NJ Devils Goal Breakdown: Ilya Kovalchuk's Breakaway Beauty on 2/18/2011

Kovalchuk's goal on 2/18/2011 was great. Let's break it down to see how it happened. (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)

I spent a good chunk of the offseason looking at the goals against the New Jersey Devils, separated by goaltenders Johan Hedberg and Martin Brodeur.  While valuable, it's not exactly uplifting to watch a heinous mistake by a skater followed by an opposing player just making a better play with an occasional "oops" by the goaltender himself.   I'm done with the goals against, so let's take a closer look at some goals by the Devils.   I don't want to go through every goal the Devils scored last season; just some of the more memorable ones.  

The main idea is that in reviewing the video and highlighting certain events prior to the goal itself, we can get a better understanding of what results in goals.  Perhaps it's a bad break that leads to future fortune.  Perhaps some hard work that doesn't show up on the boxscore helps create the goal.  Perhaps it's just a wonderful shot out of nowhere.  Whatever it is, it can provide some perspective on how goals are scored in the game of hockey.  It can shape our expectations during games when we want to see the Devils light the lamp.   Most of all, we can figure what makes a sweet goal sweet.  

I'm going to start this series of posts with one of my favorites of last season: Ilya Kovalchuk's breakaway goal on February 18, 2011.  The Devils were hosting Our Hated Rivals, the New York Rangers. It was a tight affair on the scoreboard (but not on the ice) until just before midway through the second period.   Marc Staal misplays a puck at the point, Kovalchuk pounces on it, and scores a beauty past Henrik Lundqvist for the game's first goal.  The highlight-reel play was the only goal scored in a dominating performance by the team we love over the team we hate.  I named it my goal of the season back in April.  Set your viewing to "Wide" and let's take a closer look at the goal after the jump.

The Goal

First, check out the video of the play in motion from NHL.com.  This one has two replays of it with different angles, so the video alone does a great job of showing the play from start to glorious finish. 

Awesome.  Let's break it down.

The Breakdown

Note: The following stills are from the video. The poorly drawn arrows, circles, and other stuff in MS Paint are mine.

Kovy_bg_beginning

This is where the play begins.  The puck (black arrow) is knocked to Artem Anisimov in the corner, presumably by Marc Staal.  That's all Staal can do because he's being checked by a Devil, #32 Nick Palmieri.    Travis Zajac is already below the right dot, ready to cover Anisimov.    The Rangers can keep possession, but it's not going to be easy to turn it into something positive.

There are two other things to notice. The first is Kovalchuk, who has a pink circle around him.  He's watching the puck, and he's above the circle.   The second is that there are only 4 Rangers in this view.  Dan Girardi, Staal's defensive partner, is out of frame on the left point.  Ryan Callahan is screening Johan Hedberg and Brandon Dubinsky is in the high slot.  That's the current situation. 

Kovy_bg_corner_play

Of course, the puck is in the corner. Zajac is right on top of Anisimov.  Now, the red arrow originates from Anton Volchenkov.  He's going to take a calculated risk here.  Volchenkov is going towards the corner to help out Zajac in the corner.  The risk is that it leaves Henrik Tallinder, the other Devils defender on the ice, alone with Callahan and Dubinsky.  He's sees both, but he's just one man.   Fortunately, Tallinder's not completely alone as Kovalchuk moves into the circle. Kovalchuk's looking at the play, which isn't ideal, but he's not so out of position that he can't help Tallinder if necessary.   

Basically, if Anisimov wins the puck battle here and somehow gets it around to a teammate, it could present some problems for the Devils.  If Zajac and Volchenkov thwart him, then they can diffuse the attack. 

One more thing, the blurry figure in the bottom left of this picture is Staal.  He's breaking away from Palmieri to return to the point.

Kovy_bg_corner_2on1

Here's the two on one.  Volchenkov's decision is immediately rewarded even if he and Zajac don't get the puck here.  Callahan and Dubinsky move towards the threesome, presumably in the hopes of giving Anisimov a close option for a pass, or to be prepared for a loose puck that comes from the battle.  This benefits the Devils because now the Rangers have no one in a dangerous position. Their defensemen are at the point, no one is in front of the net, and three Devils are all in good position. Tallinder is in a spot where even if Callahan gets it behind the net, he can make a move on him. Kovalchuk is wheeling around the dot and has Dubinsky in his sights along with the puck.  Palmieri is getting back to the play and in his spot he could be in the way of any low pass back to Staal.

However, Volchenkov's decision to help Zajac leads to a positive that could have ended up as a negative.

Kovy_bg_volchenkov_to_point

Volchenkov actually gets the puck in the corner and lofts it along the side of the rink.  The little spot just above the black arrow is the puck itself, floating towards the point. Nearly everyone's eyes are on it, Palmieri is the lone exception. 

In retrospect, this could have gone pretty poorly for New Jersey, since no one's up at the point.  Palmieri's not even looking so by the time he turns around, the puck will already be on a Rangers' stick or even away from the point.   Kovalchuk is turning at the dot but even with his pace, he's not going to get there.  Callahan is motioning towards the front of the net presumably to set up a screen.  Remember: no one is at the points, it's just Staal and Girardi.  They would have long yet open shots on Hedberg if they had the puck.  At the right point, all Staal has to do is get this floating puck on his stick.

Kovy_bg_staal_point

I numbered three Rangers for the purposes of showing how Staal could have punished the Devils if he picked off Volchenkov's loft from the corner.  He has Girardi (#1) wide open at the right point.  He has Dubinsky (#2) as a short option just up the boards.  Callahan (#3) elected to go behind the net, but he could have received a hard dump-in and have plenty of space.  Anisimov is out of the picture but he's still in the corner, so he could be #4 on a dump-in. Staal could have easily kept the Rangers' attack alive on this shift.

Instead, this is where it all went wrong for New York.  Staal not only didn't get the puck on his stick, but he stretches out his leg to try and collect the puck. This would be OK in soccer; but it's a risky move in hockey.  The puck could have bounced off his skate and went elsewhere.  Even if Staal did stop it with his skate, it would be an awkward position.  He'd have to either kick it back to himself, which is risky; or re-position himself to get it back on his stick. 

Now, let's notice that man in the pink circle, Ilya Kovalchuk.   The red arrow shows Palmieri shifting towards the slot.  In the prior picture, he saw Kovalchuk turning and figured he'd have to get out of his way.  Kovalchuk now has a free lane to blaze up to the point.  Should Staal struggle with the puck, he's going to have to deal with a large man wearing #17 getting up in his grill - and it wouldn't go very well.

See, here's the thing: Staal didn't struggle with the puck - he only got a piece of it with his skate.

Kovy_bg_off_to_races

This alone shows how dangerous a botch at the point can be. The puck sails towards the PNC marking on the ice and will get to the red line.  Staal's right skate altered it's angle ever so slightly to put it in no man's land.  Since Staal had to stretch out his leg, he's just recovering his balance.

Therefore, he'll get a great view of Kovalchuk blowing past him.  Palmieri shifts to the slot to provide cover should something go awry as Kovalchuk tries to turn this loose puck into a breakaway.  The two pink arrows are crucial as to why Kovalchuk gets this puck at all. The one pointing at the puck reflects Kovalchuk's vision.  His eyes are tracking where it's going, sending a message to the brain that probably reads "IT'S GO TIME" were it to be written.  The one pointing towards center ice reflects his body position. He knows he needs to keep going and towards center ice to get the puck as it's gliding.

Let's take a step back for a moment. From the first picture on, Kovalchuk followed the play and moved accordingly.  He dropped into the circle, turned as the puck was lofted out by Volchenkov, and as Staal was desparately trying to get possession, he was already striding towards the point.   This is how Kovalchuk is able to torch Staal, he's already got some momentum in his skating while Staal flounders.  Girardi notices Staal fumbling and starts to turn because he pretty much has to start getting back at this point.  He's the only one who can, really.  Staal can't do it as I've just explained. Dubinsky had the disadvantage of stopping two pictures ago and is just starting to skate while Kovalchuk is already motoring ahead.  The other Rangers forwards are too far away. Kovalchuk is going to get this puck and it's going to be up to Henrik Lundqvist to bail the Rangers out.

Kovy_bg_before_shot

This is right before Kovalchuk fires his shot on net.  Lundqvist is in position before Kovalchuk pulls back to shoot.  It's not a bad position at all.  His stick is on the ground, his legs are spread, and his glove is in a neutral position.  Lundqvist is out of his net a little bit - perhaps not enough? - to cut off the angle.  While he's hunching over, it's going to be difficult for Kovalchuk to put this one over Lundqvist because of the angle.  I think that was Lundqvist's intention; to draw Kovalchuk to go higher than he needed to and force a missed shot on the breakaway.

However, the problem is that Lundqvist's challenge came before Kovalchuk gave any tells on where he's intending to shoot this puck.  As Kovalchuk picked up the puck, he moved to the center of the slot to avoid a tell by position.  He's looking at Lundqvist to avoid having his eyes obviously point to where he wants to shoot it.  The only sign comes at this moment, just as Kovalchuk's about to release the puck.  Notice his right skate is angled towards Lundqvist's glove side.  It's not much and it could be just a result of the camera angle or Kovalchuk's move to the center.  However, in retrospect, we know this shot is going glove side.  

Unfortunately for Lundqvist, because he's locked in position, there's not a whole lot he can do about what Kovalchuk did.  Kovalchuk fired it under the glove.  I believe it's easier to raise it than to lower it, especially in the stance Lundqvist was in.  It was also one of the few holes that could be seen, which makes me feel that Lundqvist just going to the top of the crease wasn't enough.  Another inch or so forward and perhaps the angle draws Kovalchuk's attention elsewhere on the shot.   Still, it's not to take away from Kovalchuk. If anything, it makes the goal even better because it was such a difficult spot to hit, even at the shot's relatively close range. 

The result?

Kovy_bg_just_after_goal

Sensational.

The Summary & Conclusion

Kovalchuk's breakaway goal was fantastic.  In breaking it down, it's clear there were two key moments that made the play possible before Kovalchuk even touched the puck.  The first was Volchenkov's decision to go help Zajac in the corner on Anisimov.   Volchenkov didn't have to do it, Zajac had him just fine, and who's to say that Zajac really needed it?  Yet, Volchenkov helped win the puck and was the one to get it out of the corner.  For a moment, the Devils defense looked to be in control as the puck was cleared out.  Given where it went, it could have really hurt the Devils if it wasn't for the second key moment: Staal's stretch. 

Staal wasn't in position at the point for the lofted puck and decided to stretch for it instead of letting it get past him.  After all, if it did, the Rangers' attack would be over and he'd have to re-collect it and start again.  That's understandable, however, it wasn't the right choice.  While just touching it with the skate can be considered a bad bounce, the fact that he had to get himself off-balance to keep the puck in play wasn't smart.  In retrospect, letting it go out would have allowed Staal to get to the puck first and possibly get it up to Dubinsky to re-start the offense.  Staal would have had a better angle to get to a puck up the side first, even with Kovalchuk's momentum. It would have been better than allowing a breakaway. It would have been even better had Staal been in position - it's not like Volchenkov fired a rocket to the point - and could have got the puck with his stick and not his feet.

Instead, that's what happened.  Volchenkov's clearance turned into an assist on a brilliant finish by Kovalchuk. In effect, this was not a turnover that led to a breakaway by Kovalchuk.  It was a bad decision that went awry by the opposition.   It came after a decision that turned out well for the Devils; and it resulted in Kovalchuk firing up the ice to give the sell out crowd something to remember.   A risk by NJ was rewarded, which was followed with a risk by NY burning them.  I love it.  In the bigger, more objective view, I see this as an example of how decision making (along with a little luck) is important in the run of play.  It's also an example of how a quality player like Marc Staal can make mistakes like anyone else.  We love our playes to not make them, but they just happen..

Going back to the goal scorer himself, there's one more point I want to make from all of these pictures.  The whole breakaway wouldn't have happened had Kovalchuk remained stationary along the point and didn't follow the play.   His momentum allowed him to just blow past Staal and leave Girardi in the dust as he got the puck.   This can be seen as a risk as well.  Kovalchuk was following the play instead of checking on any open opposing players. Should Anisimov win the puck battle or Staal kept the puck, the resulting play could have led Kovalchuk to be a difficult spot and unable to make a useful defensive play. In this case it was clearly fine, especially since the only Ranger unaccounted for was on the opposite corner of the zone.  Still, it's something to keep in the back of your mind when you think of Kovalchuk's play in the defensive zone.

Your Take

Now that you've seen 10 seconds of action broken down to explain how a gorgeous goal against a hated rival came to fruition, I want to know your opinion on this breakdown and the format itself.  What did you learn from this breakdown of the goal?  What in the breakdown stuck out to you the most; the two-on-one in the corner, Kovalchuk's motion on the play, Staal's error, or the final shot?   What do you think of this format of breaking down a goal?   Please leave your answers in the comments along with any other thoughts about this particular goal.  

As for future goals to breakdown, I've taken to Twitter for suggestions via @InLouWeTrust.  Already I have two suggestions: Tedenby's goal on January 17, 2011 against the Islanders (thanks @stlmn39 and @catchy_nickname) and Elias' goal against Carolina on February 16, 2011 (thanks @Vasili_Zaystev). Those will come in the next two days.  I plan on doing a couple more than those two, so if you have any suggestions, leave those in the comments here or tweet it to @InLouWeTrust.  Thank you for reading.

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