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Systems Analyst: Jordan Staal’s Go-To Goal

Well, his and Elias Lindholm’s. These two have combined on this play more than once, but how does it work?

NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Washington Capitals
Episode I of the 16->11->Goal saga.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Once is a coincidence, twice is a trend. Two of the Carolina Hurricanes’ most highly efficient scorers of late—Jordan Staal and Elias Lindholm—worked the Edmonton Oilers’ defense last Friday to score a goal that was a carbon copy of one they tallied earlier this year. For reference, here’s the earlier goal:

Compare that to this one against the Oilers:

Same players. Same play. Same result. So what makes this play so effective?

Let’s begin with the power play goal against the Capitals. Sebastian Aho gets the puck from Noah Hanifin at the top-left of the frame, and examines his options.

Washington’s diamond formation allows Aho a bit of skating room in the corners of the zone, which he gladly takes. Also, notice Lindholm in the front of the net, occupying a Caps defender so that Staal can have the open space.

Now, see how Lindholm pops out to the side as an option for Aho, but Karl Alzner stays put in front. No Capital is looking at Lindholm’s positioning, which makes the pass from Aho to Lindholm an easy one.

At this point, this play may not have been previously set. Lindholm could have ad-libbed a bit and the coaching staff marked it as something that works. Regardless, he takes the puck low and fakes a shot, freezing both Alzner and Braden Holtby.

Washington’s immediate concern, for some reason, is having sticks in the passing lane instead of actually pressing the puck-carrier and covering his best passing option.

(Also in an alternate universe, Lindholm makes a gorgeous pass to the streaking Jaccob Slavin on the back-door.)

By the time Washington finally commits to a player, Lindholm has shimmied around Alzner’s block attempt and shows off some impressive passing ability via an aerial saucer to Staal’s tape.

Staal, to his credit, found the perfect patch of open ice at the heart of the Caps’ PK. With a shorthanded unit, the defensive strategy is designed to keep the puck and players to the outside, which makes it confusing when a player sets up camp inside your operation as Staal did.

Holtby gets across a bit slowly after biting on Lindholm’s fake, leaving the high-glove area wide open for a one-timer.

Now for part deux, as seen last Friday:

After Aho’s cross-ice pass goes untouched to the other boards, more players enter the picture. Slavin (above) winds up for a shot, but notice how his head is up and scanning.

He knows that with a defender in front of him, other options must be available. And much like he did in the Capitals game, Lindholm has begun to move to the side of the goal as a passing option.

Slavin’s fake shot has frozen the Oilers’ Oscar Klefbom, meaning that his stick is not active and there is a clear lane to Lindholm by going through Klefbom’s “tripod”—the area between his stick and his legs.

Now we see how this has turned into a set play. Before Slavin even saw Lindholm as an option, the latter likely knew what he wanted to do. He saw Staal in what can only be described as a gross mismatch against Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, knew he could create a clear lane, and took his chance.

He doesn’t dust the puck off or try any fakes like he did in the capital—no, this is purely intuition. He knows exactly what he wants to do as he one-times a pass to Staal in the slot, who follows suit with a low drive that goes five-hole.

The fluidity of the second example shows the growing chemistry between Staal and Lindholm, and it reveals that they know they have a go-to option. It’s clear that they have practiced this—or at the very least, discussed it—and seem to have it down to an art.

The other interesting dynamic is that this is the same goal scored in two different situations: the first was on the power play, while the second was even strength. Obviously the Canes want to avoid forcing the play if it just isn’t available, but having a template like this for all situations means that other players can pick it up as well, instead of just 16 and 11.