David Leggio slides himself out to a point just above the crease. He settles there, looking a little bit like an Olympic gymnast who is just about to run toward the pommel horse. Normally, his eyes would be darting from left to right following every bounce and skip of the puck. Now, though, he stares straight forward at the lifeless black cylinder resting at center ice. As soon as the referee blows the whistle, the Rochester Americans' goaltender will go one-on-one with a skater in a game-within-the-game called a “shootout” that will decide the fate of his 19 teammates.
Leggio watches calmly as the approaching skater dips and dives with his head and shoulders like a prize fighter on skates. But he probably never sees anything above the knee. His focus is tunneled on the puck, feet and the blade of the stick. As the skater – Hamilton's Blake Geoffrion – gets closer, it becomes clear to Leggio that this is going to turn into something like the famous scene from Rebel Without a Cause where Jim and Buzz race toward the edge of a cliff to see who will jump out first.
Geoffrion slows down and waits and waits and waits for Leggio to make the first move. He never does and the skater's last-second flick of the puck comes to a stop in the goalie's giant mitt. He'll play this game of chicken with three other skaters, stopping two of them. His teammates score three times in four shots on the Hamilton goalie and the Amerks win.
“A good thought process is to not be worried about what they are going to do, but only worry about what you are going to do,” said Leggio, who has stopped eight of nine shootout shots this season.
For most, that's easier said than done. The slightest early tip of the hand in this four-second poker game and highly-skilled shooters will make even the greatest goalies on the planet look helpless. In a game several years ago between the Dallas Stars and Los Angeles Kings, center Mike Ribero slid the puck between his own legs and past the goalie. A Swedish prospect named Linus Omark perfected the art of slowly flipping the puck over the diving goaltender – a move that was later used by Red Wings star Pavel Datsyuk against the Chicago Blackhawks during a nationally televised game.
The shootout was first implemented in the American Hockey League for the 2004-05 season and in the National Hockey League the next season. But the shootout's presence at the top levels of professional hockey simply meant bringing a tradition from ponds and empty arenas to the masses. At least once each week, every Amerks player takes their turn in practice against Leggio and backup Connor Knapp.
While it has been debated and criticized by pundits and traditionalist fans since its inception, even the most crusty on the issue has trouble denying its power when performed in front of 20,000 people. Of course, it has its drawbacks. For example, 11 games or 13 percent of the Florida Panthers 2011-12 regular season ended in the Panthers losing in a shootout. They finished with the sixth most points in the Eastern Conference. Had they won all 11 shootouts, they would have ended up trailing only the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins in total standings points. That's an awful lot of influence for what some deem a coin flip.
“I think we all accept that it's part of the game,” Amerks' forward Mark Mancari said. “It's an honor to be picked to go out there with the game on the line.”
That's hockey in 2012 and Leggio would probably argue against the coin concept. Last season, he stopped 40 of 50 shootout shots. In his three-year AHL career, he's kept 72 of 86 out of the net, or 83.7 percent. The average NHL save percentage during shootouts is around 67 percent.
“In terms of being the goalie, it's you versus the shooter,” he said. “There's nobody to blame when you get scored on.”
Shootouts create some interesting heroes. There are terrific regulation goalies who struggle in the shootout and plenty to the contrary. For example, Chicago's Corey Crawford was a well below average goalie last season, but stopped 81.3 percent of shootout shots, which ranked at least eight percent higher than all three Vezina Trophy Finalists. In terms of skaters, budding Montreal star Max Pacioretty went 2-for-13, while Islanders depth center Frans Nielsen went 7-for-11.
What makes Leggio so effective? After the win over Hamilton, coach Ron Rolston grins and says, “he's really good.”
Rolston tries to offer a little more details explanation, suggesting the goalie's quick lateral movements and ability to read the shooter play a role. But it's pretty obvious the only guy who knows is Leggio.
He says there isn't much to it. Like Dominique Wilkins would say dunking a basketball is just jumping real high and putting the ball in the hoop. There's a process, though:
When the referee blows the whistle for the skater to go, Leggio finds his spot right above the crease – the one he's tinkered with, watched film on and talked to other goalies about for years. Crossing the blue line is like the yellow flag. He won't move much unless the skater goes way wide to the left or right. The shooter's arrival to the circles – that is the green flag.
“If he's making moves at the top of the circles, they don't really mean anything because he's just stick handling,” Leggio said. “If the stick blade is square to you, he's a threat to shoot. If the tip of the blade is facing you, he doesn't have the ability to shoot at that moment.”
As the shooter approaches, the netminder has to judge the speed of his charge and begin backing up toward the net at the appropriate rate. Leggio talks about limiting the gap between himself and the amount of net the shooter can see. He says a goalie shouldn't react to fake slap shots or dekes; only when the skater actually hits the puck toward him.
What happens then is like pulling your hand away from touching a hot stove or slapping at a mosquito buzzing around your ear. It's pure reaction to poke the puck away, or swipe at it with the glove or kick with the pad.
His simple strategy of read-and-react has worked at a high rate. But, like a pitcher in baseball, you can make the perfect pitch and the batter still hits a home run.
“Sometimes a guy is going to take a shot and you are in a good position and he scores,” he said. “Your job is to limit the percentage.”
Asking Mancari, who is 14-for-37 during his career in the shootout, to talk about his plan as a shooter, it isn't hard to tell why Leggio is so successful at limiting shooters' percentage to score. The Amerks' forward says he tries to get the goalie's feet moving. Leggio says he keeps his feet still. Mancari says he looks at the goalie's tendencies to see if he's giving up a particular area. Leggio takes pride in revealing nothing to the shooter.
“Everything is spur of the moment,” Mancari said. “You don't know how the goalie's going to react. A lot of the time, I'm not the first shooter so I like watching his habits.”
Leggio probably has some habits he would rather not have show up anywhere in print. No matter the quirks, though, the Amerks' goalie's most important asset to winning shootouts is the same as to winning in regulation: competitiveness.
Over and over, Rolston has called him a “battler.” Last year, his former college coach told WGR that he's a never-give-up type. His teammates think that, too.
That's the beauty of the shootout. It's a fluid and an inexact art where no two painters are alike. There's personality to it. There's a million ways to stop a shooter and all of them are mostly right and sort of wrong.
Leggio doesn't care how it gets done, he just doesn't want to lose. And he usually doesn't.