There's nothing else in sports quite like the goalie mask, a literal blank slate upon which a goalie — often regarded as the quirkiest guy on his team — gets to broadcast his id to the world. The result, over the years, has been a crazy and compelling collection of cryptic symbols, animal imagery, shout-outs to grandmas and/or sports heroes, terrifying cartoons, and lots and lots of airbrushing. This year, of course, is no exception. Here, we take a look at some of this season's best goalie helmets. (As always, feel free to render your own judgments in the comments!)
Best Literary Reference
"This may be one of the most scary mask[s] I've ever created," uber-popular mask designer David Gunnarsson wrote on his website, describing Dallas goalie Richard Bachman's new look. "We wanted the mask to have the same uncomfortable feeling you have when you just wake up after a nightmare." The helmet features images from The Shining — the famous twins, Jack Nicholson's terrifying eyes — in honor of Stephen King, who once used the nom de plume "Richard Bachman." ("There was a novel by Richard Stark on my desk so I used the name Richard and that's kind of funny because Richard Stark is in itself a pen name for Donald Westlake," King explains on his website, "and what was playing on the record player was "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" by Bachman Turner Overdrive, so I put the two of them together.") It's really too bad we don't have a helmet depicting scenes from King/Bachman's best work, The Long Walk, but I suppose psychological terror is kinda tricky to airbrush.
When the Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith went down after a collision with the Chicago Blackhawks' Andrew Shaw, it appeared Phoenix's playoff hopes would fall with him. Smith has been such a large part of the Coyotes' success this season (although, to be fair, Phoenix's defensive system has been equally vital to Smith's improvement, so it's a little bit of a chicken-or-egg thing) that to lose him seemed like notably bad news.
He ended up being OK, though (to the great irritation of Blackhawks fans, who saw Shaw suspended three games based partially on what they felt to be a trumped-up injury to the goalie), and no one ever had to find out what Jason LaBarbera, the backup netminder, would have had to offer. But for seven other playoff teams, backups have had to bounce up off the bench. Here, we rank their performances, from worst to first.
Ground down, sore on Saturday night when the regular season ends. Ready to explode Wednesday as the playoffs begin. It’s the miracle of April.
When playoff energy returns, defense returns. Shooters get harassed and forced to bad angles; rebounds are cleared. Great chances become good chances that good goalies can stop. Every goal not scored seems bigger. Every save made seems better. It’s a goalie’s time of year.
You have to like attention to be a goalie. You have to want to be a hero. In the playoffs, you have your chance. You’re playing better than you’ve ever played, in games more important than you’ve ever been in. You can suddenly feel a wave build beneath you. A save, another, the noise of the crowd. You feel good. You feel great.
New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist will almost certainly be taking home the Vezina Trophy this season as the league's top goaltender. He's no. 1 in save percentage (.938) and shutouts (eight), and is second in goals-against average (1.82). With the Rangers contending for the overall best regular-season record, he'll also probably be getting more than a few votes for the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player.
Still, even Lundqvist has managed to drive his coaches a little bit crazy.
"I won't lie," Montreal goalie Carey Price told to NBC Sports during the NHL All-Star Game, seconds after a reflexive glove save left Ottawa's Jason Spezza chuckling in disbelief and NBC's announcers remarking that they wished there was a way Price could see what he looked like while flashing the leather. "I was checking myself out on the big screen."
No one has faced more shots this year than Cam Ward. In his seventh season with the Carolina Hurricanes, Ward, who writes "Have Fun" on all of his sticks, is adjusting to the new realities of his team, one of which is this: The Hurricanes give up the most shots on goal of all 30 NHL teams. Ward has, unsurprisingly, had a tough season in this environment, and it's beginning to show.
After being beaten in overtime by the Maple Leafs, Ward two-hand Hulk-smashed his stick against the goalpost in frustration. (It was a move he'd clearly had on the mind: One game earlier, against Winnipeg, Ward was yanked for the second time in three games and sat on the bench screaming. "I was absolutely not directing it at anybody," he later said. "I was thinking about smashing the stick but didn't do that. I just started yelling.")
Two weeks ago, the Minnesota Wild came thisclose to having a 51-year old embroidery store owner named Paul Deutsch suit up as an emergency backup goalie. The Wild's top guy, Niklas Backstrom, was scratched late on game day, Josh Harding would be starting in net -- and it wasn't clear whether the team's preferred backup guy, 21-year-old Matt Hackett of the AHL's Houston Aeros, would be able to make it to the game in time.
Less than a week before the beginning of the season, an article about the Phoenix Coyotes in the Arizona Republic had this to say about the team's personnel in net: "Mike Smith, who calls parts of his game 'a work in progress,' will be in goal when the Coyotes open the regular season Saturday night at San Jose."
It wasn't exactly a rousing outlook for the Coyotes, who lost their starting goaltender, Vezina Trophy candidate Ilya Bryzgalov, in the summer to the far richer Philadelphia Flyers. The Coyotes, who are currently owned by the league and may not be long for Phoenix unless a new buyer can be located, instead inked former Tampa Bay and Dallas backup Mike Smith to a far thriftier two-year, $4-million contract than the nine-year, $51-million deal Bryzgalov ultimately wrung out of Philly.
There may be no position in all of sports that can more single-handedly and consistently alter the course of a single game, a playoff series, or an entire season than a hockey goalie. (And there's certainly no position in all of sports — or, really, life — that boasts better helmets.) These guys are fearless, flexible, fast — and often fairly unhinged. Here, we salute five of the week's noteworthy performances in net.