The ups and downs of a hockey goaltender
That old "NBC's Wide World of Sports tag line" — the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat?
Nobody in sports feels it more than a hockey goaltender.
Like no other position in Big Four team sports, the goalie has the weight of the world on his shoulders. Even Atlas, you see, let in a goal now and then.
"It's a unique position," Portland Winterhawks goaltender Cole Kehler said after an excruciatingly painful 5-4 overtime loss to Spokane on Saturday night at Memorial Coliseum. "I've enjoyed it since I was three feet tall."
By all accounts, Kehler plays his position well. The 6-4, 205-pound native of Altona, Manitoba, finished second in the Western Hockey League in goals-against average and was tied for fourth in saves percentage.
Kehler, 20, has signed an NHL contract with the Los Angeles Kings.
It was anything but enjoyable, though, to be in the nets at the very bitter end on Saturday night.
The Hawks were 30 seconds away from wrapping up their best-of-seven series in five games when the Chiefs scored to send Game 5 into overtime. Midway through the extra session, the visitors lit the lamp again, and soon were celebrating on Portland's home ice, looking ahead to a Game 6 Monday in Spokane.
"It's a frustrating one," Kehler said. "I was a little off my game tonight."
Not true. Kehler registered 49 saves — third-highest of his career — and had to play through a medley of power-play opportunities the Hawks gave up over the first 60 minutes.
"Cole made some great saves," Portland coach Mike Johnston said. "He played really well. You couldn't fault him on the goals. The last one in regulation, the puck hit (Portland center Alex) Overhardt in the chest and ricocheted into the net. It was a bad break. Cole was going to play the shot, and it went in the other direction.
"With the game-winner, the puck hit somebody, too. It was a high-area shot with lots of traffic, lots of layers there. It caught the top corner."
Along with the glory in goaltending, there is blame. You're in the eye of Katrina, ready or not.
"Pitchers, quarterbacks and goaltenders are very similar," Johnston said. "It's a position the team relies on a lot. Momentum in the game and, oftentimes, winning and losing sits in their hands. It's a position of consequence. You have to be so mentally tough. You have to be resilient. The best goaltenders, the best pitchers, the best quarterbacks are all like that."
Kehler has been minding the nets since he was knee-high to a grasshopper in the plains of Manitoba. He was a baseball pitcher as a kid, too, so there is a common denominator.
"You get the chance to be a difference-maker," he said of goaltending. "It's a fun position to play."
Kehler is big, strong and athletic, but it's not all about physical gifts at his position. Far from it.
Winterhawks assistant coach Danny Flynn "always says hockey is 90 percent mental, 10 percent physical," Kehler said.
That's an exaggeration, but the mental side of goaltending, in particular, is off-the-charts important.
"If you don't have a good mind-set and you can't recover when a puck goes in — maybe it's a bad goal and you think you should have had it — then it doesn't matter what technical skills you have," Johnston said. "The best goaltenders develop the right mind-set when they're young. They become resilient. They become tougher in situations where you have to be able to rebound.
"It's easy when you're winning. It's hard when you've had a tough night. You have to be able to handle the ups and down. You have to be able to rebound both in a game and after a game. That's the most important part of the position."
The pressure at the goaltender position is enormous, anyway. But in the playoffs, it's ratcheted up a notch.
"You want to win every game," Kehler said. "You want to win every series. It's a battle, physically and mentally. You just have to stick with what you've done all season and push through it."
Kehler said he has worked with sports psychologists in the past, but not a lot. He repeats a couple of keywords to himself during a game. He tries to relax, but when the going gets tough, it's like asking a man with a loaded gun aimed at his grill to stay calm.
"I don't feel too much pressure in general," he said. "We have an unbelievable team in front of me. I get to go back there and watch them play. They're pretty impressive every night. I just do my best to give us a chance.
"What I do is as mental as you want to make it. At this point in the season, every goalie is pretty good. You have to go out there, stick to what you do well and whatever comes at you, do your best."
And not get overwhelmed by the moment. There's always another day, another game, until there isn't.