2014 Olympics: North American goalies face adjustment to big ice

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

North American goalies like Jonathan Quick may have minor adjustments to make in Sochi. (USATSI)
North American goalies like Jonathan Quick may have minor adjustments to make in Sochi. (USATSI)

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The hottest topic when it comes to Olympic hockey as it pertains to the two North American countries participating -- excluding security concerns -- is how they will or won't adjust to the bigger ice surface the games will be played on. While it is expected there will be some disadvantages for the North American teams on a 200-by-100 foot rink, the best adjustment may end up being not overthinking the big ice.

That is especially true for goaltenders. The wider ice surface creates some key differences for goaltenders in terms of where shots are coming from and how the European teams structure their play, but that doesn't require sweeping changes for the goalies.

"I think there will be [an adjustment] for them initially," said Mike Ayers, an assistant coach at Boston College and former national goaltending coach for USA Hockey. "I always felt like it was easier to go from an Olympic sheet to a smaller sheet. There will be a little adjustment, but they're pros. They'll pick up on it very quickly."

Joe Exter, also formerly the national goaltending coach for USA Hockey and a current assistant at Ohio State, agrees that there's an adjustment, but not big enough to vastly change a goaltender's play.

"The first adjustment is this: Not letting the small increase in size adjust who you are as a goalie and affect you mentally," Exter said. "That happens far too often, especially when you're used to playing on an NHL-sized sheet. You get in trouble when you start thinking things have to change drastically because they don't."

Since NHL players started playing in the Olympics, the US and Canada have not been able to medal in overseas Olympics held on wider ice surfaces. Both have earned big-ice medals though as Canada won gold over the US in 2002 in Salt Lake City, where they used a 200-by-100 rink.

Scoring goals is obviously an important aspect, but if a team struggles to score consistently, it can get by with excellent goaltending.

Of the six goaltenders between the US and Canadian rosters, all have some big-ice experience, but only Team USA's Jimmy Howard and Canada's Mike Smith have played on a bigger ice surface in the past seven years. Both appeared in recent IIHF World Championships, but neither is expected to earn a starting job at the Olympics.

That long layoff in experience might hurt, but Ayers believes they won't take terribly long to adjust.

"The first thing they'll try to tackle is the adjustment in practice," Ayers said. "Especially in those early practices, however they work on their angles, they'll probably want to do a little bit more."

Both Exter and Ayers have had to work with many goalies on going from traditional North American ice to European surfaces. In some cases, their current college goaltenders have to make that adjustment from NHL to Olympic ice in one weekend as there are more than 10 rinks in college hockey that utilize Olympic-sized ice or close. Both also have extensive international experience with USA Hockey.

Exter pinpointed a few ways a goalie can miss the mark in adjusting to the bigger ice surface.

"They either play too passive, stay in tight and they end up getting beat on those one-on-one situations because they're terrified to challenge like they normally would," he explained. "Second, is when you're off of it, then you over-challenge and you get out of your comfort zone."

Ayers explained when goalies over-challenge, it's usually due to the width of the ice taking them off their normal angles.

"If the puck is out wide, sometimes you'll see goalies and they're still moving laterally when they don't need to," he said. "When you get outside those dots, it's very limited movement you have to do to stay square on puck."

The faceoff dots remain unchanged from an NHL surface. They're in the same place, so that's a good guiding point for the goalies.

The myth about wider ice surfaces is that it's easier to create offense. The best shots still come from between the faceoff dots and that's a tough area to get to against defensively sound teams.

Goalies may face shots from wider angles and will have to be careful, but that's not necessarily the style of European national teams. Exter feels that the style of the opponent's play is the biggest adjustment the goaltender has to be prepared for.

"The style of play is what affects it more than the actual ice surface size," said Exter, who starred at Merrimack College as a player. "The US style is shoot, drive the net, get the rebound. On the international stage, it's all about puck control and looking for the greater scoring chance instead of just taking the scoring chance that is presented.

"Your opponent changes. Their concepts, their structure, that changes. They're about maintaining control of the puck, holding onto plays and you can look at Sweden. Who does it better than them?"

The wider ice surface also creates the potential for teams generating opportunities in transition and on the rush. The width of the ice does play a factor there according to Exter as the goaltender may have a shot coming from a little wider out on odd-man breaks than he may be used to. That extra room doesn't change the net size though.

"On rush plays coming against, there's more room so you have to be aware of your movements, and that's just staying in your crease," Exter said. "It's the same any stage you play on. You still have to cover the same area. When there's a rush play with no pass option, you can still be aggressive. You challenge in the right situations."

There are some benefits of the bigger ice surface to the goaltenders as well. Because of the width of the ice, things can be a bit more spread out.

"It gives the goalie a little more real estate to be able to look and find things as they develop," said Ayers, who was a second-team All-America selection while at the University of New Hampshire, where he played on an Olympic-sized sheet.

"The puck is traveling farther," Exter noted. "You have more time. That plays to the advantage of goaltenders."

Ayers also said he believes the width of the ice can help a goaltender who is good at playing the puck as he'll have a little more time and space to collect rimmed pucks and might even have enough time to be a little creative. There is no trapezoid in the Olympics like there is in the NHL, so goalies can go wherever they want behind the net. Ayers said teams with goalies that can play the puck will have an advantage.

"That's overlooked now -- that part of the game -- with the trapezoid, but there's a lot of goalies that can handle the puck well," he said. "With that space, there's not as much congestion. You can easily leave a puck to your defenseman. I think you'll see the goalies a lot more active."

Both the US and Canada are facing tough decisions on who will be the No. 1 goaltender in the tournament. Canada has a serious debate between Carey Price and Roberto Luongo, while the US faces the tough choice between Ryan Miller and Jonathan Quick.

After head coaches Dan Bylsma and Mike Babcock make their decision, however, both Exter and Ayers were in agreement with how the goaltending situation should be handled for the duration of the tournament.

"You got to ride [the No. 1 goalie]," Exter said. "You get that established and you've got to let him be the No. 1."

"It's not only how [the starter] plays, but also how the team responds to them," Ayers said. "It's such a short tournament and a significant tournament that you want to have a goalie that the guys want to play for."

That doesn't make the decisions any easier for Bylsma or Babcock on who should start Game 1, but that decision will be important. The good news is, if their top choice falters, Plan B looks really, really good.

For the goalies themselves, it may just come down to not overthinking the larger surface and making those very small adjustments as opposed to doing anything drastic.

"You stick to who you are," Exter said of how he advises goaltenders on the transition. "You play your game. It will work no matter what surface you're playing on. It's the same position, same net size, same crease size. Stay in it, play to your strengths and you'll be fine."

With a field that includes many goaltenders experienced on the big ice, the American and Canadian hopes of reaching the top of the podium may rest in the gloved hands of the men between the pipes.

 
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