What makes a good goalie great? A good goalie coach.
Nana Fujimoto’s first-star performance Sunday night against the Boston Pride, where she stopped 42 out of 44 shots and posted a game-winning .954 save percentage could not have been more clutch. Nor could it have been more different than when she first stepped on the ice with her team against the Minnesota Whitecaps. That game saw a Fujimoto who seemed gifted, but raw. She moved too much, left holes open and had a dizzyingly poor puck-handling moment where she nearly collided with her own teammate, focused as she was on being a difference-maker.
It was a far cry from her performance in training camp, where she flipped and slipped and caught pucks with seemingly little effort. It was also the first time she stood in net for a game on the smaller, North American sheet.
Two months later, Fujimoto is dazzling her fans with quick rebounds, a great glove hand and puck-smothering action. Every save she made Sunday night elicited cheers from the Riveters’ home crowd, many of whom migrated to sit behind Fujimoto or stand at the glass near the door, and nearest to Fujimoto’s net.
Riveters goalie coach Jonathan de Castro attributed the change in Fujimoto’s play to a paring down of responsibilities, a simplification of her game.
“That was the biggest thing for her in the early part of the season,” he said in a phone interview. “She was trying to overcompensate for a lot of things, do too much.”
When it came to training, de Castro focused on the KISS principle: keep it simple, silly.
“When you have a goalie that has a lot of athleticism you want her to be able to harness that and only use it in situations when it’s needed,” de Castro said. “If you watch video from the Whitecaps game, in order to get from one side of the ice to the other, she would slide. And I know that’s the way they do it in the Olympics.”
That, of course, was the only footage de Castro had of Fujimoto before meeting her.
“She’s really quick, side-to-side. She’s got a really strong right foot, so she’s really quick to her glove side,” de Castro added. However, that quickness didn’t necessarily help her when it came to the new, smaller rinks; instead, it mean she was pushing too far over, too quickly, and leaving holes behind her for opposing players to make use of. In de Castro’s words, “her angles were all messed up.”
“We go off frames per second,” de Castro said, quoting his mentor, Washington Capitals goalie coach Mitch Korn. “There’s about 32 frames in a single second (and) the difference between a goal being scored is usually three or four frames per second. If you break it down in frames per second, and you think about three or four frames as the difference between the puck going in or being stopped, 16 frames, which is a half a second, is an eternity.”
“If you’re dealing with the boards being closest to the crease in terms of width, the shots come at you a hair faster – four frames. I know from playing on a bigger ice surface, when I come back to this (surface) I overslide. I’m not anywhere near where I should be. I’m leaving all these holes behind.”
So de Castro turned to some goalie-training techniques that his mentor, Washington Capitals goalie coach Mitch Korn had shown him. He described two of them; one uses a mesh bag that goes over the face mask. de Castro calls this a “focus enhancer” and its main purpose is really to take away light from the goaltender, focusing her on her only job: stopping the puck.
The other technique involves shooting at the netminder with white pucks. Both these exercises were designed to slow Fujimoto down, focus her in on the puck and remind her how much time she has once she’s back to regular drills. This work got her o a place where she could stop 42 out of 44 shots and quite literally change the outcome of the game for her team.
“See the puck, get square, stop it. See the puck, get square, stop it. There’s the whistle,” de Castro said. “When you break it down to that, when you have those gifts she has the game gets a lot slower, a lot easier.”
Rebounds were also a key part of Fujimoto’s game Sunday night, often landing right on the tape of her defenders’ sticks as a key part of the Riveters’ transition game.
“It’s a matter of just knowing the defensive system,” de Castro said. “Chad (Wiseman, the Riveters head coach,) and I talked a lot about what he wants the defensemen to do and where he wants them to be. Very early on we set the tone for Nana. We want to be sure that a) she assimilates quickly and well to playing on a smaller sheet and also to the pace of the play, but b) that she’s able to put the rebounds in the spot where the other team isn’t, whether it be right on a stick for a breakout or right in the corner for Kiira, Gaby or Stretch to go out and get it and start the transition game here.”
“We’re slowly getting on track to where she needs to be in terms of her game,” continued de Castro. “She gave us a hell of a chance to win versus Connecticut and (Sunday) she was lights-out versus Boston.”
The Riveters will look to repeat against Boston this coming Sunday at the Harvard Bright-Landry Center during Boston’s home opener. The game will begin at 3:30 pm EST and tickets will be on sale at the gate and through nwhl.co.