Travis Zajac can say he had a successful week. On Tuesday, the New Jersey Devils announced an eight-year, $46 million extension to keep him through the 2020-21 season. On Saturday night, Zajac had a good game against the New York Islanders. He played 19:58, played in all situations, kept John Tavares and his unit fairly quiet, got two shots on net, and scored a goal. Zajac's goal was the team's first of the season and as far as first goals of a season go, it was a real beauty. The one-timer by Zajac itself was pretty, but the puck movement from Henrik Tallinder and Ilya Kovalchuk really set it apart. It was also an example of the Devils making their opposition pay dearly for a big mistake.
For those of you who are unaware, from time to time I take a much closer look at the play that led to a goal. Usually, the goal carries some importance, like Adam Henrique's overtime goal knocking out the Rangers in 2012. Sometimes I'll do one that represents a great effort by an individual or the team, such as this goal by Mattias Tedenby against the Isles in 2011. I take screenshots from an available video of the goal, such as a goal video at NHL.com, and go through all the meaningful events that happened before the goal to show how it all happened. Zajac's goal against the Islanders was no different. Since it was such a great looking play and the Isles got burned on a error of their own design, I felt it may be worthy of breaking it down further and with some convincing I went ahead and did so. As I stated in the recap of the Devils' 2-1 win, I'd like to thank Cygnus21 and MattiasTedenbyFlyingCircus for encouraging me to do so in Saturday's Gamethread.
The Video of the Goal
This video comes from NHL.com. All pictures in this post come from this video; any poorly drawn arrows, lines, circles, and text were added
The Situation Before the Play
Before the Video: According to the NHL.com official play by play of the game, the Islanders iced the puck 6:19 into the second period. The Devils took off their fourth line and replaced it with the Zajac line to go against the Islanders' fourth line for the offensive zone draw.
We begin with a faceoff. Zubrus is taking the draw as Zajac was forced out. Tallinder takes the position along the boards with Kovalchuk behing Zubrus. Should Zubrus win the draw cleanly, having Kovalchuk in a position to shoot it is far better than Tallinder. The fifth skater, Volchenkov, is off-camera and on the other side. However, Zubrus is going to lose his draw against Reasoner.
Streit picks up the puck and decides to fire it hard around the corner. It's a good decision. His teammates just iced the puck and he needs to get it out. Zajac is going to try and chase it, but he's definitely not going to get it. The other man in front Nabokov is Strait. Keep this in mind for a little later.
Volchenkov and Boulton crash into the sideboards. Volchenkov is trying to keep the puck in, whereas Boulton is there in case he does. The puck gets through, which makes Streit's attempt to clear the puck successful. If it hit either of them, it only served to change the puck's trajectory. So far, the Islanders have done nothing wrong. McDonald is the furthest Islander up ice, so he'll presumably chase this down.
The puck sails a bit off the boards and heads towards the Devils' zone. Tallinder really hustled after the faceoff to get back on defense and as a result, he's the closest one towards the puck. Kovalchuk is also in the neutral zone, which is good in case he needs some support. As for the Islanders, McDonald is the only one with any chance of pressing forward.
Now, what the picture doesn't show you is that McDonald isn't skating particularly hard. He's just gliding along. After all, the Islanders did just ice the puck so his shift may be done. However, he's got two choices: he can either go after the puck to put a little pressure on Tallinder or he can go to the bench. Whatever he decides, he should do it quickly.
This is the beginning of the big mistake by the Islanders. McDonald just slowly glides towards the bench as Tallinder recovers the puck. Tallinder is just about to get it and McDonald isn't even off yet. David Ullstrom is about to head on the ice, but he can't until McDonald comes off. Combined with the fact that no other Islanders have pushed up with McDonald - thanks largely due to starting off the shift in their own end, there's a lot of space in the neutral zone. As Tallinder collects this puck, Kovalchuk has already turned in the neutral zone and realized no one's near him. When Tallinder turns, he's going to have a lot of space and a wide-open Kovalchuk.
Ullstrom is now on the ice along the blueline, but he's nowhere near the play no thanks to McDonald's casual pace in getting to the bench. It is at this point where the Islanders make their big mistake. If you notice their bench, there's another skater by the bench with another coming on. Yes, McDonald wasn't the only one going for a change. The other skaters thought the puck would go in deep enough or that they would have enough time to get new players on. It's understandable in a way. The team just iced the puck and it certainly wasn't a favorable match-up. However, Streit's clearance only went so far, McDonald didn't even try to put any pressure on Tallinder, and so when the Devils defenseman turned he has a large amount of uncontested ice in front of him in between the red lines. Simply put, the Islanders are getting caught at this moment, and Tallinder's going to make them pay. He could hit Zubrus with a pass to the red line, but Kovalchuk is further up ice and even more open.
I took this screenshot as the pass was made, so it's a bit blurry. Nevertheless, I've counted the Islanders on the ice and all four of them are bunched up together. Two of them (I think it's #1 and #4) were going for a change but realized the play is passing them by. Ullstrom, #2 in this photo, came on the ice seconds earlier and he's completely out of the play. #3 appears to be heading to the bench, which would make him Brian Strait as he's the only other Islander who changed per the play-by-play. Yes, the defensemen who was last on camera right in front of Nabokov went for a change after a clearance that didn't even get to the other end of the rink. He also didn't skate particularly hard to get there. There's only one Islander skater who isn't by the bench and he's probably not happy about being the only one in his own end.
As for the Devils, Tallinder's pass is about to hit Kovalchuk perfectly. Kovalchuk turns for the puck, but he doesn't stop. He's going to let it lead him into the zone, allowing him to take the pass in stride. Given his skating abilities, this is preferable. Note that Zajac is back on side and is now turning so he can join Kovalchuk. Zubrus has just finished his turn and will also make an attempt to get up ice.
Poor Mark Streit. He made a good decision in clearing the puck, it was successful, but thanks to his linemates, he's now in a difficult spot. Not only is it a two-on-one, which could soon become a three-on-one, but he's stuck in the middle of Kovalchuk and Zajac. Streit has his attention on the puck carrier, Kovalchuk. Essentially, that's who he's going to focus on. Ideally, you'd want the defender to take the open man. However, if Streit backed off and tried to cover Zajac, then Kovalchuk would have loads of space to cut inside for a better angle on the goalie.
Incidentally, there is one other blue blur starting to make a mad dash for the defensive zone. It becomes clear in later pictures that it's Travis Hamonic, the man who came on for Strait. He knows he needs to help Streit, he's going to try and get there, but he has no chance at this rate.
As indicated by my poorly drawn orange lines, both Streit and Nabokov have their attention on Kovalchuk. Nabokov takes a favorable position to cut off the angle in case Kovalchuk does decide to shoot a long shot. Streit's already down on his knees and he's going to spread his body apart to cut off any passing lane to the center. Streit's decision to dive is good one in a bad situation. While's he's committed his spot, his outstretched body should cut Kovalchuk off from passing to Zajac in theory.
Meanwhile, Zajac is still skating towards the crease and Zubrus enters the zone to technically make it a three-on-one. In retrospect, Zubrus was smart to get involved as it gives Kovalchuk another option. A shot from the top of the right circle isn't a great one to take given the distance, angle, and the fact that Nabokov's prepared for it. The passing lane to Zajac is about to be cut off by Streit's person. Hamonic is charging hard, but he still has to catch up so that pass was there.
Kovalchuk doesn't look back, though. He's been looking at Zajac as glided forward the past few feet. Kovalchuk cut inside a little bit but he's going to attempt a pass to Zajac, who's still heading towards the net. He's certainly not going to shoot it. At this moment, that appears to be a bad idea given that Streit's completely flat on the ground and swinging his stick towards Kovalchuk. That stick could conceivably stop a pass to Zubrus had Kovalchuk made that decision. While the Devils had numbers, Streit's decision to dive looks pretty good here.
However, that doesn't matter. Kovalchuk managed to get the puck to Zajac and be able to put it on his stick. Nabokov is following the puck is now coming across laterally and a bit deeper into his net. How in the world did Kovalchuk get it past Streit?
The answer is a saucer pass. The passer lifts the puck a little bit such that it gets over whatever obstacle is in the way and still it land to continue on like a normal pass. It's a difficult manuever. Too much elevation on the puck and it may sail too high and too far for the pass. Not enough elevation and it doesn't clear whatever is in front of it. Even if the elevation is right, the puck could land on it's side or the edge and it can take an odd bounce.
However, Kovalchuk executes it perfectly on this play. It rises just over Streit's legs and takes a soft enough landing so Zajac can easily handle it. It's not only an impressive pass, but crucial as directly leads to the goal. The NHL.com video of the goal shows this pass replayed three times and it's worth seeing in motion to fully appreciate how effective a saucer pass can be when it's executed correctly. Kovalchuk needed to a perfect pass to get past Streit and he accomplished it.
The result of the saucer pass is doom for the Islanders. Zajac is all alone in front of the net and so he had the time and space to have the puck to lead him a bit for a one-timer. Zajac slightly tilts the blade of his stick back to lift the puck when he strikes it. It's a bit of a risk since too much of an angle would lead to the shot going too high or wide. However, Zajac hits it correctly. Nabokov saw the puck, but he's flanked to his left. All he could do was stretch out to his left and hope he gets in front of the shot in desperation. All Streit could do is look back and hope Zajac doesn't bury this puck. Both hopes were not answered.
Zajac scores. Nabokov was beaten. Streit is still wondering how Kovalchuk got the puck past him. Hamonic finally catches up to Zubrus. And the Devils players and fans get to celebrate. Tallinder to Kovalchuk to Zajac for the first Devils goal of the 2013 season.
It's worth noting that all of this happened in 13 seconds. Hockey is a fast game and when mistakes are made, it doesn't take too long for them to be exposed if the other team is in a position to do so. That's exactly how the Devils were able to get create a great opportunity to score. Reasoner won the draw and Streit's clearance was successful. At first, the Isles were in good shape after the icing call. However, instead of pressuring Henrik Tallinder, who was going to retrieve the puck after Streit's clearance in New Jersey's end, most of the Islanders skaters went for a line change, beginning with Colin McDonald. This left a lot of the neutral zone wide open for New Jersey when Tallinder recovered it. Making matters worse, this happened in the second period which meant a longer distance for a player to go for a change on the fly. Generally, a team tries to get the puck in real deep or notices the other team changing before they do with the long change. And when they do so, they should try to make the change quickly. However, the puck didn't get in deep to the Devils' zone, Tallinder was free to collect the puck at his own pace, and four Islanders skaters didn't hustle to the bench. Two changes were made - McDonald and Strait for Ullstrom and Hamonic - but the two fresh guys were in no position to help out on the play so they couldn't. Within seconds, the Isles got caught on a line change, Tallinder made a great leading pass to Kovalchuk through the open neutral zone, and subsequently got in trouble.
I feel bad for Mark Streit. His clearance was good, his decision to stay back was smart, and he even did his best to cut off the passing lane between Kovalchuk and Zajac while keeping Kovalchuk from the center of the ice. He tried to make the most of a bad situation. He almost succeeded, except Kovalchuk made a saucer pass that was just about perfect to get the puck past him. Once that happened, all he could do was watch Zajac bury the puck. I feel similarly bad for Evgeni Nabokov, who needed a miracle to stop Zajac's shot. Both Isles were put in bad spots and will now be featured on early highlight clips of the Devils for this season.
As much as I'd love to scold McDonald, Strait, Boulton, and Reasoner for not only deciding to go for a change at a bad time (Devils about to get possession, all four did it about the same time) and at a casual pace, I'm sure the Isles coaches have already done so. Instead, I want to praise the three particulars for making this play happen. Tallinder's pass to Kovalchuk was the right decision and well-placed as it allowed him to keep moving ahead and on-side into the Isles' zone. It was an important, legitimate secondary assist. Kovalchuk's saucer pass was just about perfect to Zajac. Zajac's own finish of the play was great, but it never would have happened without the two prior passes. While the Isles made a big mistake, those three needed to make the most of it and they did just that. That seems to be common when I do a goal breakdown. Even if the opposition does something wrong, the Devils still need to make the right decisions, execute them well, and get a little bit of luck to turn it into a goal. All the same, this was one great-looking way to open up the scoring for the 2013 season.
Now that you've saw the video and read the breakdown, I want to know what you think. How surprised were you to see Tallinder have that much space to play the puck? How impressed were you with Kovalchuk's saucer pass? What do you think the Islanders should have done differently? What did you learn from this breakdown? Isn't Zajac's goal just great to watch again and again? I can answer the last one for you: it is. Please leave your other answers and thoughts about this goal and it's breakdown in the comments. Thank you for reading.