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Hockey NHL goalies try to cope with a faster, more skilled, more creative league

Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne makes a save on Colorado Avalanche left wing Gabriel Landeskog during a game at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colo.

Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

NHL goaltenders prepare for the unexpected and unpredictable, ready for pucks deflecting off sticks, bodies, feet or even a divot in the ice past all the gear designed to help defend their net.

The freaky, fluky or simply weird goals can be laughed off by goalies who know sometimes the puck just takes a funny bounce.

The goals that eat away at a goalie are those he believes he could’ve – and should’ve – stopped. Not the goal allowed by Dallas goalie Anton Khudobin when the puck bounced off a Nashville forward’s back and over the net before hitting the back of the goalie’s helmet, then off his back and into the net.

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“It stings any time you give up a goal,” Predators goalie Pekka Rinne said Tuesday. “That kind of goal, there’s nothing really he could’ve done. It’s a freaky goal, and I feel like those things maybe happen once, twice in a season. But yeah, the ones that hurt the most as a goalie, it’s the ones that you feel like you should’ve had it.”

Stickhandling in the NHL has improved right along with players’ speed and skating thanks to off-season workouts. That also has boosted the creativity for shooters looking to do a bit more than a simple slap shot, wrister or snap shot.

“There’s a lot of talent in the league, more maybe so now than there has been in years past,” Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog said. “These young guys coming up, everybody has their own skills coaches and things like that. There’s a lot of skills. I don’t doubt there’s more highlight-reel goals.”

Goaltenders have to be ready for the next move dreamed up by the league’s stars to put the puck over the line. Scoring is up with the average number of goals scored per game increasing in each of the past four seasons, and the current average of 3.06 goals a game is on pace to be the highest since the 2005-06 season, according to Hockey-Reference.com.

“Maybe it’s the skill of the players too, finding that one spot,” Colorado goalie Philipp Grubauer said. “[Evgeny] Kuznetsov in Washington, he’s so sneaky in terms of what he wants to do and doesn’t want to do. He puts the puck in spots. Maybe you get a weird bounce, hit a guy’s shin pad or something like that.”

The NHL also keeps downsizing goaltenders’ pads, most recently chest protectors. Grubauer sees teams also changing how they break out on offence, attacking faster and giving goalies less time.

“Back in the days, you always used to go back and regroup and break out as a unit,” Grubauer said. “I feel like the last couple of years, it’s always like, [snaps fingers] and up [snaps fingers] and up.”

Sometimes goalies get lucky, too.

Buffalo goalie Carter Hutton appeared to be losing his balance Sunday in the first period against Winnipeg with Adam Lowry coming in on a short-handed breakaway. Hutton put his glove down at the exact moment Lowry tried to slip the puck between the goalie’s legs for the save.

“You definitely get some fluky saves where you’re beat and a guy just hits you,” Hutton said.

The Sabres goalie also recalls being on his goal line when the puck came up, rolled over the top of the net, hit his neck and went in. He had another puck slip past him on a penalty shot in December against Florida.

“You make the initial save, and it lands on my pads sideways and just slowly rolls off,” Hutton said. “That’s one where, if it’s during a game, a D-man’s probably there to stop it or that puck lands flat on my pad and doesn’t go in. It’s unfortunate that it lands sideways and rolls off my pad. So that’s one that I would say this year that’s been fluky.”

There’s one goal so weird it’s called the Butt Goal.

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Defenceman Mark Pysyk, now with Florida, got his first goal of the 2013 season right before Christmas in overtime after jamming at the puck, sending it into the air and into the pants of Coyotes goalie Mike Smith who then backed into his own net.

“I didn’t think they would call it a goal, because I didn’t think they’d see it, but they did,” Pysyk said. “It was in his pants and he backed in. I think you could see me point at it. They counted it a little bit after, obviously, so I didn’t have a chance to celebrate normally. It was pretty funny.”

SURPRISING ISLANDERS

The New York Islanders are atop the Metropolitan Division in coach Barry Trotz’s first season despite losing John Tavares last off-season to Toronto. They just snapped a three-game streak Tuesday night with a 3-1 loss in Buffalo but are 6-2-2 in their past 10 games and remain second over all in the Eastern Conference.

To Buffalo coach Phil Housley, credit Trotz using the same philosophy and structure from coaching in Nashville and winning the Stanley Cup with Washington last summer.

“I really had a pleasure to work with him for one year and learned a lot from him,” Housley said. “You can see he’s had success wherever he’s went.”

RIVALRY SERIES

The best of women’s hockey are back at it this week with the United States and Canada playing each other in a rare three-game “Rivalry Series” that ends Sunday in Detroit at the home of the Red Wings. The United States beat Canada nearly a year ago for Olympic gold and then won a fourth straight Four Nations Cup title last November. Kendall Coyne Schofield will be the U.S. captain for the series, which will be aired on NHL Network.

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“That’s something we’ve been fighting for, is more chances for us to play against Canada,” U.S. forward Dani Cameranesi said. “It’s not that often that we get to play at the highest level. We don’t really have that many chances for that, but for them all to be … on NHL Network, too, and for us to get coverage on that is a really big deal.”

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