Last night’s game between the Buffalo Sabres and the Winnipeg Jets intrigued me. Obviously, the Sabres had nothing left to play for besides pride, which is the nice way of saying “they are playing to keep their jobs,” and maybe the chance to extract a little revenge and deal a blow to the Jets’ post-season chances. The former was way more interesting to me, so while some people were tuning to see the Sabres keep the Jets home during the race for the Cup, I was interested in looking ahead to next year. My initial plan was to spread my attention around to the players who will make up the core of next year’s team . . . but then Jhonas Enroth went and stole the show! He’s all the buzz in Sabreland this morning, and well he should be – but am I buying the “This was the night Enroth proved he can be a starting goaltender in the NHL” talk? Let’s break his game down.
The penalty shot awarded to Evander Kane was Enroth’s first “Am I For Real?” challenge. Yes, Enroth had made some big saves up until this point – let’s not forget the Sabres were outshot 15-4 in this period! – but those saves were in the natural flow of the game, when players are playing, not thinking. When a penalty shot is awarded, however, the game stops, giving the shooter and the goalie time – probably too much time – to start thinking about what is about to happen. Instead of 6-on-6 hockey, it’s suddenly just the goalie versus the shooter, with everyone in the arena, and on television, watching. Sure, it’s the same thing as a shootout – but when was the last time Enroth saw action during a shootout? The bottom line: this penalty shot took Enroth out of the flow of the game and shone the bright, white spotlight squarely on him. To top it all off, notice where Kane goes on his shot – Enroth’s glove side, which seemed to be a frequent target for Winnipeg’s players tonight. Whatever the Jets thought about Enroth’s glove, I thought he was spectacular with his glove all night long, so it was great to see him continually turn a perceived weakness into a strength tonight.
This was a nice save by Enroth. One of the knocks on him is that when he’s not feeling it, he buries himself too deep in his crease. You can see in this video that as the Winnipeg players enter the zone, he is at the top of his crease, ready to challenge the shot. He doesn’t back down as the play develops, keeping himself large and giving the puck handler little open space to target. The most important play of the play, obviously, is how he handles having to move laterally as the puck is passed over to Aaron Gagnon of the Jets. He pushes off strong, maintaining good position in front of the net. He closes his legs, sealing that five-hole, and turns a good Winnipeg scoring opportunity into a great save. This really was the story of the night for Enroth: aggressively coming out to meet shooters, quick lateral movement, and an outstanding job controlling his body and not allowing cracks to appear in the armor.
Hello, shades of Dominik Hasek! Watching this flurry, I was about to open my mouth and tell my son, “Watch Winnipeg score here.” Good thing I didn’t, because that boy loves to rub it in when I am wrong. I always cringe when a goalie goes down on the ice, because bad things can happen when you’re flipping and flopping like a trout out of water. Going down on the ice is always a last resort, and a goaltender who does so better be able to freeze the puck quickly or pop back up to cover all of that wide-open space he left while he was prone on the cold stuff. Enroth did neither of those two things in that sequence . . . but as the video shows, though, Enroth benefited from two important factors: extreme athleticism, and luck. We all knew he was athletic; having lady luck on your side doesn’t hurt, either! She’s a fickle one, though, that Lady, so I hope Enroth avoids relying on her too much. Even as lucky as he was here, though, he showed great awareness while he was on the ice – check out how he uses his stick to whack the puck away not once, but twice. He never panicked, which allowed him to pair up with Lady Luck for the miracle save he makes at the every end of that wild sequence. Fun stuff.
Another nice play here, in which Enroth watches the rush develop and maintains strong form and positioning. He doesn’t allow his mechanics to break down as he moves across the crease, he tracks the play well, doesn’t try to overplay it, and is in command the entire time. It’s not a spectacular save, but it’s the sort of save you need to know your goalie can make when you’re in yet another tight, one-goal game.
There’s no doubt about it: the Rangers debacle aside, Enroth has been one hot cat. Remember the beginning of the season, when no one – and I mean no one, including Jhonas’ momma herself – wanted to see him leading the Sabres out onto the ice for warm-ups? Neither do I, because those days are gone – for now. Ah, but there’s the rub: for now. Enroth is playing very well . . . but this is the yang to his yin (and yes, that is the order I intended – do your research!), the hot streak that balances out his miserable losing streak that dated back to November of 2011. I’m glad to see that he is playing up to his potential, but it would be dangerous to forget the fact that he is one incredibly streaky player right now. Streaky play might work for goal scorers, but it is definitely not something you want to see in your starting net minder. I sincerely hope he is mature enough now to shed the “streaky” label and become the sort of goalie Ryan Miller became: the sort of guy you KNOW is going to get you 30+ wins a year, every single season. When he shows me that level of consistency, I’ll proclaim him Buffalo’s next starter. Until then – keep playing, Jhonas: the jury is still out on what your role will be with the Sabres next season.