Ilya Kovalchuk sniped a shot through three Hurricanes (and a Devil) in the first period on 2/16/11 against Carolina. Let's break down the long play to see how it all came together to lead to this string of glove-taps. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
On February 16, 2011, the New Jersey Devils hosted the Carolina Hurricanes and beat them 3-2. At the time, the Devils were on a winning streak amid their Road Back to Respectability in the second half of last season. The victory was their fifth straight, which made fans happy at the time. What was more memorable than the victory itself were the first and third goals scored by the Devils. The eventual game winner was scored by Patrik Elias who busted out a nifty move on Jamie McBain en route to his tally. That goal was requested by a reader a week ago, and Kevin broke it down in this post. I'd check it out since it was a sweet goal and a good breakdown by Kevin as to how it happened.
It was a great shot and the sort of event that leads people to think that all a team needs to do is to get bodies in front of the goaltender. After all, if the goalie can't see it, then it's harder for him to stop it. This is understandable, but it ignores the risk involved. One body in front usually leads to two - the attacking player is usually picked up by someone - and as traffic increases, it makes it just as hard on the shooter to see where he should aim his shot as it is for the goaltender to see it. That all said, Kovalchuk's snipe is a good example of how traffic in front of the goaltender can be incredibly effective. This will be made more clear as I highlight the important events prior to the goal after the jump.
In the comments of this recent breakdown of Ilya Kovalchuk's overtime strike against the Penguins, user statusquo wanted to see Kovalchuk's goal from this game. That would be the first goal of the game, a shot that found it's way past two Hurricane players, a gliding Nick Palmieri, and Cam Ward. Today, I will closely analyze the play that led to the goal to see what had to happen for there to be a shot to begin with. Please set your viewing to "wide" and continue on after the jump to view the (long) breakdown.
As usual, here's a video of the play and the goal itself from NHL.com. The video consists of just that and an enthusiastic fist pump by Kovalchuk, there is no replay included.
Still, the video itself is quite good in that it shows that the play really starts from New Jersey's end of the rink. The breakout play by Kovalchuk and Travis Zajac is of particular interest. It's also longer than most goal highlight videos, so this breakdown is going to be quite long. I assure you, it will make you appreciate the play even more.
Note: The following stills are from the video. The poorly drawn arrows, circles, text and other stuff in MS Paint are my additions.
Let's start at the beginning, with Ilya Kovalchuk having just received a pass from Colin White. The Devils successfully defended a Carolina attack. Kovalchuk will start the breakout here from the side-board. There are three Devils already going forward. Nick Palmieri is the closest to Kovalchuk, but in the direction he's going, a pass would be a bit difficult. Joe Corvo is right behind Kovalchuk and Jiri Tlusty is in position to make a play on Palmieri if necessary here.
Fortunately, the other two Devils are perfect options for a first pass. On the far side is Anssi Salmela. It would be a good idea to pass it to him. However, Kovalchuk is going to pass this into the space just ahead of the third man, Travis Zajac. He'll take this pass and easily be able to make the next move. As a quick aside, this constitutes a first pass, and it's a good one. It doesn't always have to be by a defenseman coming out of his zone, it just needs to be a sensible pass to start an offensive rush and allow the receiver to make the next decision to continue it. That's all.
Zajac takes the puck to his blueline and notices that Tlusty has backed off from Palmieri. Since Palmieri is open and going forward, he's going to try and dish it to him at the center line. This is the correct decision. Tlusty is the only one
Meanwhile, three Canes are hustling back to catch up. Since Sergei Samsonov is stretching towards Zajac to no effect; Corvo's leading the charge back. As he should since I'm sure he'd rather be the one back there defending instead of Tlusty. Patrick Dwyer is behind him as additional support. Curiously, Kovalchuk's not going to turn on his jets. He's going to trail behind this group of Canes. That will be important a few seconds from now.
Unfortunately, the pass from Zajac wasn't that good. It was a bit behind Palmieri, so he had to stretch his stick back. In the follow-through going forward, it popped up into the air. That's why in this shot, the puck's in the air instead of Palmieri moving it on the ice quickly to try and beat Tlusty. This only turns out to be an inconvenience, as Palmieri will keep it alive and get the puck on his stick in Carolina's end. However, it does allow Tlusty to close in on him.
Meanwhile, Salmela is heading off for a change - and White will do so later off-camera. They'll be replaced by Andy Greene and Mark Fraser, who will have no direct impact on this play. Zajac's still open and he's going to press on forward in support for Palmieri. He's heading in the direction of Joni Pitkanen, Carolina's other defenseman on this shift.
As Palmieri settles it, Tlusty is right up in his grill. This is where the rookie winger takes a bit of risk and shows that he's got some flash. He's going to quickly stop the puck and cut back so he can get around Tlusty. If successful, he could be able to drive to the net all alone.
However, it's not going to be that easy for Palmieri. As indicated by the gray arrow, Corvo is still hustling like a mad man to get back on defense. While Palmieri is trying to get around with his closest opponent, the fact that he has to hold up for a bit will allow Corvo to just that - not that Palmieri even knows Corvo's behind him. Speaking of players who don't look like they're skating hard in this picture even though they are, Zajac is still pushing forward in anticipation of what Palmieri does. Pitkanen isn't exactly concerned with the Devils' center just yet.
Palmieri is able to get around Tlusty and go forward into the circle. He decides to shoot, which is understandable since he is open and in a good position. Yet, Palmieri did not know - and could not know - that Corvo was able to get into range and get his stick on him. It's not clear whether he got a piece of Palmieri's stick or the puck itself; but he essentially stuffs the shooting attempt. Instead of going on net, it's going to sail wide to Cam Ward's right.
Not wanting to give up on the play, Palmieri and Zajac keep on going forward in the hopes of getting to that puck. Tlusty turns around and catches up to Palmieri, who has Corvo on his right. At this point, it looks like it's a 2-on-1 defending situation on Palmieri. Given that the puck is loose, that doesn't bode well for the Devils winger. Pitkanen sees Zajac and starts getting his way; though Zajac has the advantage of facing forward, while Pitkanen has to turn. Therefore, Zajac has a good chance of beating Pitkanen to the goal line; though the puck is still some distance away.
By the way, I've highlighted a certain player in the lower right corner. It's Kovalchuk. He's all alone, nobody on Carolina is looking at him, and he's going towards the corner.
A break for Palmieri, Corvo backs off of him to cover the slot. This is a sensible decision by the defender. Even though the puck's behind the net, Corvo is putting himself in position to make a play should a Devil get the puck behind the net and tries to come out forward. Still, it's a plus for Palmieri since he only has one Cane covering him and he's not able to get around Palmieri legally from his position.
Zajac has a little separation from Pitkanen, a result of the defender's turning around. As noted earlier, he will beat him to a spot behind the net. Meanwhile, Kovalchuk sneakily continues towards the corner.
Palmieri is the first to the puck, but given Tlusty's physical play from behind, he makes a short pass to Zajac, who is also open behind the net. Zajac doesn't have a lot of options, even though in this still it looks like he can just fire it along the boards to Kovalchuk - who still isn't covered and moves into the left corner. Patrick Dwyer looks at him here, but for some reason I cannot fathom, he does not do anything. He doesn't go towards him or yells something out. He just turns his head and hangs out in the slot. Anyway, Pitkanen is about to catch up and not allow Zajac to have any option but to do one thing: lay the puck off the back-board.
While Pitkanen finishes his check on Zajac, Palmieri is going to reach out for this laid-off puck. Now, this picture is a bit confusing. Palmieri is not going to attempt a no-look pass along the boards to Kovalchuk. What happens is that Tlusty is going to run Palmieri into Pitkanen. As you can see, Tlusty is behind Palmieri and can't get to this puck. But he can try - and will - to move him into Pitkanen. The hope is to knock the puck loose so a Cane can recover it as far as I could tell from the video.
Technically, that's what happens. However, the puck is going to bounce of Pikanen's stick or skate too hard. Instead of being loose but within the area of a Hurricane player, it's going right to the corner. Guess who's there? Ilya Kovalchuk. Who is completely and utterly open and unwatched by anyone on frame. I know he came in behind players, and I've explained that; but I'm still baffled that nobody on Carolina noticed this and even shouted anything about it. I thought that covering Ilya Kovalchuk would be a priority when playing against him, but what do I know?
I cannot stress this enough. Carolina has played Kovalchuk plenty of times to know better than to do this. Again, Kovalchuk was clever to get into the zone uncovered; but how come nobody did anything when they noticed #17 all by himself? Not that anyone can here, since four Hurricane skaters are bunched up with the fifth - Samsonov - off camera worrying about the right point. While it came off a favorable bounce, #17 has the puck with nobody on him and acres of space. He has to turn around to do anything, but he's going to do that with ease.
As Kovalchuk completes his turn in the corner, it becomes apparent that the Canes are now going to try cover him. Corvo's going to leave the slot in pursuit of Kovalchuk. Pitkanen is coming around the goal to replace him. Tlusty is heading to the slot for additional support. Dwyer is heading towards the area around the top of the circle, presumably to cut him off. Given that Dwyer's a winger, he really should have followed Kovalchuk in, or at least start doing something when he noticed him heading into the corner. I don't know enough about him to know whether he's good or not, but a bad player covering Kovalchuk is better than giving the likes of Ilya Kovalchuk loads of space to manuever.
Speaking of, Kovalchuk's not going to cut inside given the mass number of bodies in the slot. Instead, he's going to head up the left side boards.
Kovalchuk does take a quick moment to look up to see if he can cut in here. He can't. Corvo, who's really hustling on this defensive effort, gets close enough and lays his stick down to deny him a clear lane. Even if he didn't, Kovalchuk doesn't have any clear passing lanes to his teammates around the crease or a view of the net. A pass to the opposite point is dissuaded by the positioning of Dwyer and Tlusty, as indicated by that plain gray line. Pitkanen is still moving across into the slot. While he screens Ward along with Palmieri; he also influences Kovalchuk's decision here. Therefore, Kovalchuk will keep going forward. At this point, it seems Dwyer will continue forward and double-team Kovalchuk along with Corvo.
He does not. As Kovalchuk enters the point, Dwyer starts moving away from the puck carrier. I suppose this is to make sure that if Kovalchuk passes it to Greene, he can be in position on Greene. That's my only explanation as to why he did this. Even then, if I'm a Carolina fan, then I'd rather risk a shot from the blueline by Andy Greene rather than to allow Kovalchuk to keep moving. In retrospect, Dwyer should have been more aggressive. He could have gone after Kovalchuk, or at least head further into the left point to limit Kovalchuk's space.
Anyway, while this all goes on, Palmieri is all alone standing in front of Ward. Tlusty didn't see him, and if he did, he doesn't care. Pitkanen is in the slot, covering for Corvo. He's not going to move and risk Zajac being more open than he already appears to be at this moment. Keep Palmieri in mind for the rest of this breakdown, as he'll play an important role later.
Since Kovalchuk has the whole left point to work with and Dwyer backs off further, he's able to turn and start to take on Corvo directly. Corvo has followed Kovalchuk this whole way and for the Devils winger to get ahead, he'll have to get around him somehow. Most players would look to pass it either to Greene or Fraser. They would be easy passes to open players, as indicated by the thinner lines. Kovalchuk has the skill and the confidence to turn and instead focus on the Hurricanes' #77. It's a risk that ultimately rewards the Devils.
This is where the play starts to become memorable. Kovalchuk moves a little to his right and then he decides to move the puck forward a little bit while giving Corvo a fake. Corvo take it and he's caught turning with the puck behind him. Kovalchuk now has some time to put this puck back on his stick. Ideally, he'll get it just as his body is behind Corvo. By the time Corvo fully turns around, Kovalchuk will want to be gliding past him. Ideally, this would be a "sick nasty" maneuver that allows Kovalchuk to enter a big pocket of space. With Pitkanen now battling with Zajac in front of the net, Tlusty in front of but not doing anything about Palmieri, and Ward having to look around the traffic, this could lead to a great spot for Kovalchuk to shoot it on net. As long as this move is completed as it possibly could. In this picture, it looks like Corvo is beaten.
However, he is not. The move, as great as it looks and as smart as it was to attempt, did not go as well as it could have. Kovalchuk had to take the puck on his backhand and Corvo was quick enough to turn around completely. Corvo still has to catch-up a little, so he's hustling again. He's also stretching out his stick in the hopes of getting a piece of a shot, should Kovalchuk fire one with the little space he does have. Say what you want about the veteran defender, but he knows what he's doing here.
Kovalchuk does not decide to do that; possibly because of Corvo's influence. Instead, Kovalchuk protects the puck and puts it on his forehand while quickly peeks up at the situation. He definitely sees Ward moving away from Pitkanen and Zajac. I believe he also notices Tlusty is ahead of Palmieri and is moving towards the left dot as indicated by the red dashed lines. With Corvo and possibly Tlusty converging by way of the gray lines; I'd like to believe that this causes Kovalchuk do what he does at the red X.
Kovalchuk stops. He suddenly stops with the puck. This turns out to be brilliant. Corvo, who was still catching up in the previous picture, will keep going forward due to his momentum. Tlusty has been lured away from Palmieri enough to cause some noticeable separation, as indicated by the little red line. With Corvo about to glide past him and no one else near him, Kovalchuk will have a short window of opportunity to fire a shot if he has a line of sight on net.
Corvo now stops a half-second after Kovalchuk does. However, at this point, Kovalchuk has already committed to the shot. He pulled the puck back on his stick and he's going to release it past Corvo's left. He's going to attempt to hit the net this way and it appears that he has a shooting lane of sorts.
As for Cam Ward, he's in trouble. As indicated by the black line, he's got bodies in his way. He may be able to see Kovalchuk's stick now; but with Corvo stopping, he's likely going to end up in front of the shooter. Tlusty is going to head back towards the slot now that he saw Kovalchuk stop, and it's arguable that he's in Ward's line of sight now anyway. As if that wasn't enough, Palmieri - who has been uncovered in front of the net for several events - is going to move towards this figurative black line to try and disrupt Ward. This is not a good situation for the netminder.
This is just as Kovalchuk releases his shot. Tlusty moved back to the slot just in time to be in front of Ward. It appears that after he stopped, Corvo has recovered his position somewhat. However, he really didn't. Corvo's legs are together and his stick is held out. Kovalchuk can and will fire this shot in that little bit of space towards the net. He's going to have to attempt to get this on the far post, so he can use the bodies in front of Ward as a screen and to avoid Pitkanen and Zajac.
The only player at this single moment who could botch this is Palmieri, since he's in the way of the shot at this particular moment. Yet, he won't be as he makes his move to the right.
Just after Kovalchuk fires the shot, Palmieri spins to his right to get in the way of Ward. Already in this picture, the shot got past Corvo, that's why his head is turned. Yet, it hasn't reached Tlusty or Palmieri yet. Ward's going down and stretching out to his left. He has to guess here since he can't see through Corvo, Tlusty, or Palmieri. They are all screens.
To quickly recap: Corvo had to stop and try to obstruct Kovalchuk, but he couldn't do so after that second move. Corvo was essentially a stationary screen. Tlusty has been floating in the slot after the puck battle and he moved towards the dot when Kovalchuk was heading in that way. He was moving back towards the slot after he stopped, so Tlusty became a moving screen. Palmieri spun into a spot behind Tlusty and with Tlusty already in Ward's vision, the rookie winger just made it worse. He was the second moving screen.
No. Kovalchuk picked the far post and judging by Ward's body language, it either went over or past his glove. You couldn't fault the goaltender because he only saw the puck when it was too late to do anything about it. A snipe past three Hurricanes (Corvo, Tlusty, Ward) and a Devil, Palmieri; and the Devils fans rejoiced.
The Summary & Conclusion
The goal made it 1-0 New Jersey in the game and made a small addition to the growing legend of Ilya Kovalchuk. As it should, since he did a lot of work on the play. While basic, he started off the play and turned out to be wise to let three Canes go ahead of him on the attack. It allowed him to sneak into the corner and when he had the puck, he had tons of space to work. He had the fortunate break of only having to deal with one Hurricane, and he made two moves that ultimately allowed him to get a good shot off. With the benefit of three screens, he threaded the shot past Corvo, and managed to score around the traffic. A lot of Devils fans liked what Kovalchuk did on the play, and from this breakdown, he certainly deserved it.
However, the common theme from these breakdowns is that the goal doesn't happen without a few things going New Jersey's way. Palmieri corralling the puck off of Zajac's pass ensured that the play didn't die early; and having only to deal with Tlusty on defense helped him out. It was a very good break that the result of the puck battle that the puck went right to Kovalchuk in the corner. It also helped Kovalchuk that Patrick Dwyer decided to leave Kovalchuk alone and let Joy Corvo deal with him by himself. Plus, Jiri Tlusty did a great job floating about and not doing much after the puck battle behind the net - which turned out to partially hurt his team in the end. Seriously, this play does not reflect well on Tlusty or Dwyer in my eyes. These are the important events that the Devils didn't control but surely benefited by various degrees during the play.
(As an aside: I'm impressed with what Corvo did on this whole play. He skated like a mad man and ensured Palmieri wouldn't have an open shot on net; he tracked Kovalchuk from the left circle to the left point and back; he recovered decently after Kovalchuk's first move; and almost did so off the second move. He was in constant motion and forced Kovalchuk to do quite a bit just to get a shot off. He did well, which is more than I can say for some other Hurricanes.)
Moreover, you have to give some credit to Travis Zajac and Nick Palmieri. Palmieri led the initial attack into the zone and initially won the loose puck behind the net to keep the play alive. More importantly, his decision to spin into Ward's vision was necessary. While Ward was plenty screened without him, if Palmieri didn't move, then the shot might have hit him instead of getting past the Hurricane goalie. Zajac allowed a little space behind the net to keep things going; and he indirectly helped by taking Joni Pitkanen's attention for the second half of this play. It's this sort of help that tends to get lost when a player scores a great goal, which further justifies breaking the whole play down.
If you've honestly read through the above, then give yourself a pat on the back. This has been the longest breakdown yet, and possibly one of the longest posts in ILWT history. That's OK. The play was complex enough that plenty can be learned. What did you learn from this breakdown? What impressed you the most about the play? How much more (or less) did you appreciate of Kovalchuk's performance on this play? Are you as baffled with Dwyer's backing off from Kovalchuk as I was during this review? What else did you get out of this breakdown? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this particular goal in the comments. Incidentally, I will break down one more goal this weekend and that may be it for some time. Thank you to statusquo for suggesting this goal for a breakdown; and a big thank you for reading.