10. Steve Yzerman* 1983-84 to present
Goalies who stop breakaways feel invincible. Forwards who fail
know it's probably not their night.
Coaches despise breakaways because they represent the triumph of
anarchy over order.
Breakaways are like comets, arriving out of nowhere, and they
can either bedazzle or be duds.