SAN JOSE, Calif. — Joe Pavelski's wondrous tip-in off a puck shot by Brent Burns last Monday night revived the appreciation for one of hockey's hardest skills. In fact, during a postgame press conference, St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock rightfully termed it the "killer goal" of the rubber Game 5 of the Western Conference Final.
Being a great "tipper" is a point of pride for those who practice the art, and by many accounts, nobody practices it any harder than the San Jose Sharks' Pavelski. Now that the Sharks are in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in their 25-year history, could his tipping skill become even more of a tangible asset in a series in which most other things appear equal?
It was in the Western Conference Final. There's no reason to think it can't be again.
Head coach Peter DeBoer commented on Pavelski's tipping expertise following the Sharks' 6-3 victory in Game 5, per ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun:
His ability to get his stick on pucks in the offensive zone, in front of the net, different angles, is as good as anybody I've ever seen. But it's a great lesson. He works at it every day. He gets (Brent Burns) or one of the other D, gets them to fire 100, 200 pucks. I'll watch him from the boards with the other coaches. He'll get a piece of every single one. It's something that he has worked at. It's a great lesson for kids out there that want to play. You have to work at those things to become really good. He's got some God-given ability, too. His biggest asset is he works at it.
Before the start of a recent Sharks practice, Pavelski stood in front of the net and tried to get his stick on the 20-25 pucks Burns fired from the blue line. He did so on darn near every one of them, with many going in the net.
After Game 5 last week, Burns said he wasn't even trying to get his shot on net for the one that Pavelski redirected past Blues goalie Jake Allen. He just wanted to get the puck in the air in the vicinity of Pavelski and hoped he could work his stick magic from there.
"He works on that almost every day," Sharks forward Tomas Hertl told LeBrun after that pivotal Sharks win. "Every time he practices it, he never misses it. It's unbelievable. I've never seen before someone practice so hard on that. He's great. He scores almost every game on those goals. He's our leader. Again tonight, a winning goal."
With goalies so big and so good today, with defensive schemes prioritizing shot-blocking as much as possible, a great tipper can be a real asset to a team. It goes without saying that excellent hand-eye coordination is a must to be a proficient tipper.
A great tipper must be unafraid of going to the front of the net and be able to stand his ground for more than a second or two. He must have the brain-processing speed to quickly judge if a puck is a "skimmer"—circling in an even, parallel orbit, in which case a tip upward is the best chance of getting it past the goalie—or a "wobbler," where the puck is tumbling end over end, in which case a tip downward would work best.
Pavelski is considered the best tipper in the game today, though Minnesota's Thomas Vanek has long been considered a premier practitioner as well.
Who were the best at it back in the day?
"It seemed like he got a great tip every game we ever played against him. Maybe as good or even better was probably Steve Shutt when he played for me in Montreal. He was the Joe Pavelski of his day. He wasn't very big, but he was always around the net, and he got his blade on everything."
Remarkably, Shutt doubled his goal-scoring production twice in three years, from 1974-77, going from 15 goals to 30 to 45 and then 60. At 5'11" (the same height as Pavelski), Shutt used his quickness around the front of the net and superb hand-eye coordination to score many of them off tips.
In his prime, former Edmonton forward Ryan Smyth was considered a premier tip artist. Playing with his back to the net, Smyth would screen goalies and/or throw them off-balance with a skilled redirection of a hard point shot. Other great tippers in league history include John LeClair, Joe Mullen, Keith Tkachuk, Gordie Howe, Chris Drury and Tomas Holmstrom.
"Adam Graves was good at it too, and Ron Francis and Tim Kerr," NBC and TSN analyst Ray Ferraro said. "There's different ways to do it, of course. Some guys post up, others fly by and get it on the move."
"And there was a guy who played for the Rangers in the 1950s and who later played for me when I coached in St. Louis, Camille 'The Eel' Henry," Bowman said. "He was always around the net tipping pucks. Goalies now can stop everything coming straight at them. But if you can make the puck change direction but still have it go on net, you've got a better chance of the goalie not being able to adjust in time."
Let that be a good tip to all would-be goal scorers everywhere.
Adrian Dater covers the NHL for Bleacher Report.