NHL and Games? Goalies say bring it on
NHL clubs apparently missed the Olympic memo this year.
Martin Brodeur, Jonathan Quick, Miikka Kiprusoff, Evgeni Nabokov, Ilya Bryzgalov, Henrik Lundqvist, Roberto Luongo, Ryan Miller, Tomas Vokoun, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jonas Hiller and Niklas Backstrom are not just 12 terrific goalies. They're also the busiest netminders in the NHL, ranking among the top 15 in games played so far this season.
Oh, and they're all Vancouver-bound next week.
"It's something that comes with the territory now," said Miller, who is expected to get the majority of starts next week for Team USA. "You're paid a certain salary, you're expected to play a certain amount of minutes. Even during this Olympic stretch, I've been a little surprised at how many of the guys have played so many games. I think I'm even falling off their pace a little, and I've not missed that many games."
Miller appeared in his 50th game of the season Tuesday night in Buffalo's 58th game on the schedule. That doesn't even put him among the top five. Brodeur led the league through Tuesday night with 55 appearances, followed by Quick (54), Kiprusoff (53), Nabokov (51), Bryzgalov (51) and Lundqvist (51).
No one expects NHL teams to feel any sympathy for Olympic squads. These goalies get paid by their NHL teams, and the standings are so close that these starters are getting leaned on almost every night. Every point matters.
Even an official Olympic tie-in doesn't seem to change anything. Devils coach Jacques Lemaire, a member of Canada's Olympic coaching staff, isn't cutting Brodeur back one iota.
"He's getting days off [between games]," said Lemaire, downplaying his superstar's NHL-leading workload. "We try to find time for him where he can relax and take that pressure off, take the focus off the game. No, he's been good all year."
No big deal, said Brodeur, the veteran of the goalie group at age 37. Year in and year out, he's among the busiest netminders in the NHL.
"I think hockey has changed, athletes have changed a lot through the years," Brodeur told ESPN.com. "Everybody is able to handle the workload. If they weren't able to, they wouldn't play that much. When you don't play a lot, sometimes games get tougher on your body. When you play a lot, I think your body gets used to it. I think mentally is where the strength needs to be strong. I think after a few years, some of these goalies acquire that, and you'll see that more and more."
Brodeur, who's expected to handle most of the workload for Team Canada, finds it easier to play so much because he believes it keeps him in a rhythm.
"I'm the same way, honestly," Nabokov told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "You have your routine. I like it that way, too."
Nabokov, headed to Vancouver to stop pucks for Russia, is easily on pace to eclipse the 62 games he played last season -- when there were no Olympics. Go figure. But there's a concrete reason for that.
"When we came in as a new coaching staff, we thought we could cut him back a little bit and keep him fresh enough for the playoffs," Sharks coach Todd McLellan told ESPN.com. "The more I'm around Nabby, the more I realize that it keeps the engine running and it stays warm, and he plays better. I don't see any signs of him showing fatigue or tiring. We will continue to manage him post-Olympics, but I'm going with my gut on this one -- I think he plays better when he plays more."
McLellan is also a backer of the rhythm theory.
"Maybe in pro sports in general, that rhythm is important," the Sharks' coach said. "Kobe Bryant needs to touch the ball that much. You rotate your bullpen around in baseball so that those pitchers stay in a rhythm. Maybe that's how it is with goaltenders. I don't know; I'm trying to figure it out. But that's what Nabby is showing us at this point."
Take a star goalie out of that rhythm, and perhaps he's not as sharp?
"Maybe the coaches don't want to risk that flow," Miller said.
But what about the risk for wear and tear? Is that overblown?
"I think it is," said Luongo, who appeared in his 50th game of the season Tuesday night for the Canucks. "There's wear and tear in a season no matter what. There's travel and all that stuff. It takes a toll on your body, but you have to make sure you manage it well. You have to make sure you're taking care of yourself. When it's time to rest, you rest. You eat well, and that's it. You're going to go through ups and downs as far as fatigue levels. But as long as you work through it, you'll be all right."
Nabokov argued it is easier for goalies to bounce back from a night's work than skaters.
"I think the goalie is the position where your recovery is a little bit quicker than the [other] guys because obviously we don't skate as much," the Russian star said. "I think if you're pretty disciplined, you can recover pretty quick."
Just take more practices off, right? Not so for Luongo.
"Actually, I take fewer off now probably," said Luongo, Team Canada's likely backup to Brodeur. "When I was younger, I took a few skates off. Now I find I'm sharper when I'm practicing all the time. The only time I'll take a morning skate off is if it's the second game of a back-to-back. Apart from that, I'm skating all the time."
More work at the Olympics? Bring it on.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.