Shooter's guide to shootouts: Have a plan
(Editor's note: In Part II of our shootout series, Scott Burnside takes a look at what the shooters' take is on the shootout. How do they prepare and how must they react on the fly?)
For the guy standing at center ice, with thousands of screaming fans on their feet, the shootout is a little bit like a 5-foot, downhill putt. Looks easy enough, right? Skate in and put the puck past the goalie. But shooters are at a distinct disadvantage statistically from the get-go, scoring on just 32.45 percent of shootout opportunities (123 goals on 379 chances).
Some of the game's brightest stars have struggled in the shootout.
Islanders captain Alexei Yashin is 1-for-5.
Vancouver sniper Markus Naslund is 0-for-4.
Gifted New Jersey scorer Alexander Mogilny is likewise 0-for-4.
Colorado talent Alex Tanguay is 1-for-4.
"It's not fun when you go three or four times and not score. But if you start to worry, it's not going to go well," said Atlanta's Marian Hossa, who was this week's offensive player of the week and ranks 12th among NHL scorers, but has but one goal on four shootout chances.
What does Hossa think about as he gets ready to face down a goaltender in a shootout?
"It's tough to say what's going through my mind," Hossa admitted.
If he isn't the first shooter, he watches the opposing goalie to see how he responds on the first or second shot. "Basically I just go with the flow. It's not easy. Basically all the eyes are on you," Hossa said.
Most players chosen for the shootout, at least in the initial rounds, have some offensive flair or talent, which indicates success or failure is more mental than technical.
The skills that make players dangerous during the game, reaction and positioning and hockey smarts, are in some ways stripped away during the shootout. Players have time to plan an attack in a way they would never have during the game.
"It's completely different than a breakaway [during the game]," Nashville sniper Paul Kariya said. "There's no defenseman chasing you down."
|Top Players in Shootout|
|Player||Team||SO shots||SO goals|
|Brian Gionta||New Jersey||4||3|
|Michael Nylander||N.Y. Rangers||5||3|
Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier said he and his teammates will look at video prior to games, "but every shootout is different."
Lecavalier, who is 2-for-4 in shootouts, has tried since the beginning of the season to adjust how he approaches the event.
Early on, he thought it best to establish a plan in his mind and follow through whether that meant deke or shoot, high or low, glove or stick side. But he found that using that philosophy caused him to simply put his head down and charge in, failing to take into account exactly how the goaltender was playing the approach.
"You don't want to be stuck on one idea of what to do," Lecavalier said. "I've got to keep my eyes open. I've got to keep my head up.
"I think it's all about confidence. If I don't have confidence, my head's going to be down and I'm going to have just one move," he added. "I definitely like it. I like the challenge. It's definitely nerve-wracking."
Lecavalier has also tried to pick netminder John Grahame's brain on how goaltenders approach breakaways and shootouts and tried to remember pointers learned from playing alongside offensive talents such as Ilya Kovalchuk in Russia during the lockout.
Kariya has the distinction of being on the wrong end of one of the most celebrated shootout goals in Canadian hockey history. His miss during a shootout in the 1994 Olympic gold-medal game set the stage for Peter Forsberg's gold medal-winning shootout goal, a goal that was immortalized on a Swedish stamp.
It's understandable, then, that Kariya finds the NHL version a little less nerve-racking.
Kariya has traditionally been shooting third, which has put him in position to win games for the Predators. And he hasn't disappointed going 3-for-3 in the shootout. In two of those games, Kariya's was the game-deciding marker.
"I watch to see what the goalie's doing on the first two shots," Kariya said.
Is the goalie challenging and then backing in? Is he more conservative, waiting back in the net?
Does he favor his left side? His right?
"You have to go in with an open mind," Kariya said. "The odds are against you. So, the biggest thing for me is to go in with somewhat of an open mind."
Sometimes familiarity can play a role as it did when Kariya beat former Anaheim teammate J.S. Giguere. "I've probably shot a thousand breakaways against him over the years," Kariya said.
Although there is a defined break between the end of overtime and the shootout, when the ice resurfacing machine clears a strip down the center of the ice to enable shooters to have more control over the puck, Kariya believes that what's happened in the previous 65 minutes has a bearing on the shootout mind-set.
"I think momentum plays a role in it," he said. "If you came from behind. Or if the goalie's been hot, maybe he's got some momentum going into it."
Or if a team killed off penalties in the overtime.
Of course, for every rule there is the exception, like the night Tampa Bay played virtually the entire overtime shorthanded against Buffalo and still lost in the shootout.
"It's like you turn another page when you get to the shootout," Lecavalier said.
If coaches sometimes try to pull a rabbit out of their coaching hats when it comes to selecting players, how does it feel to be that rabbit?
On the night rookie Erik Christensen scored his first NHL goal, Penguins ex-coach Eddie Olczyk went to him ahead of established scorers Zigmund Palffy and Mark Recchi. Shooting third behind Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby, Christensen scored to keep the shootout alive.
"A little surprised, I guess," Christensen confided. But not nervous. In fact, the 23-year-old native of Edmonton has had plenty of experience given his tenure in the AHL and approaches the shootout with a surprising level of maturity.
"I had a lot of experience last year as a rookie. I was in every one of them," Christensen said. "I kind of have an idea [of what to do]."
If Christensen shows deke, is the goalie likely to go down?
Which side is the goalie's weak side?
Where did the goals go in during the game? High? Low? Left? Right?
Dallas veteran Sergei Zubov, one of a handful of defensemen who are regularly involved in shootouts, loves the excitement although he could do without the attendant pressure.
"It's hard on the players. It's a lot of pressure on the player to score and to decide the game," he said.
Zubov would prefer to watch his teammates shoot first and then take a turn. But Stars coach Dave Tippett generally has him shoot first. "And I hate it," Zubov confided.
"My thought process is that I do have a couple of moves," Zubov said. "On the way to the goal, basically I'm going to see what the goalie does. Is he right-handed or is he left-handed? Sometimes I make a little fake and try to freeze the goalie."
It is perhaps not surprising that dynamic Washington Capitals rookie Alexander Ovechkin takes a different view on the shootout than many of his colleagues.
"I know what I'm going to do," he said. "When I sit on the bench [before the shootout], I try and think of what I want to do. If you don't, you don't have a chance to score."
He recalls being a junior-aged player and trying to think on his feet and it never worked out, so he has gone to plan B: plan first and shoot after.
"It doesn't matter what the goalie does. Sometimes it's working and sometimes it's not. When I go to the ice, I know what I must do, shoot or do something else," Ovechkin said.
One night, Ovechkin proved his point by scoring the winning goal in a shootout against Atlanta. He did so with a flair, his left leg in the air, cocked, as he delivered the decisive shot inside the post.
"I like the shootout," Ovechkin said. "I feel comfortable when I go to shoot."
Is it important to have that comfort level?
"For sure. If you don't feel comfortable, you must tell the coach, 'I don't want to go to the penalty shot,'" Ovechkin advised.
(Check back Saturday as we look at the shootout from the perspective of the goaltenders.)
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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