Behind the mask is a mind filled with a web of a thousand thoughts, worries and a singular focus of what it takes to win a game.
Then the next game, then the one after that.
“There is no shut-off for a goaltender,” retired goalie Brian Boucher said. “The mind doesn’t shut off.”
A starting NHL goaltender bears a burden unlike any position in hockey and few others in sports, and the resulting pressure builds up over the course of a season. By this time of year, with the playoffs on the horizon, No. 1 goalies who have grinded through almost six months of work must battle fatigue that threatens to derail their team’s hopes.
Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning is going through it for the first time, and 2016 Vezina Trophy-winner Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals is used to it by now. Goalies of all ages have no choice but to manage the physical and mental hurdles.
“It’s one of those things that you’ve got find ways to make sure you’re prepared and ready to play every game,” Holtby said. “As a goaltender, there’s not much room to take nights off.”
It’s worse for the goalies who can’t take nights off because their teams can’t afford to start a backup. Boucher started the final 13 games for the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010 to help them make the playoffs, two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick started 20 of the final 21 games for the Los Angeles Kings when they tried to make a furious push to make it in 2015 and Kari Lehtonen could be counted on to play the final nine games of the Dallas Stars’ season now as they desperately claw for a spot.
“You’ll go through the whole night thinking about tomorrow, show up to the rink in the morning thinking about tonight and then you show up to the game thinking about the game,” said Boucher, now an analyst for NBC Sports. “Not until that horn goes off at the very end can you finally go, ‘Whew,’ and take a deep breath and hopefully it’s in a celebration with your teammates. …. You have a shower, you feel good about things, you go home, you kind of decompress and then the next day it starts again: the butterflies, the nerves, the thinking about your opponent. And that’s the mental fatigue that comes into it.”
That’s what Vasileivsky is fighting for the first time at age 23, 58 starts into his first season as the full-time starter and the league leader in victories. He told The Tampa Bay Times earlier this month, “Tiredness is something that I probably never faced before.”
The same goes for Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who is between the pipes for meaningful games and on the cusp of his first playoff appearance. Jets goaltending coach Wade Flaherty talks to Hellebuyck almost daily about what he needs to be successful, and the staff pays careful attention to making sure the 24-year-old is good to go.
Coach Paul Maurice said the Jets are aware of the balance between rhythm and rest but aren’t holding Hellebuyck back.
“There’s a fatigue component that a No. 1 goaltender also has to embrace,” Maurice said. “You’re not keeping a guy like that who’s going to play 65 games fresh every night. He has to learn how to play when he doesn’t feel 100 percent right because that’s basically going to be his life. It’s the mental part of the physical fatigue — when the pressure’s still in those games and you’re playing a lot.”
Winnipeg has been able to give Hellebuyck blocks of two or three days completely off, a rarity for top goalies this time of year. The Nashville Predators have a big enough lead on the Jets atop the Central Division that they can afford to lighten Vezina candidate Pekka Rinne’s workload down the stretch, which could be a huge benefit.
“I like thinking outside the box,” former goalie Martin Biron said. “You may have a Friday-Saturday game, have a Tuesday game, have a Thursday game. You can play your starter on Friday-Saturday and not play him on Tuesday so he gets Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday (off) and then he gets ready for the weekend again for the Thursday. There’s a lot more days to be able to decompress and really think about how to reset and re-prepare.”
Holtby got a 10-day reset from a month-plus of struggles as Philipp Grubauer started four games in a row. Having a reliable backup to turn to is a luxury Washington has that many other teams don’t, so coaches can keep Holtby from burning out.
“You see it around the league when you’re playing a lot of hockey and coaches will give guys a rest,” coach Barry Trotz said. “I think for Holts, I don’t think he’s tired, I don’t feel he’s tired, instinctively. I just think he’s gotten off a little bit and sometimes getting back to some really good foundations, getting back to those foundations of ballistic moves where you’re coming across the net really, really confident and tight and fast.”
Holtby doesn’t like taking days off and thinks physical fatigue is overblown. Toronto Maple Leafs starter Frederik Andersen recently joked that he’s more tired of being asked if he’s tired than tiredness from facing the most shots in the league.
Analyst Justin Goldman of The Goalie Guild pointed out the demands on a goaltender go beyond games. Practice shots, warmups, travel and mental and physical preparation are all part of the wear and tear that Goldman thinks can be helped with rest when paced out over weeks and months.
“Anything you can do to get a little bit of extra sleep over the course of the season is absolutely monumental when it comes time for the playoff push,” Goldman said. “If you’re a team that’s trying to make the playoffs and you know you have absolutely zero luxury of giving up goals and you have zero margin for error and you do not have the ability to make any mistakes, that’s where goalies really start to struggle with the mental side of things because you’re fighting your confidence, you’re fighting what’s outside of your mind.”
Biron, who started 59 games for Philadelphia in 2007-08 and backed up Henrik Lundqvist when the New York Rangers realized the “King” needed more time off, figures 60 is the perfect number for a starter and sees experience as the best teacher for a young goalie. For someone like Vasilevskiy who can’t afford to learn and wait for next year, Boucher hopes the relaxation of a market like Tampa Bay helps now and the rush of the playoffs gets him through the grind in a few weeks.
“I think Vasilevskiy’s going to be fine just because you watch his physical attributes, they’re through the roof,” Boucher said. “He looks like he’s a great, great athlete. He takes care of himself. So the physical side doesn’t look like it’s an issue. Now it’s his time to shine.”
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