Goaltending is one of the most unique positions in all of sports, undoubtedly so in hockey. Goalies need to address every play situation differently than any other player on the ice, as well as develop skills similar to those of their teammates. An important skill goalies should work hard to develop as they get older is playing the puck. Here’s a break-down of why good puck handling is crucial, and how to work on it to hone your skills in and around the crease.
As goalies get older and start to face off against smarter players of higher skill, it’s important that they are able to make smart, quick plays on their own and with their defense when the puck comes their way. This includes knowing when to play the puck, where to play it, when to leave it for the defense or when to freeze it. By mastering playing the puck, a goalie can almost control the pace in their zone during a game. The first thing to learn about playing the puck is the different techniques for hand positioning.
- Underhand: This is the closest a goalie can come to mimicking the hand positioning of a typical shooter. It is done by pulling the blocker hand up to the knob of the stick and positioning the glove hand under the stick closing it over the area where the handle becomes the paddle. Goalies who use this technique aim to get more power in their shot by using force from under the puck.
- Over the top (OTT): This technique has become more popular nowadays, as most goalies with excellent puck playing skills use it. It is done by once again pulling the blocker hand up to the knob of the stick, but placing the glove hand over the top of the paddle instead of the bottom. This allows for more control in where the puck goes and whether it stays on the ice or in the air, and feels easier when trying to shoot harder.
Ultimately, whatever hand positioning technique a goalie wants to use is up to them. The OTT is more popular among goalies and goalie coaches, but that doesn’t mean a goalie can’t use the Underhand technique if it feels more comfortable. It, too, has its own benefits.
In order to effectively play the puck, a goalie has to understand the different plays they can make in different game situations. There are times in a game when a goalie will have no outlet pass to make in front of them, and so will be forced to rim it, reverse it, or fend it off from forecheckers until an outlet appears. Because there are so many different plays that can be made, goalies need to learn what each of those are and how they can appropriately respond.
- Pass: Just like any other player on the ice, a goalie is allowed to pass the puck with their players. In a game, for example during a power play, the puck might be shot down the ice toward the net and stopped by the goalie. To speed things up, the goalie will pass the puck hard and flat on the ice to the swinging defenseman to save some time on the clock.
- Shoot: When practiced enough, a goalie can get a really good handle on the puck, even mustering enough sauce to score a goal on an opposing empty net, as a number of goalies have. Goalies will most likely shoot the puck up the ice to one of their players while the opponent is in the middle of a change. It’s also an alternative to passing flat on the ice.
- Rim: Rimming the puck is probably the most important play a goalie can make. So often in a game, the puck is dumped down the half wall and stopped by the goaltender, only to be shot right back where it came from. This is important to master because it can thwart many a scoring chances and dangerous forechecks, making the goalie’s job much easier and giving them some time to get set for impending zone pressure.
- Reverse/Over: Reversing the puck is a practice goalies do when they have time to think and execute such a play. It involves having one of their own players back behind the net or on the half wall behind them so they can reverse the puck to them and throw off the forechecker rushing in on the goalie. Often times a defensive player will yell “over,” and the goalie will know to throw it back to them to take out.
- Leave: Goalies will most likely resort to leaving the puck at the request of their players, and usually on a power play to give everyone enough time to skate back and regroup for another rush. All it takes is the goalie stopping the puck, getting a good handle on it, and leaving it near or behind the net for a player to pick up and carry out of the zone.
How do I practice playing the puck?
Now that I’ve explained the techniques and play situations involved in playing the puck as a goalie, you should practice and learn it, and increase your Hockey IQ. The most important factor in getting good at playing the puck is communication. If a goalie effectively communicates with their players, they don’t necessarily need to have the most strength behind their shot, so long as they make smart decisions and the players are there to back them up if something were to go wrong.
Along with learning the tendencies of your defense and how to mesh with their play styles, here’s what you can practice any time you’re on the ice: keep your head up when you let the puck leave your stick, make short, crisp passes instead of long ones if possible, don’t force a play you’re not comfortable with, and practice passing and shooting with your goalie partner for 15-20 minutes any time you have a chance to. At the end of the day, playing the puck is just like any other part of goaltending– it’s a skill that can be improved with practice and hard work.