The following article was written by guest contributor Ryan Sonntag.
The breakaway is one of the most entertaining and memorable plays in the game of hockey. It’s a fun experience for players and fans alike. However, as a goaltender, a breakaway can be pretty intimidating and sometimes (especially against certain players) it can be dreaded. This article is about helping to give new goaltenders a solid approach to handling these plays while providing more experienced goalies a different look on how other people approach breakaways.
You Have the Advantage
First of all, there is no reason to dread a breakaway as a goaltender. Goalies typically have the advantage here. It’s just a matter of figuring out what works best for each individual. For me, I like to keep things simple. When it comes to breakaways there are two options a skater has: to shoot or deke. With a shot the player can go anywhere – high, low, blocker-side, glove-side, 5-hole, etc. – but with a deke the player can either go left or right. I would rather face a deke than face a shot.
Defending Against Dekes
Implementing this strategy is easy. Be aggressive. When I recognize a skater is on a breakaway I come out to about the middle slot area (just shy of the center hash marks on the faceoff circles). As I’m pretty comfortable on my skates I don’t mind being aggressive. By being overly aggressive, I’m cutting down the angle so much for the skater that it would be unreasonable for him to try to shoot it. I’m essentially daring them to try to get it around me. As the player comes closer to the net, I take two or three hard c-cuts backwards to get my speed up to try to match that of the players. The timing of my retreat is everything. If I backup too soon I give up too much net to the player but if I back up too late I won’t be able to keep up with him/her and they’ll blow right by me. As the player closes in I will try to maintain a constant distance (~4’ or 5’). At this point, my feet are no longer moving and I am gliding backwards with both my feet (and body) squared to the puck. At this point the name of the game is patience. As I glide backwards to the net I am waiting for the player to decide what they’re going to do. By this time I should (hopefully) be around the top of the crease. Whichever side the skater dekes to I respond by pivoting my body and sliding laterally (my method of choice is the butterfly slide) while maintaining my constant depth and staying square to the puck. As I slide I’m pushing myself to my post. The angle in which you slide back is very important in order to maintain the close depth between you and the puck. Be careful not to slide back at a severe angle into your net or slide at the player (where he could just take it wide and skate around you). Also keep in mind when you pivot to slide laterally you are going to need a strong push in order to maintain the players speed. If we maintain our constant depth the skater will be “trapped” in close to you so that they will not be able to have enough room to lift the puck into the upper portion of the net.
Defending Against Shots
You might ask: What if the player decides to shoot it instead of deke?
Initially, you will be in great position to handle a shot as you are out and cutting down the angle. The biggest risk is if the skater shoots when you beginning to push back towards your net. This is why it’s important to just take a few strong pushes that way you can steady your feet and glide back where you will be better able to react to a shot.
Poke-checks are always fun to try but I don’t typically use a poke check. I’m typically not the aggressor on a breakaway and I don’t like being the one who blinks first. However, a strategy I use against some of my better opponents is a fake poke-check. This only works if the players are aware that you are trying to poke check them (ie keeping their head up). The idea behind this is when they get close you make a poke-checking like motion (without actually doing it) which usually forces them to either shoot the puck (typically five hole since they think you are lowering your guard there) or forces them to do something else before they were wanting to do it. It works sometimes but not all of the time. Typically when I get burned pretty badly it has to do with me poke-checking.
When faced with a breakaway be aggressive, make several strong pushes backward to match the players speed, as they get closer to you begin gliding backwards, stay patient, once they commit, pivot, make a strong push to your post while keeping your body square to the puck. If you can do this, you will have a pretty high success rate against breakaways. Below is a link of a pretty good example of Jonathan Quick putting some of the elements discussed here to good use.
I’ve shared a few strategies that work for me, but I’d love to hear from my fellow goalies. How do you handle breakaways? Do you approach them any differently? Let us know in the comments.
Ryan has played both inline and ice for 14 years. He’s played goalie for 12 years, he played one year of juniors and has worked behind-the-scenes as an assistant equipment manager for a CHL team for four years.