The New Jersey Devils defeated the New York Rangers in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals by a score of 4-1. It was the first game of the series where one team built up a multiple-goal lead prior to the third period; and that team was New Jersey. Given that Henrik Lundqvist has been amazing for the Rangers throughout the regular season and in the playoffs, it was real impressive that the Devils were able to get more than one past him relatively early.
Most of the four goals New Jersey scored were pretty simple. The first goal came from the improbably productive Bryce Salvador. His shot from the point stayed low, traveled through traffic, and got deflected off Anton Stralman's skate as the puck dribbled in between Lundqvist's legs. A fortunate occurrence more than anything else. The third goal was simple: Adam Henrique won a faceoff to start the power play, Ilya Kovalchuk hammered a slapshot on net, and Zach Parise put in the rebound. It was a very good effort; also straight-forward. The fourth goal was an empty net goal - a long clearing attempt by Parise that sent the puck rolling towards and then into the net.
The second one, the eventual game winning goal, was the lone score by New Jersey that came off a more substantial play. The goal itself was important. It capitalized on big minute defenseman Ryan McDonagh serving a fighting major. Getting one goal against Lundqvist is a big deal, especially since he has two shutouts in this series already. Zajac's goal established that Lundqvist couldn't just bail out the Rangers and keep things close for a timely goal later on Getting two - and not long after the first one - in Game 4 was massive.
Therefore, I think it's worthy of a goal breakdown. What better way to get excited for Game 5 tonight than to see Dainius Zubrus, Zajac, and Parise take a turnover and turn it into a successful two-on-one play? Please set your viewing to wide and continue on after the jump to see how it all happened and Michael Del Zotto getting torched among other things.
The Goal Video
Here's the video of Zajac's goal from NHL.com. If you haven't seen it or if you want to see it again, here you are:
I'll be primarily using this video for the screenshots in this breakdown. As usual, the text and poorly drawn arrows were added by me. There were a few points where I used Fred Murtz' video of the goal as he had different angles. I'll note it when it comes up during the breakdown.
The Players Involved
Prior to the video, Fayne chips the puck out of the zone. Girardi collects the puck along the boards and that's where this breakdown will begin.
Disregard the black box, I originally mis-identified the Ranger, who is Anisimov. Girardi sees the pressure coming from Parise, so he passes the puck across the neutral zone to Del Zotto. That's a routine play. It changes the point of attack, the Rangers will be able to maintain possession since he's so open, and they can approach the offensive zone again. Anisimov will dart downwards after this pass, while Zajac lurks behind him. The other two Rangers skaters have to get onside, while the other three Devils skaters are in their own end.
Del Zotto collects the puck, turns, and sees Anisimov up ice. Zajac disregarded Anisimov to go after the puck carrier. Boyle and Gaborik are back on side and Boyle is already curling around to go to the center. This looks simple enough. Del Zotto is open, Anisimov is open, and the passing lane is open.
There's just one problem.
That blurry figure isn't Bigfoot, Nessie, or Jim Carey's NHL career. It's Dainius Zubrus and he's stepping up on Anisimov. The Ranger forward has his back to the boards, and while it's hard to tell, he's stretching out his stick. That means Del Zotto's pass wasn't very good. It also means Zubrus is in a good position to take this puck.
Meanwhile, Parise dropped back to the red line and Zajac follows through on Del Zotto. I don't believe he checked him, but that's OK. It'll be important in a little bit.
Zubrus boxes out Anisimov and just takes the puck. It's an interception not unlike a cornerback going after a mis-thrown ball in football. Anisimov tries to impede Zubrus, but he will not be fully deterred from going forward along the boards. Both Boyle and Parise are curling around. Boyle's going to try and cut off Zubrus in the neutral zone, and Parise is going to come closer to support him if needed.
About a second or so later, this is the situation. Anisimov is completely out of the play, he's still at the Devils' blueline in the bottom-left corner. Boyle is lining up Zubrus for a hit, which would be good except it won't do much of anything. Parise came down quickly enough for Zubrus to see him and make a simple pass right on his stick. Parise will take the puck and continue going forward while Zubrus will absorb a hit.
Elsewhere on this play, Zajac is coming back onside after following through his pressure on Del Zotto. Zajac is going to head up the blueline. Del Zotto sees Zubrus making the pass to Parise, so he's going to do the reasonable thing and get up on the blueline to engage Parise. As a defenseman, he should be able to at least slow Parise down, right?
This is where the play goes from bad to worse. Del Zotto is bent over and stretching out his stick instead of trying to get into position on Parise. He's not along the boards, nor is he close enough to try to force Parise into the boards when he comes. There's a gap and Parise is heading right for it. In addition, Girardi is focusing entirely on Parise. His body and his eyes are right in his direction. That means he doesn't see Zajac turning to his blindside.
As an aside: Boyle does hit Zubrus with a good check. Too bad it's pointless as it's now a two-on-two situation with one of the defenders not paying attention to the attacker without the puck.
Parise saw the gap at the blueline and just powered through it. He's known for being constantly in motion, but if you give him an opportunity, he will take it. Del Zotto is just beaten at this point. As if that wasn't bad enough, Girardi is still focused on Parise and the puck. He has no idea that Zajac is going to start charging in behind him towards the far circle.
At this point, let's look at two screenshots from Fred Murtz' video to more clearly see how Del Zotto was beaten.
Look at that gap between the boards and Del Zotto. Not only is the defenseman off balance - just look at his feet - but he's way out. Keep in mind that Del Zotto was a couple more feet out just before this moment, so the gap went from being wide open to slightly less wide open. Parise was already heading towards the blueline with pace and momentum, so he definitely had the speed to try and get through. He just released the puck to let it roll ahead so all he has to do is get past him with power. It worked.
Oh, how it worked. Del Zotto is essentially out of the play. Let's go back to the NHL.com video:
OK, so here we are. Parise, now with the puck and possibly Del Zotto's jock, is going to drive to the nearside faceoff dot. Lundqvist is focused on Parise, as he should since Parise has the puck. Girardi is the lone defenseman and he's a long ways away from both Parise and Zajac. Remember: Girardi didn't see Zajac enter the zone. He might think he knows, but he really doesn't. That's why he's not up on him in this makeshift two-on-one. All he can do is assume there's another Devil and attempt to block Parise from making a pass. It's a good assumption to make, especially since Lundqvist is already set for a shot to come from Parise.
Girardi figured he didn't have a lot of time to make a play, so he just hustled towards Parise and flopped onto the ice in the hopes of blocking any pass. He stretches out his stick to increase his odds. Truthfully, it was a gutsy play and I can't fault him for making it. He wasn't in a good position thanks to Del Zotto getting beaten so bad. He had to be desperate. Unfortunately for him and the Rangers, Parise got the pass off to the extremely wide-open Zajac in the far-side circle.
Wait, how? Let's go back to Fred Murtz' video for an additional perspective.
Truthfully, a screenshot really doesn't do it justice. Neither does my line. Parise beat Girardi with a perfect saucer pass. He got enough of a lift on it to get it cleanly over Girardi's stick, he did it softly enough so it landed flat on the ice, and he did it with enough force for the puck to quickly get across the slot. It was a perfect pass. I'm sure at this moment, Girardi is doing a slow motion "Noooooooooooo" or "Hooooooooooow?" as he sees the puck get past him.
Let's go back to the NHL.com video for the result of this pass:
This is now Zajac's time to shine. He flanked Girardi and received Parise's pass perfectly. He has no one near him and all the time in the world to settle this puck down and place a shot on net. Zajac doesn't do that. He knows Lundqvist is moving post-to-post and he's got a small window of time to catch him while he's in motion. Zajac is going to slam this puck with a one-timer while he's striding. It's a difficult shot.
P.S. Look at Parise already around Girardi. Should there be a rebound or a missed shot that ends up behind the net, he's in a great place to make a play.
Zajac hit it perfectly. Top left corner past the gliding goaltender. There's only thing left to do.
This play should have never happened. Rangers head coach John Tortorella benched Michael Del Zotto for almost the entire second period and half of the third period, and I would have to think this goal had a lot to do with it. He made a bad read in the neutral zone and forced a pass to Anisimov. The pass itself wasn't on target and Zubrus jumped up on Anisimov to take the puck. That also meant he wasn't really open. Del Zotto follows that turnover up with an abysmal attempt at the blueline to stop Parise. He gave him a gap and almost dared him to take it. Parise won that game with authority In Fred Murtz' video, Eddie Olcyzk lambasted Del Zotto for playing chicken. I'd have to agree, especially after doing this breakdown. The moment Parise got past, Del Zotto was done on this play. He was out of the picture, he had no chance to recover, and he didn't make much of an effort at doing so. In summary, he created the rush with his turnover and he created a two-on-one for the Devils by getting torched by Parise at the blueline. Any Rangers fans mad with Del Zotto on this play are justified.
Del Zotto wasn't the only Ranger who could have done more. Anisimov was ineffectual and basically gave up once Zubrus got away from him. Boyle did catch Zubrus, but hitting him just ensured that he would be out of the play. Maybe he should have kept skating forward, possibly to provide some back pressure on Parise? Girardi was put into a bad spot in a sudden two-on-one. His diving attempt at blocking Parise from passing the puck was understandable. However, the fact that he focused his attention on Parise as he gained the zone allowed Zajac to get so open to begin with. If he noticed Zajac earlier, he could have tracked him and defend the play like a traditional two-on-one: the one taking the guy without the puck and the goalie taking on the guy with it. I feel bad for Lundqvist and Gaborik. The former had to go post to post and didn't have much of a chance beyond luck at stopping Zajac's shot. The latter was on the far side of the play and couldn't do anything.
Of course, the Rangers failure wouldn't have been possible without the success of the Devils' forwards. Zubrus' interception was great and it kicked this whole play into motion. He calmly passed it off to Parise when he was close enough, which gave Parise enough space to pick up speed and ensured the puck would be secured. Parise was simply fantastic on this play. He posterized Del Zotto to gain the zone, broke away from him, and his pass to Zajac was impeccable. Lastly, Zajac moved very well off the puck. He knew Girardi wasn't paying attention and entered the zone on his blind side. Zajac was able to not only get incredibly wide open, but positioned at an angle where a shot would be difficult for a sliding goaltender to stop. His one-timer was just as good as Parise's pass. It was a great play and a great goal.
Essentially, this is the kind of play I want to see more from the Devils. They took a mistake by the opposition and made them pay for it. The Devils have been able to get odd man rushes against New York in this series, but the decision or execution by the puck carrier hasn't always been the best - so many rushes have led to nothing. If you figure the Devils have been wearing down the Rangers skaters, then perhaps those mistakes will come. Then there's the matter of the goaltender. Lundqvist, like most (if not all) goaltenders, is more vulnerable when he's not set in the crease and he's in motion. Zajac deciding to fire a shot the moment the puck came to him was the correct one as it took advantage of Lundqvist not being set. Hopefully there will be opportunities for the Devils to get shots while Lundqvist isn't set. It doesn't have to go post-to-post (I wouldn't complain if it did); but it's easier to score on him than when he's set and squared up for the shot.
Now that you've seen the goal and you've read the breakdown, what are your thoughts about how it all happened? Could Del Zotto been any worse on this shift? How do you miss someone as big as Zubrus lurking by an intended target for a pass? Which aspect of Parise's contribution impressed you more: beating Del Zotto or making the pass over Girardi? What else did you learn from this breakdown? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on this play, the goal, and this breakdown in the comments. Thank you for reading.