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Leonard: The NHL can't mask this problem for the goalies

PITTSBURGH — Alain Vigneault has seen an injury like Henrik Lundqvist’s once before. The Rangers coach can’t place the last time he saw a hockey player’s stick poke a goalie in the eye through his mask, but Vigneault did remember his reaction when he saw it happen.

“I do remember asking myself at the same time, like, how can a stick go through that little hole there?” Vigneault said Thursday morning at the team hotel in Pittsburgh.

In other words, the 15th winningest coach in NHL regular season history has the same question that every fan sitting on their couch had when Rangers defenseman Marc Staal’s stick inadvertently poked its blade into Lundqvist’s right eye in the first period of Wednesday night’s 5-2 Game 1 loss to the Penguins:

How is that possible? Why would Lundqvist’s Bauer ProXPM goalie mask have an opening in its cage wide enough for a stick to fit through? Could a puck sneak through, too?

The masks worn by Henrik Lundqvist and other NHL netminders aren't getting the job done.Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images

The masks worn by Henrik Lundqvist and other NHL netminders aren’t getting the job done.

If the modern cage allows for this type of injury, why not just go back to the simple, white, fiberglass goalie mask worn by the Montreal Canadiens’ Jacques Plante in 1959, and Jason from the “Friday the 13th” movies?

Lundqvist is an exclusive Bauer athlete. The company provides gear within the NHL’s standards. But as Bauer pro rep for goalies Henry Breslin told the Daily News by phone Thursday, the “rare” possibility of such a fluke injury unfortunately exists because of the balance over two priorities in building NHL goalie cages: maximizing protection from pucks, and opening sightlines for vision.

Basically, equipment companies want to protect the goalies. Goalies want to be able to see the puck. And the balance is optimal but not perfect.

“The number one thing is protecting the goalie from puck impacts,” Breslin said. “That’s the number one job for the wire (in the cage). But then we need to balance that with maximizing the sight lines, the vision. So there’s a balance there, and that’s where we net out with all the wires and goalie cages you see in the NHL.”

Bauer has a “puck cannon” at its Quebec headquarters to simulate high-velocity shots. The company knows its job is to “reduce” potential for injury “as much as possible.” NHL goalies have more freedom, though, than youth hockey players when it comes to feedback on protective gear.

“Goalies want to have that vision but also need the protection, and as you get to the pro level there’s more options, the player influence is different than the youth leagues,” said Breslin, who is a goalie

Henrik Lunqvist has the tip of a teammates' stick get through his mask, forcing him from game.Gene J. Puskar/AP

Henrik Lunqvist has the tip of a teammates’ stick get through his mask, forcing him from game.

himself. “So for the last 20 years, this is

the balance that’s been the industry standard.”

In other words, goalies risk the outside chance of fluke stick injuries to prioritize seeing and stopping shots.

Safety, not looks, needs to be the top priority for Henrik Lundqvist and his fellow netminders.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Safety, not looks, needs to be the top priority for Henrik Lundqvist and his fellow netminders.

“In youth leagues, for example, the wire is going to be different because that’s a mandate,” he added. “We certainly offer wires that this couldn’t happen with. However, we go back to striking that balance to what a player at the NHL level needs and the standard as it fits today.”

Lundqvist isn’t even the first NHL goalie this has happened to this season. Penguins starter Marc-Andre Fleury was accidentally clipped through his cage on Nov. 11 by teammate Ben Lovejoy. Hopefully someone else doesn’t have to get hurt to further the dialogue on how to close this loop-hole (pun intended).

“Masks have been going in a good direction, but this will stimulate conversation,” Breslin said. “It’s a rare occurrence that makes you take a look at everything. Henrik is one of our premier players. We’re hoping he gets better to take the ice for Game 2. But mostly we hope he’s alright and he’s healthy. He’s a great guy.” 

Tags:
nhl ,
new york rangers ,
alain vigneault ,
henrik lundqvist ,
sports injuries ,
marc staal ,
nhl playoffs

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