Crashing the Crease: Bryz and the Art of the Poke Check

Bryzgalov’s had some difficulties in pulling off the poke check in the past.

Tuesday night’s game at Madison Square Garden was quite possibly the single most glaring example of one of Bryzgalov’s greatest shortcomings: he is not particularly good at the poke check. Playing the poke check correctly is the epitome of a very fine line for any goaltender. A successful poke requires quick and decisive action: there is no time to spare in deciding to go for the poke, but at the same time it can’t be done too early – or “telegraphed” – lest the forward read it and simply walk around it.

Against the Rangers, Bryzgalov’s poke attempts were telegraphed, sloppy, and safe. The poke check is not a safe play. It’s a gamble, almost every time, and it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. However, during his tenure with the Flyers, Bryz has always made a habit of playing his pokes safe – and gets walked in the process.

Callahan’s goal on Bryzgalov in which he cut across the goal mouth is the perfect example of Bryz failing to properly go for an “all or nothing” poke attempt:

Callahan swings down low to the goal line and then cuts straight through the crase on this goal. Bryz is in the VH position – with one pad on the post and the other down across the goal mouth – and has his stick at the side of the net in position to make a poke check. He makes a fairly ‘small’ attempt at a poke, jabbing at the puck with his hand in position at the stick’s paddle. However, he doesn’t go hard enough, and Callahan is able to react by walking right across the goal mouth and stuffing the puck far side.

There are two ways Bryz could have played this shot better: all or nothing with the poke. In order to pull a successful poke check on Callahan, Bryz would need to slide the hand up the stick to get some extra leverage, and really jam at Callahan, powering through the puck and even into the skates, if he has to. That would guarantee that he will either get the puck, or disrupt Callahan’s motion enough to either make him lose the puck or at least prevent a clean move. It may sound borderline against the rules to say that, but it’s true: any goalie coach will tell you that if you’re going to poke someone, you go hard at them. If you don’t get the puck, you’re putting ourself out of position and opening up holes, so you better at least get a piece fo the skater and even the playing field if you miss.

Conversely, Bryz’s other option was not to poke at all. He could simply have kept the stick in, and slid sideways with Callahan. Bryzgalov is a tall goaltender with more than enough leg coverage to get post to post and match speed with Callahan, who wasn’t able to dart far enough out towards the top of the crease to go top shelf. Most likely, if Bryzgalov simply slides with him, he’s able to make the pad save down low and mute a great scoring chance for Callahan. If Bryzgalov wanted to play this shot “safely,” this simpler play would have been the way to go rather than an uninspired poke attempt.

An example of Bryzgalov’s failure to act decisively occurred on the Nash goal:

As Kevin Christmann remarked after the game, “if ever there’s a time to poke, that Nash goal was it.” And that is an absolutely correct observation. Nash gets a stick around the hands that ties him up just long enough to cause the puck to squirt loose for a second, and Bryzgalov slowly goes for the poke check. However, he sits back on his heels in the process, slides the hand up the stick and telegraphs way too early before he actually reaches for the puck. The frame below, snapped by Justin Brennan, clearly demonstrates how much Ilya was telegraphing this poke check attempt.

Bryz tries – and fails – to poke the puck away from Rick Nash.

By the time Bryzgalov begins to lunge for this check, Nash has already regained the puck and can now plainly read Bryzgalov’s intentions. The result? A pretty move to the backhand and an easy tuck for a goal. Bryzgalov needs to recognize that Nash has only got one play available to him on this rush, and he has to act decisively. Rather than telegraph and sit back on his heels while “fishing” with his stick for the puck, he has to dive with his whole body to knock the puck away. If Bryz moves quickly and lunges with everything he’s got, he can pull off this poke check before Nash has a change to read it and regain control of the puck.

These aren’t the only poke checks Bryzgalov has missed out on; it’s been a weak part of his game since his arrival in Philadelphia.

This shootout goal from last season shows Bryz, once again, telegraphing his poke check and attempting to reach while his body’s momentum carries him backwards. Once more, it simply gets stepped around.

On the other end of the spectrum is a guy like the Devils’ Johan Hedberg, who picks his moments and stands his ground when making his poke checks:

That is how a goaltender makes a decisive stand and really goes for the puck. He isn’t moving backwards like Bryzgalov often does, but is lunging at the player with full extension.

Here’s another one from Ryan Miller on Matt Read:

Again, both of these goaltenders demonstrate that the poke check isn’t a half-measure. They go all-out and risk everything on the play to make it work. Bryzgalov, however, doesn’t do that – and until Jeff Reese can get him to either go all out or keep the stick holstered altogether, he will continue getting walked.