The date: February 5, 2010, Ilya Kovalchuk's first game as a New Jersey Devil. The situation: After being beaten on for nearly 37 (or 57) minutes straight and losing 3-1 to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the New Jersey Devils get a lifeline with a backhand goal scored by Dean McAmmond. Alexei Ponikarovsky tripped a Devil in the front of the Leafs net 17:38 into the game. The ensuing power play would run to near the end of the game; clearly, it was an important man-advantage for the Devils.
As it turned out, the Devils converted: the equalizer came with less than a minute remaining, when Travis Zajac scored on the power play. With a monster shift by the third line, Jay Pandolfo put home a giant rebound past Jonas Gustavsson to win the game with seconds remaining. Here's my whole recap of the game, in case you're interested, but I think it's important to look at the goal Zajac scored.
Since that game, here's the total power play figures for the Devils: 0-for-5 against the Rangers on 2/6 with 5 shots on net; 1-for-7 against the Flyers on 2/8 with 8 shots on net; and 0-for-3 against the Flyers on 2/10 with 1 shot on net. The one power play goal was a total accident, as Zach Parise's pass to the slot bounced off the toe of Chris Pronger's skate and went in the net. Outside of that, it hasn't been consistently threatening and it definitely hasn't been successful. It really hasn't been during the slump the Devils are currently in, despite the addition of an elite forward in Kovalchuk.
Therefore, I think it can be enlightening to breakdown the last intentional power play goal that the Devils scored. It's something I've always wanted to try, so hopefully I can convey what I saw bit by bit that led to the goal. What I did was take the NHL.com video of the goal and take screenshots as best as I could (the action of hockey leads to some blurriness, I do apologize) to highlight what went on. Believe it or not, a successful power play is more than just a great shot beating the goaltender. As you'll see, the puck movement on this play was impeccable as was Zajac's shot. There's a lot going on off the puck that also plays an important role, both by the Devils and the Leafs.
The Devils pulled Martin Brodeur at the start of the video, Rob Niedermayer jumps in a few seconds in to make it a 6-on-4 power play.
The other Devils on the ice were Kovalchuk, Zajac, Dean McAmmond, Dainius Zubrus, and Zach Parise.
For the Leafs, Gustavsson was in net with Francois Beauchemin, Dion Phaneuf, Rickard Wallin, and Fredrik Sjostrom.
Here's the video from NHL.com. Please watch it if you can as a refresher for the goal. The breakdown continues below the clip:
Wasn't that such a great moment? OK, let's see how this looks when this play begins:
Notice how deep the Leafs' PK is here. They are protecting the slot, hoping the Devils will be relegated to taking low percentage, long range shots. There aren't any passes available up front and Brodeur's still getting to the bench, so it's just the outside men who move it: Kovalchuk, Zajac, and McAmmond. Zajac passes it easily to the open man on the point, who is Kovalchuk. The Devils just got it in to set themselves up.
Kovalchuk's first move it to pass it to the wing, where McAmmond is open.
By the way, notice where everyone's positioned. Sjostrom is the Leaf closest to McAmmond on the right wing; Wallin is playing up closer to Kovalchuk on the point. Phaneuf is down by the crease where Zubrus and Parise are, planning to set up a screen. Normally, the Devils have one player screening, and Parise plays down low to set up looks into the slot or to take it himself. Given the score and the situation, he's being more aggressive and hoping his body throws Gustavsson as well. Beauchemin is guarding any passing lane to the front for Zajac.
Where everyone's positioned is important. McAmmond takes a moment after taking this pass to see Sjostrom is going to slide over enough to block any easy pass to the slot or a shot on net. Wallin looks back and shifts so he sees what's going on. Zajac is alone on the other side, but Beauchemin's watching him closely. At this point, Brodeur is still getting to the bench.
McAmmond doesn't really have anything he can do going forward. Sjostrom is blocking the passing lane so passing to Zubrus won't work, nor will taking on Sjostrom one-on-one. Parise is behind both Zubrus and Phaneuf, so he's not open. And even if McAmmond wants to dump it to the opposite corner, Beauchemin is ready for it. Wallin drops into the high slot to prevent any cross-ice passes, which rules out Zajac.
McAmmond has no other good options, so he looks back and passes back to Kovalchuk at the point. A simple, no-frills pass to the point.
Now, notice that Zubrus and Phaneuf are now right next to each other. This commits a Leaf player to a Devil right in front of Gustavsson's vision. This is more clearly seen in the video, but during this whole sequence, you'll see Gustavsson shift from post to post just to see what's going on. Zubrus' big body is enough to deal with, but now it's him and Phaneuf's body. That's even harder to see around.
Do you see that? Kovalchuk's wound up for a slapshot as the pass from McAmmond comes closer. This is real smart here. Wallin immediately turns to face Kovalchuk and starts moving up. This is one of two moves that has Beauchemin's and Sjostrom's attention. The second? Rob Niedermayer streaking off the boards to join the attack as the extra man. While he's not even in the zone, the Toronto penalty killers do have to note that there's a sixth man joining in. Granted, I think they are obviously more concerned about Kovalchuk's slapshot.
The other four Devils? Well, Zajac and McAmmond are wide open on the wings; though Sjostrom and Beauchemin are still in that shooting/passing lanes. Parise and Zubrus are now camped out in front of the crease with Phaneuf in the middle. Granted, should Kovalchuk fire it and miss, the Devils would free up the slot completely and would have to make a mad rush to ensure the Leafs don't get it for an important clearance.
Thankfully, Kovalchuk continues the intelligence with an excellent move.
Kovalchuk does not shoot it here, he just one-touches it back to McAmmond. This was smart and crucial to the success of the play. Given that Kovalchuk wound up, he couldn't do this on his backhand toward Zajac nor just lay it off for Niedermayer. It has to either be a shot or a pass to McAmmond, who is open.
Yet, here's why this is brilliant. Wallin clearly thought Kovalchuk was going to shoot it when he wound up. He moved up and he's basically committed to trying to block the shot. That's why his legs are together, his stick is held kind of like a goaltender would, and he's right in Kovalchuk's vision. It's risky, but a block here could knock the puck out of the zone, leading to a clearance or an empty net goal. Of course, Kovalchuk wasn't shooting it, so Wallin can do nothing about the pass Kovalchuk's made to the wing.
Interestingly, Sjostrom turns away from McAmmond and heads closer to the slot. Figuring if it's going to be a shot, he needs to protect that area from Devils pouncing in to go for any loose pucks or ensure that a block that goes behind Wallin will be cleared properly. Again, since Kovalchuk just moved the puck back to McAmmond, Sjostrom has to waste precious moments to turn around and react should McAmmond do something.
Beauchemin sidles off into the slot while this happens, looking ahead at about Kovalchuk and Niedermayer about to enter the zone. This gives Zajac a path to the net, but since the puck isn't in that area, surely Beauchemin isn't too concerned, the puck isn't on that side. Besides, if it was a shot, he'd be in a great place to clear any hard rebounds. Meanwhile, Phaneuf is still battling with Zubrus, Parise is an extra body, and Gustavsson is trying to look over the left shoulder of Zubrus to fully see what's going on.
This is the second most critical component of the play. Here's the first:
The one-touch pass was quick enough to give McAmmond a gigantic lane to Zajac on the other side of the rink. This is a golden opportunity for McAmmond and the Devils. Of course, McAmmond takes the pass and immediately looks to Zajac for a pass. Zajac knows this too, so he's already acting as if he's going to get this pass.
Again, notice the positioning of everyone else. Wallin is committed to the point (and Niedermayer) and short of making a miraculous dive or the pass being terrible, he's basically out of the picture. Sjostrom is in a little better spot than Wallin. If McAmmond fires this just a little bit ahead of Zajac, Sjostrom could attempt to disrupt the pass. But because he slid closer to the slot when Kovalchuk faked the shot, there's enough space for McAmmond to work with to make a good cross-ice pass.
Beauchemin turns to face McAmmond, he's watching the puck instead of being overly concerned with Zajac or even Parise in front of the net. Odd since Beauchemin is no where near the passing lane. Phaneuf is behind Zubrus here, and Parise is behind both with a little space for him to work with. You could argue that thanks to Sjostrom moving closer to the slot, McAmmond has a shooting lane. But Zubrus and Phaneuf are in the way. Not that the two have ruined anything; in fact, they played an important part in this play. Look at the goalie, Gustavsson is now leaning around to his left to see what's going on.
In short, three of the Leafs' penalty killers are looking at McAmmond, who's looking across ice, but they aren't in a position to do anything about what McAmmond does. Even the goalie is moving around just to see what's going on. This is where Zajac is going to make them pay.
Zajac winds up for the one-timer. Sjostrom just turns away from McAmmond, he made no attempt at the cross-ice pass. Beauchemin is still in the act of turning, so he's not in the shooting lane with any hope to do anything about the shot. Gustavsson realized where the pass went, so he's going post-to-post. He's kneeling down, hoping it's going to be a low shot, I suppose. At this point, he can't really see much with Phaneuf, Zubrus, and Parise
Zajac is about to release the one-timer. We know what happens. Yet, again, notice where everyone is right now. Kovalchuk's back on the blueline ready to react should it go awry. Niedermayer is now in the high slot with Wallin on him. Sjostrom didn't react at all to the pass and really couldn't, so he's just turned towards Zajac. Phaneuf and Zubrus turn but they are still battling. They aren't involved anymore; but that's OK, they played their role on this particular play.
Right at this moment in time, Zajac's already shooting and Beauchemin is the only Leaf nearby. But like Sjostrom on McAmmond's cross-ice pass, his positioning prior to the play hurts his cause. Beauchemin leans over, hoping this shot is low and that he can get a piece of it, but he's not in Zajac's lane when he's firing here. Here's another look at it:
I think Gustavsson did see McAmmond going for the cross-ice pass, so he's sliding across. He's looking at Zajac, but his body isn't in front of him; it's still mostly turned to Parise, who's in front and ready for any short rebounds. Phaneuf was too focused on Zubrus, leaving Parise alone as a "back-up plan." In any case, Gustavsson is really just going from post-to-post hoping he can get in front of the shot. That he's kneeling here gives plenty of the net for Zajac to aim for. In retrospect, his decision to stay low doesn't look good.
Beauchemin doesn't look good either. At the beginning of the play, he was right in the shooting lane for Zajac. Yet, he reacted to Kovalchuk's shot like Wallin (now focused on Niedermayer, ignoring Kovalchuk completely) and Sjostrom. He and Sjostrom went closer to the slot and Wallin acted as if it was a shot. All three didn't react quickly enough when the shot turned out to be a one-touch pass. McAmmond's pass was fast and well-placed, ensuring Beauchemin wouldn't recover and get in Zajac's way. Zajac was just wide enough relative to Beauchemin, so the defender has no chance of doing anything here.
All that's needed here is for the shot to be in the right place, and it was. That's a power play goal.
It's not about just firing it on net through traffic when a Devil has the puck. It's not about just moving the puck around just to move it around. This whole play was happened on making quick, smart decisions with the puck, recognizing when to take advantage when ice is open. The Devils were able to keep the puck in the zone, set themselves up, and - this is the important part - set up a good shot on net. Even if Gustavsson somehow made a save there, it was a very good play.
This whole breakdown shows the importance of positioning on a penalty kill. Where your vision is and how you move is important. At the start, the Toronto PK looks in place; they aren't giving much for the Devils to work with. By the time Zajac shoots, all of them were rendered ineffective. In a matter of thee passes, McAmmond has the space to fire a killer pass cross-ice to Zajac for a one-timer. All because three of the Leafs moved from their initial positions and one of them was too busy dealing with a screen. That's why you see so many teams look like they are standing around on a PK. They're standing in common passing and shooting lanes around or in the slot. How they react to what's going around them can make the difference between a penalty killed or a power play goal against.
Another takeaway is the usage of screens themselves. No, Zajac didn't score through a screen, but they played a role. Zubrus commanded Phaneuf's attention the whole time on this play, so the other forwards just had to deal with three Leafs. More importantly, the two of them along with Parise forced Gustavsson to move just to see what's going on. If it wasn't for those screens, then Gustavsson probably has the time to get in a better position when Zajac fires the puck.
By the way, consider a hypothetical. What if Wallin doesn't move up and look for a block, what if he wasn't in front of Kovalchuk? Kovalchuk may consider firing the puck, hoping for something to get through the bodies in front. And why not? He would have the space to at least get it deep at the least. That may explain why he shot the puck so much on the Devils power play on February 8 against the Flyers, where the Flyers PK played away from him, challenging him to shoot. On this play, that didn't happen, and thankfully it didn't. Sometimes it's a good idea to have the pointman fire a shot, sure; but I think this shows that it can be more effective to set up a shot where no one is really in your way - like Zajac's shot.
Since I'm bringing up recent games on special teams, the Devils normally put a body on a man screening Brodeur. As seen with this play, a screening player can be effective just by taking a defender away from the PK effort. This play shows a good reason why it can be costly to put a man on a screen in front. Maybe why the Devils don't normally guard a screener on Brodeur is to avoid adding to the screen and taking themselves away from what goes on.
At the same time, this play shows the benefits of setting up a screen, especially multiple screens. Maybe the Devils should use them move often on the power play? Zubrus is well-suited for the role, so that's one unit. As for the other unit, why not try someone like Brian Rolston? He's not small and he's certainly not going to be point man if Kovalchuk continues to play on both units. I'd like to see it for a few man advantages, it's not like it'll hurt the cause any. Of course, when David Clarkson comes back, he could step back into that role.
Lastly, and most importantly, I fully realize from this why the top power play in the league is usually around 25% and shots are low on a power play. A different decision by a player on either team or a misplayed pass changes the whole situation - most likely not resulting in a Devils goal. This whole play took place in a matter of seconds. If McAmmond's cross-ice pass wasn't hard enough or if Beauchemin or Sjostrom were more committed to their original positions, then this doesn't happen for New Jersey. At least, not how it worked out at the least. The attacking team needs to do more than just shoot it well, but they need to make the right passes whilst judging how the defense reacts in a matter of seconds. If a team isn't doing a good job passing or if they can't react accordingly to an aggressive or passive PK unit, then a goal is that much harder to get.
With a man advantage, you want to set up a high-percentage shot; but at the same time, that's very difficult to do when most PK strategies are centered around the slot and common angles at the net - even with a man advantage.
Hopefully this breakdown of a successful, intentional power play goal has highlighted how a good power play works, how a penalty kill operates (unsuccessfully for the Leafs in this case), and the importance of off-the-puck movement and positioning. Feel free to add your thoughts (e.g. did this help show what it takes for a power play to be successful; what you took away from this breakdown) - in the comments.