Lightning players waiting in front of the net to tip a teammate's shot do not have time to think or to plan. They just have time to react.
TAMPA - The puck was traveling about 80 mph when Fredrik Modin, standing unchecked in front of the Islanders' goal, tipped the rocketing slap shot with the blade of his stick.
The puck changed course, dipping suddenly. Goaltender Rick DiPietro, prepared an instant ago to make an easy save on a blue-line slap shot, was helpless. And beaten. Modin, thanks to some nifty sleight-of-hand-eye coordination, had executed one of the most fascinating plays in hockey: the deflection.
No time to think.
No time to plan.
"Any time you can get a stick on something out of the air, it just feels good," Modin said. "It's kind of a hard thing to do. And when it goes where you want it to go, it's always a good feeling."
Okay, think about this:
A hockey puck - an inch-thick rubber disc with flat surfaces and rounded edges - comes hurtling through the air in no particular pattern. Could be spinning; could be end over end. Could be rising; could be falling. The one certainty: It's coming fast.
Now comes the fascinating part.
A forward parked a few feet in front of the net angles the blade of his stick - a curved surface 1 foot long by 3 inches wide - and snags the puck in midair, making just enough contact to redirect its flight, yet keep it on goal. Too much and it will miss the target.
"Getting a stick on it is easy," defenseman Brad Lukowich said. "Perfecting it to where you can put it up in the shelf or down on the ice, that's where the technical part comes in."
The Lightning has one of the best in veteran forward Dave Andreychuk, the NHL's all-time leader with 270 power play goals. Andreychuk, at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, has made a rugged living parking himself in front of the opponent's goal. Not only is he powerful, but his hands are so quick he makes David Copperfield look like a slowpoke.
"A lot of times it's a little lucky," Andreychuk said of deflections. "But, mostly, it's hand-eye coordination. I think you can work on it."
With every team he played for, Andreychuk has worked individually with defensemen to learn their shooting tendencies and gauge the speed of their slap shots.
"Some guys have changeups and some guys have fastballs," Andreychuk said. "If it's Dan Boyle it's a changeup, and if it's Pavel Kubina it's a fastball. You have to know what's being thrown at you."
Kubina gets his power from a 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame. Boyle, whose offensive skill comes with a 5-foot-11, 190-pound frame, said any lack of velocity on his slap shot is merely a consideration for the 40-year-old Andreychuk.
"I'm just trying to slow it down because he is getting older," Boyle said. "I'm just trying to make sure he puts his eyes on the puck, that's all."
Kidding aside, the defensemen play a key role in the deflection game. What looks from the stands like a straight-forward slap shot is often something more devious.
"Goalies are so good this day and age, you're usually not going to beat them, especially from the blue line," Boyle said. "So you have to try to shoot at a stick. Sometimes it helps when a player gives you a target on where he wants it, so you have somewhere to aim."
Other facts conspire to make deflecting a puck difficult. Consider this delicate task is most frequently performed while a defenseman jabs and pounds at a player from behind, trying to tie up his stick.
"I can tip a lot of pucks in practice when nobody's cross-checking me," Andreychuk said. "It's a lot harder when somebody's on your back."
Goaltenders, too, have gotten wise through the years.
"They're a lot smarter," Andreychuk said. "In the 1980s they'd be sitting back in the goal line and the deflection would move a lot more and it would be tougher for them. But now they're right behind you, taking away your angle."
Still, there is almost no way for a goalie to react to a deflection.
"When the player is close to the goalie you have a lot better chance of getting hit with it," Lightning goaltending coach Jeff Reese said. "If it's a high tip, out in the slot, you have to rely on your reflexes. If you don't get hit with it, it's a very difficult save."
For Andreychuk, the positives of life in front of the goal outweigh the negatives of being roughed up by defensemen and, occasionally, blasted by a slap shot coming straight at him. If the deflection hits the goalie, there likely will be a rebound and another scoring chance. If he doesn't get the deflection, he can at least try to screen the goaltender's view.
"You have to keep going back there," Andreychuk said, "because it's going to pay off."