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NJ Devils Goal Breakdown: When Ilya Kovalchuk Sank the Penguins in OT

This was such a great moment last season.  Let's break down how this goal happened.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
This was such a great moment last season. Let's break down how this goal happened. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Hockey is a funny game.  Players and teams practice plays, learns formations, and reviews video to learn what they should do in a particular situation.  Yet, when it's put into practice, events happen in such a way that they're forced to improvise.  Plays break down. Formations are forced to split. What you expect to happen doesn't, and you just have to rely on your instincts and awareness to do something you may not have prepared for in advance.  It is in these situations where a player's awareness really shines. The best players aren't the ones who only understand what they're told to do, but are also seemingly adept to how well they can read a changing situation and make a good decision on the fly. Plays may break down, but good players make the best of what seems to be a bad situation.

The goal broken down yesterday, Vladimir Zharkov's first NHL goal, was a good example of this concept in action.  Another example of a broken play would be today's goal to be broken down, as suggested by @adjski12 on Twitter. Ilya Kovalchuk's overtime goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins on March 4, 2011.

It certainly was a memorable goal. Ilya Kovalchuk scored in the dying seconds of overtime to defeat the Penguins and thrill Devils fans all over the world.  It was a fantastic ending to a tightly-played game, back when the Devils were racking up "Ws" like they were going out of style.   It also came on a broken play.  As you'll see in this breakdown after the jump, the Devils probably should have scored earlier in the play and one important scramble was crucial in having Kovalchuk's shot end the game.   Please set your viewing to "wide" and continue on to see how it all happened event by event.

The Goal

First, here's a video of the goal in question from  There's no replay but an extended celebration since it did win the game.

The video of the play does a pretty good job in showing how the Devils found success amid chaos; but it really stands out when you look at it bit by bit.  Let's go ahead and do that.

The Breakdown

Note: The following stills are from the video. The poorly drawn arrows, circles, and other stuff in MS Paint are mine.


Let's start here.  Zybnek Michalek of the Penguins took a hooking call 2:46 into overtime, so the Devils are still on a power play. Curiously, the Penguins have two forwards and one defenseman on their kill.  Maxime Talbot is high up and looking right at Ilya Kovalchuk, who has the puck at the center of the point.  Down low towards the left side is Paul Martin.  Hanging out on the edge of the right circle is Jordan Staal.  These are the opposition's players for this play.

As indicated by the triangle, they're in a common formation for killing a penalty with three players.  They're clogging the slot and preventing the puck carrier from having a straight shot on net.    Of course, this leaves Kovalchuk and his teammates with space.  Brian Rolston is all alone at the top of the right circle; Travis Zajac is open down at the bottom of the left circle; and Patrik Elias is right in front of goaltender Brent Johnson


Kovalchuk fades off to his left and he's going to continue towards the sideboards with the puck.  Talbot is watching him like a hawk so he's going to adjust in that direction.  Interestingly, Martin and Staal are also fixated on the puck carrier, as indicated by those lines.  Rolston is going to make himself useful and move towards the center point where Kovalchuk started.   Elias is still screening Johnson, forcing him to try and look over him.


At the top of the left circle, Kovalchuk positions himself such that he has a completely open passing lane to Rolston. While Talbot recognizes this and stretches out his stick, there's not much he can do here.  Staal and Martin are still focused on Kovalchuk, though Staal has moved up into the slot.  They're just bystanders though.  Zajac starts moving closer to the net, while Elias starts to shift to his left to remove the screen. 

Getting back to Kovalchuk, how he's positioned allows him to see Rolston and give him a juicy pass.  This will be the last thing Kovalchuk does on this play until the very end, but do note that he will remain in this area.  Please keep that in the back of your mind as you continue through this breakdown.


The aforementioned juicy pass allows Rolston to wind up for one of his trademark slapshots.  Rolston's one-timer is absolutely the right idea here.  As indicated by the black line, he's got a clear path to the lane.  Elias shifted away from screening Johnson and is in position for any rebounds to his right.  Martin notices Zajac on the left, but he can't do anything at all.  Staal glided through the slot, so he's just outside of the lane.    The Penguins maintain their triangle, but they're exposed.  Johnson's going to have to come up big here - provided this slapshot goes on net.


Unfortunately, Rolston's slapshot misses the net.  I know, big surprise.  Still, it wasn't the worst possible outcome. In this blurry, action shot, you'll see Johnson stretching out to his left in case the shot was on net.  Elias and Zajac starts converging on net in the hopes of any rebound.  Martin is right on Zajac and the puck's not on that side anyway; so he's not so dangerous here. Elias, on the other hand, is incredibly dangerous.  While the shot missed, Elias is in the best position to try and get that puck back.   While the Penguins remained in formation and they are killing a penalty, it's jarring how open Elias is at this moment.


Johnson starts to recover from his attempted save that wasn't needed.  This leaves the right side of the net. Rolston's shot bounces off the back boards and is heading right towards Elias.  Staal starts going toward Elias, Martin takes a step, and they still don't matter given how far away they are.   Elias is setting himself up to just one-time this rebound-off-the-boards puck into the net.


Elias one-times it, only to be robbed Johnson. The goaltender made a desperate slide to his left, hoping he can get to the post before the puck gets past it.   It wasn't just a big save, it was enormous.  Johnson saved his team from being beaten in overtime.  On a guy who's no stranger to scoring goals in OT even. 

This is where the play breaks down and things get crazy.


There was no good way to show it by a still picture, so let me just describe it. By throwing his entire body to his left, physics forces Johnson to keep sliding to his left and loses his balance in the process.  He tumbles and is unable to corral the puck in.  He ends up on his butt with the puck just ahead of his stick.  Martin has followed Johnson so he's right behind him and is trying to get to that puck.  Elias didn't sulk after the shot, he went into his stride and now has eyes on the puck.    Johnson hasn't even started to recover, so it's essentially a two-man race to that puck.   Zajac is behind Martin and can't do anything legally to impede him. Talbot hangs out by the open left post, while Staal moves in; breaking the triangle somewhat.  They're just trying to weather any impending storm here.


Johnson is just about done tumbling as he's now on his back.  While it looks like there's an even battle between Martin and Elias, that's just a trick of perspective. Elias has the better position to get to this puck first. He's going to kick it up to himself and get a little space from Martin with the puck as he goes behind the net. 

Staal is re-assessing the situation, while Talbot is going to cover that open post.  Talbot knows that if Elias gets to this puck, then he needs to do what he can to at least prevent an easy wraparound. After all, Elias currently only has one direction he can go with this puck.  Given how Johnson is sprawled out on the ice, Elias can't get it to Zajac; so it's going to have to be an individual effort at this point.


The chaos continues with all of the Penguins in a small area, scrambling to cut off the Devils attack.  Elias has the puck, but without an easy out in this scenario.  Martin's still trying to catch up to Elias, but the Devils forward has a more important problem: Talbot.  Talbot gets on his knees to make a wraparound effort a bad idea.  He also lays out his stick to prevent a pass to the point.  This is the correct decision by this Penguins forward.   Even though Elias won the puck from Martin, he's not giving him a lot of options from behind the net.  Elias has to make a quick decision to take advantage of Johnson's spill after his save - he's still trying to get up here - and because he's got Martin right behind him. Talbot's actions makes the situation incredibly difficult for Elias.

However, he didn't make it impossible.


Elias attempts and succeeds with a difficult move: a saucer pass.  He put enough elevation on the puck to get it over Talbot's stick without it sailing up further and making it difficult for the intended Devil to receive the pass.  Moreover, Elias did it with his backhand, which makes controlling the puck more difficult.  

The pass gets Elias out of a jam and puts the Penguins in a real difficult spot.  Johnson is still trying to get on his feet, so the net's still wide open. Since Talbot correctly defended the post, Staal's on top of Zajac, and Martin's behind the net, the Devil receiving this pass will be wide open.   As the black arrow shows, it's heading towards the left circle.  Now, who was it in that area back at the beginning of the play?


Oh, yeah, Ilya Kovalchuk!  Since Kovalchuk and Rolston were on the points, they got to see all of this happen and adjust their positions as needed.  Kovalchuk was close enough to glide towards Elias' pass with full intention to one-time it on net.  As he should in this case. Johnson still hasn't recovered his position, so at least the left side of the net is still uncovered.  From this picture, it looks like that there's a lot of traffic in net; but there really isn't.  Staal and Zajac only moved to the top of the crease; they're not really in Kovalchuk's line of sight.  Zajac's more of a concern since he's in front of Staal, actually.  Talbot just got up from the post and took a step forward, but he's also not in the line of sight either.  Martin is just coming around the net, so he's a non-factor.  Essentially, Kovalchuk not only has a pass he can easily shoot from, but he's got a clear shooting lane for this moment and maybe a few more. If he waited, maybe a body gets in his line of sight or Johnson finally gets on his skates.  A one-timer was the right call and all he needed to do was to get it between the bodies of Talbot and Zajac. 

Which he did, leading to a massive cheer and an enthusiastic celebration as the Devils beat the Penguins in overtime.


The Summary & Conclusion

It's strange to review a goal scored and to come away thinking that it should have came much sooner.  Brent Johnson absolutely robbed Patrik Elias off of Brian Rolston's missed shot. The fact that Rolston missing the net turned out to be a positive in of itself was a surprise, even upon video review. In any case, Johnson did very, very, very well to get his body on the shot.  In that position, that's all you can really ask for - and you really couldn't have faulted him if he didn't get to it.  Elias was that wide open and the puck bounced to him properly. 

However, the desperate stop just made the play more chaotic.  Johnson kept sliding and couldn't do anything with the puck.  From that point until the puck ended up in the net, he was out of the play, struggling to get back up and in position.  I don't think he can really be faulted because, again, he had to throw his body to his left to stop Elias' initial shot.  

As for the skaters, Elias' quick decisions turned out to be the most important. He beat Martin to the puck despite appearing a bit further away to start, kicked the puck up to himself to get ahead, and had to make a risky pass to get it past Talbot to avoid running out room.  Sure, Elias could have kept skating into the corner or fired it up the boards to Kovalchuk.  However, that would have allowed enough time for Johnson to recover and the Penguins' killers to get back into formation.  Since the power play was near it's end and there was only a half-minute left of overtime to play, Elias was right to take that risk. If he didn't, who's to say there would have been another opportunity to take advantage of the Penguins like that.   As it turned out, the pass couldn't have gone any better; it hopped over Talbot's stick and slid perfectly for Kovalchuk to smash it into the open net.  Yes, Kovalchuk's shot was great and clearly important - after all, it did go into the net - but Elias was the straw that stirred the drink.  He made the shot possible when the situation wasn't controlled, when the play broke down in structure.  

Lastly, as I've noticed in all of the other goals being broken down, they all required a fortunate occurrence and a Devil to make a risky decision at the moment to yield rewards.  I don't think it's coincidence that these two themes keep coming up on top of a Devil doing something successful in the play.

Your Take

Now that you've seen this overtime blast broken down by still pictures of sequential events, I want to know your take.  What did you learn from this breakdown of the goal?  What in the breakdown stuck out to you the most: Rolston's slapshot missing the net; Johnson robbing Elias and his subsequent loss to physics; or Elias' saucer pass?  Was this a good example of the Devils scoring off a broken play?   Please leave your answers along with any other thoughts about this particular goal in the comments.  Again, thanks to @adjski12 on Twitter for suggesting a breakdown of this goal. If you have any other goals in mind you want to see broken down like this, please bring them up in the comments or tell @InLouWeTrust on Twitter.  Either way, thanks for reading.