This was the moment when the New Jersey Devils won Game 7 and their first round series. This post will break down the play that led to this very moment. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
The New Jersey Devils won Game 7 against the Florida Panthers in dramatic fashion. They looked great in the first two periods and built up a 2-0 lead. In the third period, the Panthers unsurprisingly fought back and the Devils unfortunately handed them three power play situations. Florida converted on two of them and the game required additional time to break the deadlock. The game opened up in the first overtime period but Martin Brodeur and Jose Theodore ensured there must be a second overtime period. The first five minutes went evenly enough with not many events of note.
The third line of Alexei Ponikarovsky, David Clarkson, and Adam Henrique gained the zone on a dump in. The Devils kept it somewhat alive but it appeared that Florida would clear it out to snuff out any actual attack. It seemed routine enough; not all dump-ins can be won and lead to offense. However, some great fortune resulted in Henrique getting the puck and a quick look at the net. He fired a wrist shot and the next thing you know, it's in the net and the players wearing white jerseys spilled onto the ice in celebration. Henrique scored to end the double overtime period. Henrique scored to win Game 7. Henrique scored to send the Devils into the second round.
In watching it live, this happened a play that wasn't expected to be anything of note. Even if the Devils got the puck, it's not like Florida was out-numbered or unaware. However, in watching it and going through the individual moments, much more happened that met my tired eyes way earlier this morning. That Henrique scored such an important goal is worthy enough of a breakdown. The play itself justifies it as a great example of how good board play with some excellent bounces can result with a decent shot on net. And a decent shot on net can become a big goal when the goaltender Please set your viewing to "wide" and continue on after the jump to see the biggest goal of the season - even bigger than Zajac's OT winning goal in Game 6.
The Goal Video
Here's the video of the goal from NHL.com:
Normally, I would use the NHL.com video for these breakdowns. However, this doesn't really show everything I want to point out. It doesn't show how the Devils gained entry into the zone, which is where the play started. Plus, the camera angle combined with the crowd in the lower bowl standing doesn't show exactly what happened. Fortunately, there is a better video out there. This highlight video at MSG.com shows the whole play from two superior angles with commentary from Glenn "Chico" Resch.
Therefore, I have used screenshots from the MSG video instead. Again, all poorly drawn arrows and text are my addition.
The Players Involved
The MSG video has this excellent high, vertical camera angle that really showcases how this play develops. The puck is dumped into Florida's end of the rink and towards the right corner. Clarkson's going up the right boards in between Matthias (ahead of him) and Fleischmann (behind him). Henrique is heading to the end boards in the hopes of cutting off the path of the puck. Ponikarovsky will skate to the left sideboards in case the puck gets cleared around in that direction. Weaver is ahead of Ponikarovsky and is looking at the puck, while Kopecky trails Ponikarovsky. Salvador and Zidlicky are way back in the neutral zone. This is the beginning of the play.
Jose Theodore is in a good spot to retrieve this puck and that's exactly what he'll do.
Normally, when a goaltender is in this spot he appears to have some space but he really doesn't have any time. Henrique is coming towards that puck, so Theodore is going to turn left and move this puck around. Since Weaver is coming down on that side, Theodore should be able to get the puck to him and the Panthers can end any hopes of a Devils' attack by their third line right now. Ponikarovsky is now turning to his left in case Theodore just clears it hard around the boards.
OK, so this is routine. Theodore plays the puck around the boards. Henrique's effort was good but not effective. So Weaver will get this puck and...
...have the puck continue go around the corner along the boards. I don't know whether he missed it or he intentionally knocked it around. That he wound his stick suggests he played it around.
Now, remember Ponikarovsky heading to the left side boards two pictures ago?
Ponikarovsky stops and retrieves the puck along the boards. Since Weaver headed down, the only man who could do anything to him directly is Kopecky. Because Ponikarovsky headed left when and where he did, he's ahead of Kopecky. This is a good position. Kopecky tries to knock it away from behind, but it's not a good spot for him. Fortunately for him, Ponikarovsky isn't able to fire it immediately along or away from the boards ahead of him to an open Henrique. He's also not aware that Salvador is wide open behind him. So Ponikarovsky has to make a play.
This is an excellent board play. He corrals the puck and puts out enough to get some space away from Kopecky but not far away enough such that he loses control. However, Ponikarovsky has to make a decision very soon. Kopecky is going to keep lunging from behind, Weaver has turned and is now focused on the winger, and Matthias joins as support to prevent anything easy to Henrique down low. In this view, he could knock it back to Salvador. However, that would require a blind pass - Ponikarovsky never looked back to see if he has a teammate at the point. Ponikarovsky will have to play this forward somehow.
Ponikarovsky moves the puck around the corner boards and it's now heading to the right. Henrique and Kulikov are going to try and cut off the puck's movement behind the net.
Meanwhile, notice that Clarkson and Fleischmann are in frame. Since Matthias went over to help; Fleischmann stuck with Clarkson as he moved right. He's not going to stick with him for long since Fleischmann is now still and Clarkson will head back to the right sideboards in anticipation of this puck.
Kulikov beat Henrique to the puck and just pushed it around further. With Henrique right there, the defenseman couldn't collect the puck or take even a half-second to decide where to move it. No, Kulikov just did this to keep it away from the center. Unfortunately for him, he doesn't have any teammates on the right side. Zidlicky is at the right point and, more relevant to this play, Clarkson is heading to the sideboards to get this puck. Since Matthias has to make up a lot of ground and Fleischmann just realizes this; Clarkson will be the first one there.
It's hard to see it in a screenshot, but Clarkson slowed down as he gets to the boards. I suppose this is so he could collect the puck to put it on his stick blade. As understandable as it may have been - hard to play a puck without some control - it allows the Panthers to close on him now. Kulikov followed the puck so he's coming right at Clarkson; Fleischmann swung around to provide a back angle; and Matthias is coming from the side.
What Ponikarovsky did was an example of good board play. He took a bit of risk to anticipate the puck being played around the boards and he was rewarded. Ponikarovsky wasn't able to do much more than play it around; but he did keep the puck going in Florida's end of the rink.
Here, Clarkson just loses this battle. While he slowed down to get the puck, he never really had it under control. Kulikov was able to contact him, knock it loose, and play it out a little bit. Since Matthias was closing in, the puck bounced to him. It looks like in this picture that Matthias has the puck and can just clear it out. However, that is not the case in motion. As Matthias turns to get it, the puck gets immediately pushed towards Fleischmann, who is being pursued by Ponikarovsky. It's almost like a one-touch pass. Anyway, Fleischmann will get this puck and be able to get it out of...
...nowhere because he didn't actually get the puck. Fleischmann was still going to his right in motion so he has to stretch his stick against his momentum to get at the puck. Ponikarovsky, now on the right side in support, goes a stick check to disrupt whatever Fleischmann wanted to do. Maybe it was to play it back to Matthias. Maybe it was to get it back in the right corner. Maybe it was to re-direct it towards the neutral zone. Whatever it is, Fleischmann can't do what he wanted to do in this position because he's off-balance. This is about where things went awry for Florida.
The puck went airborne. Matthias reached for it and missed. Kulikov realizes this and heads away from the boards. The problem is that it's going to go right to a gliding Henrique.
Henrique grabs the puck. However, he's not going to be able to put this puck down right in front of him since Kulikov about to hit him.
So either Henrique or Kulikov dropped it away, but it turns out for the best. The puck is loose and it's away from Henrique. Clarkson can't do anything and Ponikarovsky headed to the point area and can't do anything. After a botched clearance from behind the net to getting beaten along the left side boards to an unfavorable bounce catching Fleischmann off-balance to keep the puck alive. After all of those missed moments on defense, Matthias should be able to corral this puck and end the Devils' attack. The Panthers should have possession.
They will not. The puck bounces through Matthias' legs. Another failure. If that wasn't bad enough, the puck heads towards the right and Kulikov sort of runs into Matthias. This allows Henrique to go around both and collect this puck. Fleischmann is out of this play as he's now too far away to do anything.
As Matthias and Kulikov look up, Henrique stretches a bit to pick up the puck. Weaver, who was defending the slot ever since the puck went to the right sideboards, is now going to challenge Henrique.
I didn't notice this live but Henrique could have tossed this puck to Ponikarovsky. He's now facing the goal and has nobody on him. That would be a good decision. Henrique makes a bolder and better one.
Henrique takes one more step and shoots the puck. This screen is actually right as Henrique takes the shot. His right leg is off the ground and his stick is moving ahead of him. Henrique really put a lot of strength into this wrist shot. He does not hesitate as that would allow Matthias or possibly Kulikov to get in his way. It would also allow Theodore a little more time to get into a better position. Theodore has been great for Florida all game long; but he's going to have a regrettable moment very soon. Just look at that five-hole.
At this angle, it looks like Weaver is in the way of Theodore. It appears that he's in line of his sight. It also appears that Weaver is about to dive down to block this shot. Fortunately, the MSG video has a second angle of this whole play. Let's take a quick look at it.
Yeah, Weaver's not really in Theodore's way. Also: Weaver never actually dives down. In fact, he lifts his left skate. I don't know why he did. Maybe he thought he was in his goalie's way, so he wanted a clearer look at the shot? He couldn't have been trying to throw Henrique off. Henrique committed to the shot before he did that. Maybe Weaver just did it by accident? Whatever the reason, it didn't help.
In any case, Henrique has just fired the puck. Theodore is about to go down and collapse. He knows it's coming in low. Another routine maneuver for the goaltender. A save he has made tens of thousands of over and over again throughout his life as a goaltender. All he needs to do is get his legs closed and his pads on the ice before the shot comes.
Theodore was too late. The shot beat him. The puck is in the net off a shot that came off a few several bounces, which came after Ponikarovsky kept the play alive, which came after Theodore tried to clear out a dump-in. Now, the Devils have every reason to celebrate.
I said, the Devils have every reason to celebrate.
The Devils won two straight OT games in the playoffs. The Devils came from behind 2-3 in this series to take it 4-3. The Devils will move on from the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2007. All thanks to this play that most of the time would be an easy, routine clearance for the opposition.
Looking back at it now, I'm amazed this goal happened at all The Panthers had several chances to do end the attack or at least prevent the goal. Theodore could have made a soft pass to Weaver, who could have ended it. Kopecky could have tracked Ponikarovsky faster instead of allowing his man to get position. Fleischmann could have followed Clarkson faster to the right such that there could have been a two-on-one for the puck that Florida could have won. The puck could have bounced off Matthias stick towards Fleischmann in a different way. Fleischmann could have stopped or slowed down sooner so he wouldn't have been off balance when he got the puck. That puck could have been within Matthias' reach instead of over and away from him. Matthias could have collected the puck with his stick or body after Henrique dropped it (or Kulikov forced him to). Kulikov could have avoided Matthias in trailing Henrique. Weaver could have went down for the block instead of bizarrely raising his left skate as if it would have done anything. Theodore could have reacted faster on the shot. Theodore could have closed his legs sooner or got his stick on the ice. Florida just needed one of these "coulds" to actually happen to avoid getting eliminated from the playoffs on this play. It didn't happen.
Needless to say, the Devils benefited from quite a bit of luck just to get a shot off the play. The puck going over Matthias and then through his legs shortly thereafter was a fantastic break in of itself. However, there was some good work on this play. Henrique didn't get the puck until after it got through Matthias; but he did chase it appropriately and was in the right position. Clarkson didn't play well on the boards, but at least he had the fore sight to get going to the right before anyone else did. Ponikarovsky played the puck very well on the boards: he got into a good position, he settled the puck on his stick, he created some space, and he made a good decision to play it back along the boards. I'm glad he got the primary assist for his efforts because he deserved something on the scoresheet for keeping hope alive that the dump-in would lead to some actual offense. Going back to Henrique, he read the situation perfectly after the puck got through Matthias; he wasted no time in getting it, gripping it, and ripping it when he had an open look on net. His decision to shoot was bold and it was beautiful - thanks to Theodore not going into the butterfly fast enough.
I can't help but point out that all three forwards skated quite a bit on the play. Given that this was five minutes into double OT in a game that started later than usual for both teams, one could expect some fatigue. The third line didn't show any on this play. Clarkson only slowed down to try and get possession along the right boards; he wasn't gassed. Henrique especially stood out since he covered a lot of ground going behind the net, to the left, back behind the net, up from the corner, around bodies, and then just outside of the slot. Their pace and awareness off the puck made this whole play possible.
I also can't help but highlight that the Devils had other options. You may have noticed this in several of the pictures in this breakdown. Had Ponikarovsky or Clarkson played it back, the defensemen could have got involved. They could have provided a different perspective and be somewhat of a threat since no Panther would be really near them. When Henrique got the puck prior to his shot, he did have Ponikarovsky open up top. A pass to him would have been understandable. As with almost all successful plays, I'm glad they didn't happen either as we possibly wouldn't be talking about a goal in this case.
Nevertheless, it did happen. And it serves as an example that even a play that could, should, and normally doesn't become anything on offense - still could present an opportunity and an important moment. As the penultimate picture states, good board play, good bounces, and a good decision to shoot can result in something great.
You've seen the goal, you've celebrated the goal, and now you've read the breakdown. What do you have to say about it? What about the play impressed you the most? How great was Ponikarovsky on the left sideboards? How great was Henrique's shot at the end? Which of the Panthers played the worst on this play? Did anyone on this play get victimized by bad luck more than Matthias? What did you learn from this breakdown? Please leave your answers along with any other thoughts about this particular goal in the comments. Thank you for reading.