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GOALTENDING:  Essential Puckhandling

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The modern game of hockey requires goaltenders to handle the puck as well as any forward or defenseman. Although most goalies know they need to handle the puck, their perception on how and when to do it is all wrong.

Young goalies see NHL goalies like Ron Hextal scoring on empty nets or cracking the puck off the glass and, to them, that is what puckhandling is all about. The reality of puckhandling is that a goalie must possess an innate ability to read a play and pass, clear or set the puck in the proper location. Most goalies are clueless when it comes to counteracting an opposition forecheck. Instead of making an informed decision on where to put the puck, many goalies will try to force the puck through traffic because they think they are better puckhandlers than they really are. These goalies give their coaches gray hairs because of all of their stupid giveaways. Let's look at the essential elements of puckhandling.

1. VERBAL AND NON-VERBAL COMMUNICATION

Communication by the goaltender is the foundation of puckhandling. If the goalie doesn't let his teammates know what he or she is doing with the puck, the opponents may receive a gift.

Communication doesn't necessarily have to be verbal. It may come as a result of a pointed hand or nod of the head. Communication must be initiated by the goalie the second the puck is brought under control. The goalie must let his teammates know both verbally, by loudly giving directions, and non-verbally by steering the puck to one side of the net before playing it. The most serious mistake a goalie can make is to delay giving instructions until his teammate or an opponent is right on top of him. Now the goalie has no quick options because he is under too much pressure. Goaltenders must speak loudly and early as to their intentions with the puck.

2. DECISION MAKING

Okay, you have just made a save, the puck is at your feet and all the players on the ice are moving towards you. What the heck do you do with the puck?

This situation is tough for all of the goalies who were daydreaming while the coach was practicing forechecking and breakouts. You must have a knowledge of the game in order to know where to play the puck. First, is there a defenseman or teammate that is in your vicinity? Is the opposition forechecking aggressively? What play would be the safest and most effective? The goalie has three basic options: set it, pass it or clear it.

3. THE SET

When the goalie sees that his defenseman is arriving uncontested towards the loose puck, the goalie must initiate the exchange by yelling, "Here, take it!", while pointing to one side of the net. The goalie uses one hand on the stick while pointing the glove to the side of the net the set will occur. The goalie must cup the puck on the stick and draw it even with or a stick length behind the goal line so the defenseman may swing the net, but also the goalie can still pull it back to freeze it if the situation warrants it. The goalie must stop the puck and not slap it uncontrollably behind the goal line where the defenseman must waste time retrieving it. The goalie must keep the head up to make sure there is no mix-up.

4. PASSING THE PUCK

Any pass must be made when the puck has been stopped. When goalies try to pass pucks without getting them under control, they cough them up like a rubber furball. Stop the puck, scan the defensive and neutral zones for the safest, most direct pass available. The goalie should not smack the puck because the pass will be off the mark and sloppy. Do not waste time crossing over the glove and blocker or the stick because it takes too long and a forechecker may steal the puck from you. The blocker should hold the stick tightly below the knob and the catching glove provides leverage at the top of the paddle where it meets the thin shaft. Snap both wrists after you have brought the puck from your back foot to the point of release by the front foot. Sweep the puck from heel to toe and follow through at the target. Snap the wrist and cup the puck with the stick blade so there is enough spin to keep the puck moving quickly on the ice to your teammate's stick. Choose the most open player to pass to and get him the puck quickly so the transition out of your zone will happen. A soft sloppy pass will be stolen, resulting in additional and unnecessary scoring chances.

5. CLEARING THE PUCK

You don't necessarily need to lift the puck in the air to beat a forechecker. However, you must know where open lanes are in order to prevent your clears from being picked off. If you go behind the net to stop a puck, immediately pull the puck 3-4 feet off the endboards so the forechecker can't hug the boards and steal the puck from you. By pulling the puck off the boards, you gain a carom angle away from the forechecking player. If the puck is left flush to the boards, the forechecker can plow through the stick and steal the puck. Pay attention as to whether the player is a left shot or right shot and clear the puck away from the forehand. Clearing the puck requires a higher follow through in order to get height. If there is no wrist snap, the puck will not become airborne. Do not clear the puck if a pass to a teammate is available. You do not want to give the puck away when time of possession is so important. Hustle back to the net while facing the puck should the clear get intercepted. Always stop the puck prior to clearing it and fire the puck to the safest lane possible. Never pass the puck right up the middle unless there is no possibility of giving it away. When the puck is cleared up the middle, there's a 99% chance of having it come right back at you.

When it comes to puckhandling, be alert, be vocal, and be smart. If you focus on these three keys, your coach and teammates will be impressed by your puckhandling prowess. If you are ignorant, silent and stupid, your coach and teammates will cringe everytime you touch the puck.

This article was contributed by Fred Quistgard of Quistgard Goalie Training.

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