In today’s NHL, screens have become a necessity for offenses. Goaltenders are too big and too talented, and the best way to throw them off their game is to get bodies in front and take away their eyes. It’s something that the New York Islanders have not done enough of this season, and it’s something, on the flip side, that has come back to bit them over their two-game skid.
The Islanders have allowed 10 goals over the last two games, eight coming with screens in front.
Here at NYI Hockey Now, we broke down the net-front issue back on Monday afternoon, after it was the focal point at practice.
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“You got to find a way to see the puck, to see the shooter. That’s your job,” Varlamov said. “You can’t blame somebody if you don’t see the puck, that’s the thing.”
Despite having 15 years of NHL experience, Varlamov is still learning how to be better positionally in these situations.
“We practicing (screens) a lot during the practices. We’re doing some drills for the screening. Also the goalie coach (Piero Greco) is teaching us how to find the best position with a screen,” Varlamov said. “You can’t be too far, or you can’t be too deep. So you have to find the sweet spot to see, like right on top of the goalie crease. And that’s what we do.”
If you are a goaltender, it’s on you to give pointers to your defenseman if there’s someone left all-alone in front.
But at the NHL level, there’s a trust factor between a goaltender and his defensemen.
“The defensemen, they know there’s always screening going on. So they always try to box out the players. That’s their job, and they know my job, like I said, is to try to find the puck, so we always communicate and talk about other things,” Varlamov said.
“We both know what to do. I don’t have to tell them all the time. There’s screen in front of the net, pretty much every shot from the blue line. So I mean that that would be a lot of yelling.”
Islanders defenseman Noah Dobson spoke about the balance between doing your job and helping out your netminders.
“It’s not an easy part of the game. Guys are good at doing that these days,” Dobson said. “Sometimes you think you have sticks tied up, and there’s guys that seemed to always get their stick on it. So it’s tough, but I think if your man’s coming to the front of the net, that has to be your main objective. You got to try and box him out and tie up his stick.
“Obviously, you’d like to try and make sure the goalie sees the puck, but I think the main thing is you got to worry about your guy and his stick.”
As for his netminders talking to him often:
“They talk a little bit, but we play with each other enough now where they kind of can feel and read off you. Obviously, they’ll let you know guys are going behind you and stuff like that. They’re gonna communicate that stuff, but overall, you just got to try and do the best to let them see the park and tie up sticks.”
The Islanders 2021 NHL All-Star, Adam Pelech, added his two cents on the topic.
“I guess there’s always a balance where you need to clear guys out in front and be hard in front, but you don’t want to screen your goalie. But I honestly, I think at the end of the day, you can’t worry too much with screening the goal, and you have to get your guy, and you have to tie up his stick and not let them get a rebound or whatever it may be,” Pelech said.
“So I think our goalies are obviously, you know, some of the best in the league and can deal with the traffic. We just have to eliminate the tips and the rebounds and that kind of stuff.”
This season, the Islanders netminders have done a tremendous job behind the defense, especially on screened shots, but like we saw Saturday and a few days on Thursday with Ilya Sorokin in goal, life is much harder when the opponent sends more than one body towards goal.
At Monday’s practice, Islanders head coach Lane Lambert was pointing out to his defensemen how important it was not to let the opposing forwards get to the net, starting the box out as soon as possible.
NYI Hockey Now asked Lambert how he wants his defensemen to balance doing their jobs in front while not screening their own netminder.
“Well, it is a balance, and if there’s a situation where you can’t box out, perhaps you front the puck,” Lambert said.
Fronting the puck is when a player, whether it be at the blue line or in front goal, steps in front of the shot not to allow the puck to get through.
“Boxing-out starts out early, and it’s about battling, and if you do it early, and if you battle, then they don’t get to the front of the net,” Lambert said. “Communication is critical. And I think there’s times when we could talk more.”
To get the perspective of a net-front forward, NYI Hockey Now caught up with Zach Parise to get his take on what he’s trying to do in front of goal.
He said that he’s doing whatever he can to disrupt the opposing netminder and is always trying to get a tip on a shot, not just always trying to solely screen.
“The situation always changes, but I’m always trying to get a stick on it,” Parise said. “It’s tougher to get to the net now, but I think you’re trying to do both. You’re trying to get through, trying to get his eyes, trying to get a stick.
“I mean, anything you can try to throw him off a little bit. And then be ready to jump on the rebound.”
Like we saw on the Ottawa Senators tying goal late in the third, a deflection by Kirby Dach, the Senators had two players at the front of the net.
We asked Parise what the game plan is when there’s two forwards in front.
“You try to recognize. I feel like if there’s one guy already there, I’d almost rather sit off to the side and try to put the loose pucks in because you think you bring one guy there, that means two, one of theirs. If you bring two now, we’re at four,” Parise said. “Now it’s tough for the puck to get through with a guy at the point trying to block it.
“And then now it’s got to get through four more guys.”
The New York Islanders clearly have an understanding of what they need to do in front of goal, and now it’s about executing as they try to clean up the little things and snag a critical win against the Senators before the schedule gets tough.