Coaches bring best out of goalies

Updated: April 19, 2004, 12:06 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- For one goalie, being Zen-like is being invisible.

For the other goalie, it's singing and staring at pucks and chattering away nonstop.

Both have been instrumental in their team's respective victories as the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders split the opening two games of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.

Both will need all the Zen they can get heading to the raucous, definitely un-Zen-like Nassau Coliseum.

For the better part of a week including the aftermath of his virtuoso performance in a 3-0 Game 1 shutout, Lightning netminder Nikolai Khabibulin has managed to avoid all but the most intrepid reporters, a self-imposed cone of silence that seems to have seen him find a zone of comfort fans and critics wondered whether he would be able to discover after a disappointing end to last year's playoff run and an inconsistent regular season.

Across the way, Rick DiPietro, the first goalie ever taken with the first pick in the NHL entry draft, is more than happy to discuss his puck-staring, song-singing, mental gymnastics that help him control what appears to be a boundless reservoir of nervous energy as he has found a similar zone in this his first starting playoff assignment.

No wonder neither netminder seemed to miss a beat when they collided while heading to their respective dressing rooms at the end of the second period in Game 2.

In fact, Khabibulin, who had bolted after shutting out the Islanders in Game 1, seemed to find a little humor in the incident when he was cornered by a small knot of reporters immediately after the Islanders' 3-0 win Saturday.

"I think it was accidental," added DiPietro who actually seemed to initiate the contact en route to his first playoff shutout.

Ah, goaltenders. What a brave new world in which they live.

With the stakes through the roof, and the scrutiny and questioning sometimes unbearable, it's no wonder both goaltenders rely heavily on their corner men, the teams' respective goaltending coaches.

Technically and mentally, Jeff Reese and Sudarshan Maharaj have their backs.

"I think Jeff Reese has done a tremendous job in the mental part of it" with Khabibulin, said Lightning head coach John Tortorella, who has not been shy to set the bar high for his high-priced Russian goalie.

In fact, Reese has helped smooth over the resentment Khabibulin felt after being benched in favor of backup John Grahame in Game 5 of last year's second-round loss to New Jersey and the ongoing suggestions he would be traded because of his impending free agency.

"What's done is done," Reese said.

"I try and do what I would have wanted done with me," he said. "You want to keep it positive, no question. That's what you're there for. Support is basically what you're there for.

"Especially at this time of the year, it's not about kicking things down."

In Maharaj, a former minor league goaltender in his first season as the Islanders' goaltending guru, 22-year-old DiPietro has found a calming voice that has helped him control "sloppy" footwork, adopt a blend of classic French Canadian butterfly and traditional stand-up styles, and channel potentially negative energy.

"He's so easy-going," DiPietro said. "He's such a caring guy. Sometimes he cares too much."

If the technical work at this time of year is really about reinforcing practices employed over the course of 82 regular-season games, the mental aspect of keeping goaltenders sharp, especially when they're back on the job every second night, requires an entirely different set of skills.

"Our role is really to try and maintain the status quo" in the face of the media attention and pressure that comes with the playoffs, said Maharaj, a native of Trinidad who grew up in Toronto, where he teaches middle school children with behavioral problems. "To actually deflect some of that pressure."

While mental toughness cannot be taught, said Reese, there are various methods of finding and maintaining control that can be. Reese won't discuss specific techniques Khabibulin employs, but one of them apparently is shutting out the media, leading to speculation that his "Bulin Wall" nickname really refers to his ability to tunnel out of the St. Pete Times Forum.

"There's just no need for it [talking to reporters]," Khabibulin told Damian Cristodero of the St. Petersburg Times long after Lightning practice ended Friday.

Whatever, it's working and neither nor the media nor even Tortorella is going to mess with it.

"I don't want to get involved in that," Tortorella said. "That's why we have a goaltending coach."

Indeed, when it comes to what Reese and Maharaj and the rest of the fraternity of goaltending coaches and consultants are trying to achieve, there is about it an element of wizardry or alchemy. Confident in his ability to impart technical advice, Maharaj admits he did significant research into the psychological end of playing the position. Reese has worked with psychologists the Lightning employ to broaden his area of expertise.

"I'm always picking their brains," he said. "That's the most important thing is the mind. How the focus is."

The process is intensely personal and almost completely individual.

"Some guys just go out there and play and don't worry about anything," Reese said, citing Grahame as an example.

Others have physical rituals or verbal keys they employ to stay in control. Reese said he noted Detroit Red Wings goalie Manny Legace was swaying back and forth during breaks in the action or when the play was at the other end. Patrick Roy, of course, was famous for his ritual head bobbing and discussions with his goalposts.

DiPietro has used different techniques to help keep negative thoughts at bay. Sometimes he sings along with arena music. "Cotton-eyed Joe" is a personal favorite. DiPietro and Maharaj have come up with a series of phrases or triggers to repeat during stressful times like trying to remember the smells and sounds of a game in which he played well. After he allows a goal, DiPietro sometimes visualizes it -- only in his mind he makes the stop. Then he forgets about it. Before a game, he often puts a puck in his glove and stares at it, visualizing making stops.

"I'll kind of sit there and visualize what's going to happen during a game," he said. "Just play around with it [the puck]."

"I have so much nervous energy to begin with," DiPietro said.

While Reese came with instant credibility having played in 174 NHL games, Maharaj relied on word of mouth and the slow emergence of young protégés to the NHL level.

Maharaj, 40, played six seasons with Swedish club teams, then took up teaching the position when he retired about 13 years ago. Most of his clients were Tier II junior or junior goaltenders, and he also acted as the goaltending coach for York University in Toronto. Maharaj's pupils include Stephen Valiquette of the New York Rangers and standout Carolina netminder Kevin Weekes. Through Valiquette, Maharaj was introduced to DiPietro when the young netminding phenom was still playing with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the American Hockey League. DiPietro's coach was Steve Stirling, and when Stirling was named coach of the Islanders in the offseason, he called Maharaj.

"I guess I must have pushed the right buttons," Maharaj said.

Added Stirling: "Sudsy's done a good job with him all year."

DiPietro jokes that Maharaj's work with troubled youngsters in the blue-collar neighborhood of Rexdale in north Toronto has helped prepare Maharaj for DiPietro's personality. But Maharaj, the father of two young children, said there really are elements that can be applied to his work with goaltenders.

"It helped me to walk a mile in someone else's shoes," he said. "It helped me step out of myself and put myself in their position."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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