Bernie On the Blues: Goaltender Jordan Binnington Is Winning The Psychological Battle

Let’s open this Friday discussion with a quote from Arturs Irbe, the Russian goaltender who did solid work for 13 NHL seasons during a career that ended in 2004.

“The goalie is like the guy on the minefield,” Irbe once said. “He discovers the mines and destroys them. If you make a mistake, somebody gets blown up.”

Yeah, it’s a tough position. There are confidence fluctuations, episodes of psychological trauma, and the predictable avalanche of blame that comes your way during hard times.

We love our team’s goaltender … until we hate him.

That’s his life.

Take it from the immortal goalie Jacques Plante: “Goaltender is a normal job. Sure! How would you like it if at your job, every time you made the slightest mistake a little red light went on over your head and 18,000 people stood up and screamed at you?”

Another all-time great, Glenn Hall, once referred to the pressure of playing in goal as “Sixty minutes of hell.”  And that that was before regular-season overtime periods and shootouts.

Goaltenders can make or break their team. They can make or break themselves — often in the same week. It’s a critically important position. The other stuff components matter — the skaters, the goals, the assists, the hits, and alert defensemen on patrol — but it all falls apart if your goaltender is human. And when he’s human, bad goals get by him … and the inhumane criticism will follow.

Which brings us to Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington.

The Rookie From Nowhere who deflected, blocked, snatched, kicked or smothered a million pucks during his amazingly high level of play during the 2018-2019 Blues’ rise from worst to first and, ultimately the Stanley Cup.

That first period of Game 7 in Boston? This was Binnington’s masterpiece and the No. 1 reason why the Blues carried the Cup back home to St. Louis.

As the new season began, Binnginton was his sharp and ornery self. He got off to a good start. Backup goalie Jake Allen did an admirable job during his starting assignments. The Blues’ goaltenders provided tight security.

And then … Binnington turned human for a while. This is never a fun time for the men behind the mask. After a few shaky games by Binnington, I remember reading some comments sections online and laughing as irate fans spit angry words at the goaltender.

Remember when Binnington playfully challenged singer-entertainer Justin Bieber to a shootout for charity? Well, hey NOW WE KNOW  the reason for Binnington’s wobbles in net. At least that’s what I was told during visits to the Binnington Bashing Festival online.

The success went to his head! His ego is OUT OF CONTROL! Maybe if Binnington focused on his job instead of worrying about goofing off with Bieber, he’s get back to being a quality goaltender. He was LETTING THE BLUES DOWN!

What about winning the Stanley Cup? Binnington got it done, right? First goaltender in Blues franchise history to pull it off.  Response from the lions in the den: THAT WAS LAST SEASON!

OK.

Call me crazy, but I don’t think Bieber was the root cause of Binnington’s ineffective stretch.

Maybe Binnington was tired in that mental fatigue kind of way. Maybe we should have expected this. At some point this season, a downturn was inevitable. Why? Because all goaltenders go through it. Ups and downs and tumbling in the crazy spin cycle. In normal times, playing goal is an insane endeavor. But after playing a lead role in the Blues’ capture of the Cup, it would be a while before Binnington returned to a relatively normal existence.

The “Binner” had an exhilarating but extremely intense ride in 2018-2019. Pressure-cooker circumstances. Dealing with hockey-hero expectations. Handling the noise that surrounds a breakout sports stat. Getting pounded by the demands. Having to be the perfect goalie host during the NHL All-Star Weekend in STL.

It ain’t easy being the saver — or the savior. But the strong goaltenders are also survivors. After struggling for a while, they rely on what’s between their ears — mental toughness — and return to excellence when standing between the pipes.

Binnington went through this usual spin cycle — everything was upside down — and came through it just fine. This is an encouraging sign. He wasn’t a flash, a one-season wonder. Binnington still has abundant competitive character and doesn’t crack easily. If anyone needed conformation of that, we’ve watched it displayed over the last eight games.

In his last seven starts, Binnington is 6-1 with a .932 save percentage and has yielded two or fewer goals six times. As the Blues play at New Jersey on Friday night, they’ve won eight in row.

In the team’s 8-0 reversal to emerge from an unsteady 6-9-4 stretch, Binnington (six starts) and Allen (two) have combined for a .931 save percentage overall. That’s fifth-best in the NHL over that time. At even strength the Blues rank second with a .947 save percentage since the streak began Feb. 18. At 5-on-5, that save percentage is even better (.950.)

In his six starts during the streak, Binnington has increased his level of resistance in goal. His goals-against average is 1.49. His save percentage (all situations) is .934. At even strength, the Binnington save percentage is .963. He’s confronted 28 high-danger scoring chances in the six games and stopped 25 for an outstanding HD save percentage of .897.

In Tuesday’s 3-1 win over the New York at Madison Square Garden, the Blues couldn’t match the Rangers in shots on goal or scoring chances. And the gap wasn’t small.

No problem. The Rangers fired seven high-danger shots at Binnington. He stopped all seven. And that was the difference in the game.

Binnington was a main culprit when the Blues zig-zagged through their first real slump of the season — the 6-9-4 decompression.

In his 13 starts, Binnington had a terrible overall save percentage of .882. (Ugh.) It wasn’t that much better at even strength (.902.) He had a drop in save percentage against high-danger chances.

Surprisingly, Binnington began to show vulnerability against medium-danger and low-danger scoring chances. During his 13 starts, Binnington was beaten for 16 medium-danger goals including 11 at even strength. He gave up 10 low-danger goals. Binnington’s save percentages in both categories was near the bottom of the NHL from Dec. 31 through Feb. 16.

How would Binnington respond?

Did he look nervous to you?

No. But Binnington is a goaltender.

And goaltenders get paid to suffer.

And when they suffer, the best goaltenders find a way to reset and erase the experience from their minds. That’s how suffering becomes success.

I love goaltender quotes.

Here’s another of my favorites — from the wonderfully cerebral Ken Dryden, a five-time All-Star who won six Stanley Cups for Montreal Canadiens during the 1970s.

“Because the demands on the goalie are mostly mental, it means that for a goalie the biggest enemy is himself,” Dryden said. “Not a puck, not a opponent, not a quirk of size or style.

“The stress and anxiety he feels when he plays, the fear of failing, the fear of being embarrassed, the fear of being physically hurt, all symptoms of his position, in constant ebb and flow, but never disappearing.

“The successful goalie understands these neuroses, accepts them, and put them under control. The unsuccessful goalie is distracted by them, his mind in knots. His body quickly follows.”

Thanks for reading, and I hope you have a fantastic weekend.

–Bernie