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The pressure of a goaltender's world

Think of it like this: You make a mistake - often for something out of your control - and a huge red light goes off right behind you. Sometimes there's a deafening siren. All in front of 18,000 or so people. Failure is either a public celebration or collective agony.

That's why few question the old hockey truism: Goalies are, to put it kindly, an eccentric lot. They're often loners. If there is any position in sports that plays with your mind, it's a hockey goalie.

"You had better be mentally strong to be a NHL goalie, or you'll be in the nut-house after a couple of years," says former Sabre and broadcaster Mike Robitaille. "It's just too stressful."

Playing goalie is sometimes compared to quarterback, but that isn't quite enough. A football team puts 11 players on the field at a time. In hockey, there are only six. And unlike the quarterback, the goalie seldom leaves the field of play.

"For the hundreth-millionth time, it's all about goaltending," Robitaille said on the air during a late November game. Good goaltending changes the chemistry, according to Robitaille. Other players feel more comfortable. Their hands are more supple. They think quicker.

It's like chambers in a complicated lock, Robitaille says. "Once they start clicking, a lot of things start going into effect."

"The last line of defense" is what hockey people call goaltending. One of the other five players makes a mistake, and play almost always continues. If the goalie messes up, cue the special effects.

"There's a lot of pressure on the goalie," says Drew Miller, Ryan's brother who plays left wing for the Anaheim Ducks' minor league team in Portland, Maine. "And there aren't that many positions for goaltenders. There's only one on the ice at a time. You have to make your time out there count."

Most goalies are intense, says Jim Corsi, the Sabres' goaltending coach. The trick is to cultivate a "controlled intensity," which kicks in at the split-second it's needed.

"You're playing without the puck," Corsi says. "It can't be, 'Here comes the shot, and now I will be intense.' You're waiting for the puck, preparing mentally and physically."

Some of the head game comes from the nature of the task. You're not trying to do something; you're trying to stop someone else from doing it. There's no easy release.

And that pressure, of course, increases as the games become more important.

That's why Miller talks to himself about forgiveness.

"You just have to give yourself the best chance to stop it," says Miller. "If you don't, you can't be devastated by it."

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