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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

How Henrik Lundqvist Can Stop What He Doesn't See



GREENBURGH, N.Y.—For a few seconds during a 42-save shutout of the Boston Bruins last Tuesday, Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist found himself flat on his back, flopping about as if he were a freshly caught flounder in the bottom of a boat.

He had just kicked aside a slap shot by Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara, and in pursuit of the rebound, no fewer than seven players had shoehorned themselves into the goal crease. The crush of bodies knocked Lundqvist off his feet and left him facing the inside of his net as the puck glided into the slot toward Chara, who raised his stick to fire again.

What happened next stands as perhaps the signature moment of Lundqvist's season: He blocked Chara's second shot without seeing it. This wasn't dumb luck—not for Lundqvist, who's in the midst of the best season of his seven-year career and has emerged as a candidate for the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player. In fact, a detailed examination of the entire sequence illustrates how Lundqvist's physical skills and mental sharpness helped him pull off more of his hallmark magic.

Though Chara's slap shot was clocked at a league-high 108.8 mph during this year's skills competition at the All-Star Game, it was surprising neither that Lundqvist fended off the initial scoring chance nor that the mass of humanity practically swallowed him up. Unlike most goaltenders, who push themselves forward on their skates to cut down an opponent's shooting angle, Lundqvist tends to remain deep in his net. He trusts his reflexes so much that he wants an extra few milliseconds to react to any shot.

"I don't feel the need to charge out and make a block," said Lundqvist, who leads the league in shutouts (7) and is tied for the lead in save percentage (.940).

Lundqvist's positioning can leave him vulnerable to high shots, even those from 20 feet out or more, because he's willing to sacrifice covering more of the net for the sake of flashing his glove or blocker to make a save, said Steve McKichan, a former goaltending coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs. But Chara's slap shot sailed just a couple of inches off the ice, and Lundqvist is so flexible that he can fan his legs into a V and seal off the lower portion of the net. "There's nobody in the NHL better at taking care of the bottom 16 inches than Henrik Lundqvist," McKichan said.

By remaining so deep in the net, Lundqvist also affords himself more time to survey the ice in front of him, focus his attention on the puck and anticipate the opposition's next play. This is no small thing, according to Dr. Joan Vickers, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Calgary who has studied the eye movements of elite athletes, goaltenders in particular. In her research, Vickers has found that many athletes use what she has termed "the quiet eye": They concentrate so singularly on the movements of a ball or puck that, as they accumulate experience in their sports, they train themselves to pick up on cues that reveal the object's flight path and destination. Just as an accomplished hitter can read a pitcher's arm angle to anticipate a slider or a wide receiver can catch a pass with his eyes closed, Lundqvist—who first played goalie in organized games as an 8-year-old growing up in Sweden—can notice subtle clues that give away when, where and how an opponent's shot will travel.

"If you wait to follow the puck, it's going to be too late," Vickers said in a phone interview. "So the real critical eye movements are much earlier than most people ever imagined. [Goalies are] actually able to read how the body moves and how the stick moves, and from that they're able to detect, when the puck is shot, how high it's going to be, the direction of the shot, and the speed of the shot."

In a sense, these two attributes—his attentiveness to the activity in front of him, and the repository of memories and intuition he's collected over his years of tending goal—can allow Lundqvist to predict where the puck will end up before it gets there. And they served him well after he stopped Chara's first shot. As the crowd of players toppled him like a tower of toy blocks and drove him backward toward the net, Lundqvist lost sight of the puck. It lay to his right, hidden from him by a thicket of arms, skates and sticks, but referee Dave Jackson, stationed behind the Rangers' net, never blew his whistle to stop play.

"Every time that happens, you know you're in trouble," Lundqvist said. "You don't know where to put your body. You don't want to have that feeling."

Had Lundqvist not been playing so close to the net, of course, the horde of players might not have knocked him over in the first place. Nevertheless, even blind to the play and prone on the ice, he still had one advantage, a bit of good fortune made possible by his positioning: He had remained in the center of the goal crease. At 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, Lundqvist could cover up a good portion of the mostly vacant net merely by lifting his body. He still didn't know where the puck was, though, and in such situations, he said, "it's almost like a guessing game sometimes. Sometimes you read from the players."

After five seconds passed without a whistle, Lundqvist did exactly that. He noticed some movement behind his left shoulder: Boston's Jordan Caron had scooped up the puck and slid it into the slot to Chara, who had cruised in from the blue line and was preparing to release a one-timer toward the net. Banking that a shot would soon be coming, Lundqvist raised his head, giving it a half-turn toward the slot, and threw his arms and legs upward.

Chara's shot struck Lundqvist in the mask and caromed away. "My head was in perfect position," Lundqvist said. "I'm just lucky it didn't go any higher." Twenty eight minutes remained in the game, a 3-0 Rangers victory. Despite controlling the flow of play all night, the Bruins never came so close to scoring again, and it was difficult to determine the more impressive aspect of Lundqvist's performance: that he stopped the 41 shots he did see, or that he stopped the one he didn't.

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