As Henrik Lundqvist kicked his feet in pain, bad thoughts went through his head for 30 seconds. New York Rangers teammate Marc Staal's stick blade went right through his mask and struck the All-Star goaltender in the right eye.
Lundqvist left that game in pain but returned to practice two days later and played Saturday against the Pittsburgh Penguins, all the while defending goaltending masks that have allowed similar kinds of injuries over the years.
"Accidents happen," Lundqvist said. "Injuries happen and I feel still, though, as a goalie you're pretty well protected, so I don't see it as an issue. ... I still feel the equipment is good and there's nothing to change there."
Even though Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Ben Bishop of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Philipp Grubauer of the Washington Capitals have been clipped in the face by sticks just this season, many of his colleagues around the league tend to agree, prioritizing the value of seeing the puck over the increased safety of a mask with more bars that would obscure vision.
"It's not that scary when you think of the other 40 guys or whatever that are out there with nothing protecting their face," Capitals starter Braden Holtby said. "You can make (mask holes) smaller, but I think hockey players are a little crazy that they'd rather take the advantage of seeing better than the risk of injury."
NHL goalies wear "cat-eye" masks with eye holes and other space designed for safety and maximum vision. Grubauer, who was cut below his left eye when a teammate's stick went through his mask during a morning skate in December, said it takes a lot of factors for a stick to get through.
"It's a fluke thing," Grubauer said as he pointed to the hole below the eyes that sticks tend to slide through. "It's got to be the right angle, and what are the odds that it exactly fits through in that moment and the blade is not a little bit off? It's got to fit perfectly through.
"As a goalie you trust your gear. You get dinged up once in a while, but you don't want to see that, sticks hitting the eyes or it's close to losing an eye."
Bishop said after his incident in December that it felt like his eyeball was falling out. He was fortunate to have only a cut and returned two days later.
Thirty years ago, goalie Bernie Parent's Hall of Fame career was ended by an eye injury caused by an errant stick. Mask technology has improved drastically since.
During the 2000 playoffs, Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Brian Boucher escaped damage when a puck went through the eye hole of his mask, which he said Friday was his fault because the bars were compromised by an earlier puck that hit him.
Like most modern goaltenders, Boucher grew up wearing a cage with straight bars all the way across. That type of cage is mandatory in college hockey.
"You could wear a full cage if you want. Guys don't want to do it," said Boucher, who was also once clipped by a teammate's stick in practice. "The only way you can fix it is if you make it mandatory that they have to wear the other kind of cage. I can't see that happening just because, I think, it's so rare that it happens."
Current Flyers starter Steve Mason pointed to the full cages worn in Canadian junior leagues as an option but also would prefer the status quo.
"It's scary," Mason said. "I don't think there is much you can do. ... Things happen so quickly in games that there's not always a chance to protect yourself."
Lundqvist had a black eye and some soreness to show for an accident that could have been worse. It looked as though he felt no ill effects in stopping 29 of the 31 shots he faced Saturday in Game 2 as the Rangers tied their first-round series against the Penguins.
Several months after his scare, Grubauer is at peace with wearing a cat-eye mask and the risks that go along with it.
"If it doesn't hit the eye, you're good to go," Grubauer said. "And if it does, then you have a blurry eye or blurry vision. For me it happens once in a while. It can happen tomorrow; it could've happened today, but I'm not worried about that."
Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.
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