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Goalie in a 3-on-3 tournament: the toughest job in hockey

The 3-on-3 All-Star Game tournament sometimes forces goalies to be punching bags. John Gibson dutifully played that role this year.

SAN JOSE – The boos rained down on Anaheim Ducks goaltender John Gibson. Then came the Bronx cheers when he finally stopped a shot. It got ugly in a hurry for the Pacific Division and the hometown fans at the SAP Center.

Gibson owns the highest save percentage in NHL history among goalies with 100 or more games played, and he’s arguably been the league’s best goalie this season, but, as he put it after Saturday’s 3-on-3 tournament, “Sometimes it always goes in.” That’s an understatement. Gibson got blitzed for seven goals on nine shots in a 10-minute half. His Pacific squad trailed the Central all-stars 7-1 at the break. So much for seeing the San Jose Sharks’ Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski make a glorious tournament run. They were off to the showers quickly.

Gibson expressed guilt after the game that he couldn’t help the Sharks get a victory, but what could he do in a 3-on-3 tournament? As Calgary Flames left winger Johnny Gaudreau put it, “It wasn’t his fault,” as Gibson had nothing but superstars bearing down on him. Los Angeles Kings Drew Doughty said he and his teammates were laughing on the bench because they were embarrassed they hung Gibson out to dry that severely. When a reporter reminded Doughty that Gibson stopped just two of nine shots, Doughty fired back in defense of his division rival.

“They were 2-on-1s…I’d like to see you try to save those,” Doughty said, generating a roar of laughter in the scrum. “Backdoor tap-ins all night. It’s a tough one for all of us.”

Gibson took the horrific result pretty well given his reputation for being ultra-competitive. He was able to smile about it after the game.

“It is what it is,” he said. “It’s all in good fun. Obviously nobody’s ever happy about it (when that happens), but it’s an event. You have fun with it.”

Fun. Hmm. It’s easy to see why all the skaters can have fun gliding around, trying out dangles and playing no defense in the 3-on-3 tourney. But the goalies have always been the dark knights of the All-Star Game, made to look much less talented than they are, and that effect has multiplied since the 3-on-3 format debuted in 2015-16. Gibson’s childhood idol, Marc-Andre Fleury, was next up between the pipes for the Pacific in the back half of Game 1, and it wasn’t pretty watching Gibson get destroyed. Fleury joked that all he could offer for advice was an awkward, “Keep it up!”

“I was a little happy to be on the bench at that time,” Fleury said, flashing his trademark smile. “You want to do well, but you’re also facing very talented players. I don’t know how many breakaways or backdoor passes they had, but it’s not easy to make the stops all the time.”

Sometimes, “It is what it is” feels like a cliché, but Gibson used it appropriately Saturday. The 3-on-3 tourney is designed to do a service to the fans, and the goalies have no choice but to swallow their pride and eat the barrage of 10-bell scoring chances. Such is life for an all-star goalie. To their credit, they know they have a job to do – and that job is to sometimes to play the jobber.

“I think it’s fun to watch,” Fleury said. “I sat back there and watched (the Metropolitan vs. Atlantic game) on TV. I thought it was fun. The 3-on-3, it’s a lot of goals, obviously, and you get scoring chances on almost every shot you get. But it’s entertaining.”

Fleury, of course, is a unique breed. He’s the one who gave it back to the anti-Golden Knights crowd after they Bronx cheered him Sunday, waving to them as a “Thank you.” Not every goalie can embrace that type of role. But maybe that’s what makes someone like Fleury an all-star. It’s not just about how you play – especially when you’re a goalie in 3-on-3 tournament.

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