Blackhawks’ Robin Lehner breaks down strategies that make him one of NHL’s elite penalty-kill goalies
The Hawks have killed 32 of 36 power plays with Lehner in the net this season. The star goalie recently explained exactly how he does it.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Blackhawks goaltender Robin Lehner sees a new generation of goalies entering the NHL focusing on what he thinks are the wrong things.
‘‘The new trend of goalie coaches and these so-called goalie gurus out there, they preach so much about skating,’’ Lehner said after the Hawks’ practice Friday. ‘‘Skating is really important, but we don’t teach reading plays and predicting.
‘‘You see younger and younger goalies come into the league, and they’re so good technically, so good at moving, but they don’t get taught to read the play and feel the game and stuff anymore. It’s become very robotic.’’
At 28, Lehner is hardly an old man by goalie standards. But he remains steadfastly old-school in his tactics.
Those tactics have been working brilliantly for the Hawks this season. Lehner, who entered play Saturday second in the NHL in save percentage, is at .936 after their 7-2 rout of the Predators.
His partnership with Corey Crawford, who also has caught fire lately, has exceeded the expectations the Hawks had for them. It’s because of them that the Hawks’ awful start didn’t bury them, and it’s also because of them that coach Jeremy Colliton has felt comfortable shifting to a more aggressive system that has revived the season.
But Lehner made a fascinating comment before the Hawks’ turnaround began Nov. 3 against the Ducks. He said he followed a different strategy than most goalies do on the penalty kill. On Friday, he described that strategy in-depth.
‘‘Stay more in the middle in the net, don’t move as much, try to figure out where the puck is going,’’ he said. ‘‘I still want to end up making saves on the crease line, but you just don’t have to follow it around on the crease line.
‘‘If you just follow the play a little bit and know where they’re trying to end up going, when you know the puck is going to the destination where it’s probably going to get released, that’s when you take your step [forward]. You can still end up on the crease line.’’
That’s where the difference in the mindset of young goalies comes into play. Many of them like to stay well out of the net throughout the sequence. Lehner prefers to remain deeper, limiting his movement, before challenging at the last second. He said his thorough scouting and video-watching tell him when to challenge.
His strategy also relies on coordination with the Hawks’ penalty-killing units. Instead of defenders blocking shots, he usually likes to have clear sight lines to the shooters. He prefers for the defenders to concentrate on taking away cross-ice passes instead.
‘‘Those shots from the top of the blue line, you want those to be blocked by the forwards because there’s so much traffic in front,’’ Lehner said. ‘‘But anything from the sides, I like to see it and have my defense on the inside taking away the far side of the net. You only have to focus on a half-part of your net on a bad angle.’’
‘‘We talk about taking half the net,’’ Colliton said. ‘‘That’s important, as far as which lane we’re going to give the power play to shoot.’’
Lehner’s approach has made him one of the NHL’s best short-handed goalies throughout his career, and that’s holding true again this season. After the game against the Predators, the Hawks had killed 32 of 36 penalties (89 percent) with Lehner in net and he had a .932 save percentage on the penalty kill, ranking sixth in the league.
His hulking frame surely helps. But so does his philosophy.
‘‘People say, ‘Beat the puck,’ ’’ he said. ‘‘Well, if you have to move half the distance, you’ll beat the puck easier.’’