On Feb. 28, Maddie Rooney will play at Madison Square Garden as part of the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association Dream Gap Tour.
For the 23-year-old goalie, it's "an incredible opportunity" to play in New York City at the world's most famous arena. Unfortunately, her preparation for the game hasn't exactly been ideal. Since the pandemic wreaked havoc on our daily routines in March 2020, competitive action has been scarce. "To be exact," Rooney says, "since March 2020, I have played exactly seven periods of hockey. Those were at PWHPA scrimmages against local boys teams, high school teams and junior teams. Then at [national team] camp we played six games, but as a goalie I had to split that."
Compare that to the season prior when, as a senior at Minnesota-Duluth, Rooney was typically playing two games per weekend. The women's hockey landscape presents an exaggerated case, but lack of proper ramp-up time for goalies is a theme we're seeing across hockey, including the NHL in the 2021 season.
It's one of the reasons that explains why through the first month of the season, the leaguewide save percentage has been hovering around .900; excluding the lockout-shortened seasons in 1995 and 2013, the last time a save percentage was below .900 for the month of October (typically the season's first month) was 2005-06, when it was .894 while coming out of a season-long lockout.
A couple of stats help explain the slow goalie starts. Penalty kills are struggling (tracking for a league-wide worst first month total since 1985-86), and according to Evolving Hockey, shooting percentages are abnormally high (at around 8.5% at even strength, we're trending for the highest-single season rate since 2007-08). All of this comes after a significantly truncated training camp and the cancellation of all preseason games.
"The usual smoothness of getting into the game, just from my perspective watching the league, has been a little slower," says Jim Corsi, the longtime NHL goaltending coach who now oversees goaltending development for the Columbus Blue Jackets organization.
It's important to understand why live action is so critical to goalies as part of their training. "Game timing is a very different thing than practice or shinny hockey," says Ryan Miller, the veteran Anaheim Ducks goaltender. "In shinny hockey, guys are trying goofy plays, holding on to it, making extra passes. An NHL game tends to be more direct, more congested. Obviously there's great playmaking, but as a goaltender you have to stay inside of play, where you can reach some of those plays, make it challenging on a guy. You can't commit to the first situation so hard and give them something else."