Near the end of October we are ten percent into the 2011-2012 hockey season and we have already seen many surprising — even shocking — outcomes so far. Teams who were in final four of the Stanley Cup playoffs, such as Boston, Tampa Bay and Vancouver have been struggling to win games, and teams who were on the bottom — Colorado Avalanche and Edmonton Oilers — have surprised us all. After the unprecedented summer moves by the Philadelphia Flyers their season got off to a very good start, but lately they have struggled and never so much as last night against the Winnipeg Jets. The game ended with a final score 9 – 8 in the Jets favor. Thrilling, yes, but a hell of a night for the goaltenders on both teams.

The Jets’ Ondrej Pavelec started the game, but was pulled when the score reached 6-6 in the 3rd period. Chris Mason replaced him but only played 8:27 minutes due to an injury. By the end of the game Pavelec had allowed 7 goals on 43 shots and Chris Mason had allowed 1 goal on 5 shots.

Sergei Bobrovsky started the game for the Flyers and remained for 24:39 minutes until early the 2nd period when the score reached 5-1 and he was replaced by Ilya Bryzgalov who remained in net for the remainder of the game for 24:39 minutes. Bobrovsky allowed 5 goals on 15 shots and Bryzgalov allowed 4 goals on 10 shots. In goaltender terms, the game was a nightmare.

Following the game, Bryzgalov took full blame for his team’s loss. “I have zero confidence in myself right now. I am terrible. I will now apologize in front of the fans, in front of my teammates. I don’t know what’s going on. I have no answer for you guys. I thought in the last game against Montreal that nothing worse was going to happen. Today was worse. I am lost in the woods right now.”

Bryzgalov’s brutal honesty is painful. Refreshing, but very painful. Does he really need to fall on his sword and take full responsibility for this loss? No, his team takes responsibility for their part as well. This is a team sport no matter what the goaltender critics will say and goaltenders are a team’s last defense, not their first.

After watching the goaltending bloodbath in Philadelphia, it was fascinating to watch the Washington Capitals — an unbeaten team through their first seven games — take on the Edmonton Oilers and lose 1-2. The Canadian “Kid” team. The bottom of last year’s league team. Expecting an interesting game, it was astonishing to see the young Oilers put up a great fight and a huge part of their success last night was their 38 year-old goaltender, Nikolai Khabibulin. The same Khabibulin who spent part of his summer in Arizona’s tent city jail. The same Khabibulin with the horrible goaltending stats the past couple of seasons. Last night Khabibulin saved 34 of 35 shots on goal from the Washington Capitals.

The Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau admitted that Khabibulin was tough last night. “I thought we played pretty good in the third period and came at them. Once that first five minutes went by and we didn’t get one with the pressure we had on them and on the first power play in the third when [Khabibulin] made that stop on Dennis Wideman, I thought it’s going to be hard to score on this guy tonight. We threw everything we could at him.”

Following the game, Khabibulin commented on his win, “We really wanted to see where we’re at. So it feels good to beat one of the best teams in the League.” Well done, Khabby.

Here is where I confess. I was ready to ship Khabibulin off to Siberia this summer. I wanted to see Devan Dubnyk in net for the Oilers and thought Yann Danis should be their backup goaltender. Khabibulin has surprised me this season. Perhaps his little stint in tent city helped him to refocus — which is exactly what he needed. Goaltenders not only need a physical game, they also need a mental game as well, and very little can push them over into goalie hell.

The Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo is a perfect example of this. Luongo is a top-notch goaltender, no matter what is said about him, but he needs to focus on his mental game. This week I asked Justin Goldman at The Goalie Guild about Luongo’s situation and he responded in his blog “Seven Thoughts on Six Goalies” and wrote: “To be honest, I’d recommend some mental coaching and some time with a sports psychologist. Not because I don’t think he’s mentally tough enough to bounce back from another rough October, but because he’s facing even more pressure than ever before….” [Link to the article to read more of Justin’s comments and also comments on Cory Schneider.]

The pressure on these goaltenders to perform well every night is incredible. Nothing is easy about being that one member of a team who is asked to stop pucks as a last defense. They are their team’s last resort. The expectations and pressure upon a goaltender is overwhelming and that can and does without any doubt get into their head. Do they dream about their fans booing them on home ice? They certainly hear it on the ice and it has to creep into their heads creating doubts and fears. Do they have other personal problems that find their way into their professional life? If they are like the rest of us, yes, these are indeed problems that will make a difference in their game.

I have no doubt that Luongo and Bryzgalov will find their way back to the top once again, but first, they will need to step back and refocus. Whether it is through a sports psychologist, yoga, Tai Chi and/or Pilates, these two goaltenders will need to examine themselves and that will help solve many of these goaltending problems. The sooner this is done, the faster they can both move ahead. In a priceless quote (beware, that is a horrible sports pun) from another struggling goaltender, Habs Carey Price stated “One more loss and I’m wearing a garter belt.” Whether in reference to his pink goalie gear highlighting Breast Cancer Awareness Month or to Bull Durham, the point was clearly made that Price needs to get his mind back into the game. (Read the full article in the Montreal Gazette.)

Good luck and I hope to see both Luongo and Bryzgalov in the Stanley Cup playoffs this season! And Khabibulin, who knows — your Oilers “Kid” team could be there as well!

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