If you’re new here, welcome! If you’re not, but need a refresher on what Systems Analyst is all about, welcome back anyway! This is a weekly feature in which we take a play from the preceding week (i.e. goal, scoring chance, goal against, etc.) and dissect the whole thing to see just what made it happen the way it did. Enjoy!
For as important as plays with the puck are, it’s often the ones made without it that can make or break any scenario in hockey.
For example, look back at the Carolina Hurricanes’ Victor Rask’s go-ahead goal against the Minnesota Wild in the Canes’ season opener. It featured some flashy passing and a slick finish, but pay attention to the decisions made by players off the puck.
Elias Lindholm’s center-lane drive, Sebastian Aho’s spin move/pass play, and Rask’s finish are the clear attention-grabbers, and deservedly so. But again, it’s the plays behind the play from all five skaters that are key to creating the eventual goal.
We’ll start at the opposite end of the ice with possibly the greatest example of what makes Jaccob Slavin such a special player.
The edgework is flawless. The puck control is fantastic. The fact that his eyes are up ice the second he’s out of his turn is wonderful to see. That it’s Eric Staal getting outworked and outmuscled by Slavin? Call it an added bonus.
Slavin has been doing this for his entire, albeit young, career. His ability to turn pucks around in transition to spark the Canes’ fast-break offense is why he is the defensive cornerstone of this team, and this is just another example of that.
The quick work from 74 gets the puck going up the boards in a hurry to Brett Pesce, who then flips it to Jordan Staal for a deflected area pass to center ice for Lindholm.
Breakout plays like this hinge on puck support (A.K.A. more plays away from the puck). Pesce follows Slavin, while Staal finds open ice and Lindholm fills the center passing lane and Aho (off-screen) stays wide on the wing as another passing option to move quickly through the neutral zone. If one of these players were to fail to provide support, the end result would be a neutral zone turnover and a dead play before it even began.
With Lindholm finding acres of space to gather speed, he drives towards the Minnesota defense, deftly dancing past Matt Dumba’s pokecheck/stick-lift/??? and into the Wild zone.
Lindholm makes a key play here after escaping the reach of Dumba. He could continue and try to get a backhanded shot on net, or he could loop around the net, but he instead uses his body and skate edges to shield the puck from Jonas Brodin and circle back in at the top of the faceoff circles.
Now, with Aho supporting the puck (that’s four great examples of puck support in one play) in an open area, Lindholm can drop a pass and continue to drift low to draw Brodin into the corner and out of the play. It’s subtle, but oh so important. And then, Aho works his magic:
Both Dumba and Brodin were drawn to Lindholm, leaving Aho plenty of time and space to
embarrass them make a “good hockey play” to beat the defenders. But look away from Aho’s spin-o-rama (if you can) and notice the other red jersey in the above frame. That’s Brett Pesce jumping up on offense, and making perhaps the most important play in the offensive zone.
Much like Lindholm with Brodin, Pesce goes to the net to draw Charlie Coyle’s attention, opening up more space for Aho. Had Pesce stayed near the blue line, as most defensemen likely would, Coyle could have stepped to Aho (or Rask, eventually) and stopped the play in its tracks.
When you hear “net-front presence” being brought up, it’s not always about sticking the biggest guy on the team in front of the goalie for a barrage from the blue line. Sometimes, it’s subtle disruptions like this one, designed to distract not only the goalie, but would-be defenders as well, in order to free up real estate elsewhere.
With multiple players from both teams now drawn to the front of the net, Aho and Rask have space to work with and plenty of activity in the slot to keep goaltender Alex Stalock from having clear sightlines on what’s really going on. As Rask shoots, Stalock is out of position and moving after losing sight of the puck, but it’s not like he really has a chance on this shot anyway...
Put any goaltender in Stalock’s skates here and Rask probably still scores 98% of the time. His world-class finish is just the icing on the cake that was a fantastic six-man (Staal included, before changing for Rask) effort from each red sweater on the ice.