Pressure points: Penguins' goalies prepare for season


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Tending goal in the NHL is a job like no other. It comes with pressures and stresses that few other hockey players can truly appreciate. And, at times, with some unique challenges.

Times like now and challenges like the ones goalies will be facing when they try to prepare for a regular season with less than a week of training camp.

They will, like most teammates, try to stay as limber as possible, so that the first time they put an utterly ridiculous strain on a groin or hamstring, it doesn't shred like tissue paper.

And they will work on the technical details of their job, on moving post-to-post and picking up point shots through screens.

But, at their position, where the margin for error is small enough that it could get lost on a flea's fingertip, there simply is nothing to fully prepare them for the mental demands of the game.

Especially not in a post-lockout season, when a condensed training camp and compressed regular-season schedule make even a single exhibition game against another NHL club an impossible luxury.

Which means that when the regular season begins -- which, from all indications, will happen eight days from now in Philadelphia -- the Penguins No. 1 goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, and his new partner, Tomas Vokoun, are unlikely to be fully prepared for what they're going to face, no matter how hard they worked during the labor dispute that shut down the league since mid-September or in the training camp to come.

There simply is no drill, no scrimmage that can replicate what's going to happen when there are two points -- two very important points -- at stake.

"A lot of times you feel good, your body, but then in your head, when the game happens, it's faster and at a higher pace," Fleury said.

"You can be waiting there [in the crease] for a long time, then, all of a sudden, you get a good shot [from an opposing player]. You have to be ready [mentally].

"That's why I think [exhibition games] are nice, because you can get into it, get a feel for the game."

Although coach Dan Bylsma has mentioned the possibility of staging a controlled scrimmage next week, it would give the goalies nothing more than a seriously diluted version of an

actual game. Exhibition games really don't do that, either, but come a little closer to posing real-game situations and circumstances.

"In the preseason, you play and you find where your weaknesses are, and you have time to address them," Vokoun said after a player-organized workout Thursday at Consol Energy Center.

"You get to work on stuff. I don't think that's going to be the case now."

Goaltending coach Gilles Meloche, who played the position in the NHL for 18 winters, believes that "the toughest part when you start the season, is [the mental aspect], getting concentration for 60 minutes," but he feels Fleury and Vokoun can deal with it.

"I would be a little more worried with a first- or second-year kid," Meloche said. "But these guys have been around."

Although Fleury enters the season as the undisputed No. 1 goalie, Vokoun will be closer to an equal partner than most of his previous co-workers have been. The basic plan still is to have Fleury make the majority of starts, but Vokoun is projected to play a higher percentage than most of the Penguins' recent backups have.

Precisely how he and Fleury will split the workload hasn't been finalized, but cutting down on Fleury's regular-season starts -- and, in theory, keeping him sharp for the postseason -- is something the Penguins had in mind when they acquired Vokoun's rights in June from Washington.

"We haven't talked about that [the details of workload] yet, and won't until the schedule comes out," Meloche said. "But we've talked for the last few years about giving fewer games to Marc so he's not worn out when the playoffs start."

Of course, that's moot unless the Penguins qualify for the playoffs, and the shortened season will make solid goaltending even more important than usual. Even if, in the early going, the goalies aren't quite as sharp as they would like.

"Obviously, you don't want to give up five or six goals," Vokoun said. "But you play to win the game. Once you win, it doesn't matter, really, what the score was."



NOTES -- The Penguins are not expected to name the players from their minor league team in Wilkes-Barre who will be brought in for training camp until the league announces a time frame for the preseason. ... One schedule scenario under consideration has the Penguins facing the New York Rangers Jan. 20 at Madison Square Garden, a day after they open the season in Philadelphia. ... The Penguins will offer free admission to all training-camp sessions at Consol Energy Center next week, as well as free selected concession items for the first four home games and half off on all merchandise at "PensGear" stores on the days of those four games. ... The Penguins hired Curtis Bell and Patrick Steidle as assistant athletic trainers. Steidle has been with the Baby Penguins for 14 seasons.

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Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@post-gazette.com and Twitter: @MolinariPG. First Published January 11, 2013 5:00 AM


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