If I were to tell you before this season that Ilya Kovalchuk would score at least 30 goals, then you would probably think it would be a reasonable mark for him to hit. He did it in each of his last eight seasons. Kovalchuk has been a productive, offensive force throughout his career and he has oozed skill. If he managed at least 30 goals - he got 31 - during the significant struggles the team went through in 2010-11, then surely he could do it with a better team. And he did. He only missed a few games due to a minor injury and still got to 30 with 12 games left in the season.
If I were to tell you before this season that David Clarkson would not only set a career high in goals but get within range of 30 goals, then you would probably think that's really optimistic and unreasonable. Clarkson has never scored more than 17 goals in a season and he did that in 2007-08. He had a shot at breaking 20 in the next season but he missed close to half of the season with a broken leg. Last season, Clarkson took a ton of shots, suffered some bad luck, and played his way to the fourth line several times. It got a point where I openly asked whether he should be traded as he wasn't earning his money. I'm glad they didn't because Clarkson has had a fantastically productive year. He's picked up 28 goals already at around the same number of shots as last season (192 last season, 199 this season) and he's got an excellent chance at breaking 30 and will break the 200 shot mark on Thursday against Colorado.
With the Devils having won four out of their last five games and both Kovalchuk (5 G, 4 A) and Clarkson (3 G, 1) recently riding four game point streaks, there has been a lot of praise going around. Kovalchuk has been the stand-out as he was named the Second Star of the Week by the NHL and he's clearly in the top ten in scoring among all players. Clarkson's profile has risen among the Devils faithful as an actual offensive contributor - the "Air Clarkson" picture has become a calling sign around these parts for his goals and hope for goals. While they're not the only soon-to-be 30-goal scorers on the Devils, they provide an interesting contrast. In my mind, Kovalchuk is expected to hit at least 30 whereas Clarkson is fortunate and to grind some out to get even close to 30.
But is that really a fair statement? Sure, experience strongly suggests so, but aren't most goals scored with some kind of uncontrolled factor involved? Even when a fortunate break happens, doesn't the player have to at least get to the right place and make the right decision to turn an goal scoring opportunity into a goal scored? Why do we tend to focus on one or the other? Why does this flow down to the player themselves? I decided to look at some recent examples of goals by both players and point out what the player did themselves and what happened away from them that helped made it happen to demonstrate that goals required hard work and luck regardless who you are.
Note: All goal videos are from NHL.com.
Ilya Kovalchuk Goal Examples
This was the goal that broke Kovalchuk's nine-game goal streak and it was an important one. It was a game opening goal against Rangers that set an early tone for the game.
The Effort: Kovalchuk took Parise's pass softly and amid a "bubble" of Rangers players around him. He had the middle open, didn't get too cute with the puck, and waited for Henrik Lundqvist to make the first move. When he went low and started sliding, Kovalchuk had his hole to shoot at. And he did it.
The Luck: Well, Kovalchuk was really fortunate that the Devils defensemen forced a turnover and that the loose puck ended up to Zach Parise. Kovalchuk just got on-side as that happened so Parise hit Kovalchuk just as the Rangers were still reacting. Also important was that Ryan McDonagh just fell down on the play, so Kovalchuk had a wide open lane to the net with little pressure. Lastly, Lundqvist just made the first move - which definitely helped him out.
Ilya Kovalchuk scored three goals against the Islanders on March 8, this was his first goal. It was very pretty, but it was also pretty fortunate.
The Effort: Ilya Kovalchuk read the movement of his linemates properly and went down to the right post. He put himself in a position where if he got the puck, he would force Evgeni Nabokov to go post-to-post and hope he gets lucky to make a save. Kovalchuk missed the initial pass, but he collected the loose puck and put it up and over the fallen Nabokov.
The Luck: That miss was certainly unfortunate. Kovalchuk was lined up for the one-timer, the pass was good, but the timing was just off. In any case, that Kovalchuk was wide open enough to collect that puck and get a shot off was definitely a great stroke of luck. Normally, one would expect a defender to crash to the slot to prevent that, but the Isles were caught unaware. Most of all, the puck bounced off the boards to a spot where Kovalchuk could get it. Most of the time, the puck would careen around the boards after that miss which would have killed the play. Instead it took a shallow bounce. Without that, Kovalchuk wouldn't have had a shot on net at all, much less a goal.
This goal came this past Sunday against the Flyers. The Devils got into a 4-on-4 situation and opened up the score 3-1 with a lovely shot by Kovalchuk after an Adam Henrique breakaway was denied.
The Effort: Kovalchuk followed Henrique perfectly on the breakaway and drew defensive coverage away from him so Henrique had a clear chance on net. Kovalchuk circled around in the opposite direction after the shot and got open on the far side. Marek Zidlicky feeds him the puck with a cross-ice pass, Kovalchuk gets away from one defender, winds up his wrist shot early, and fires it when he gets into the slot. It's a top-shelf goal and a top-level highlight.
The Luck: First, Henrique didn't score. It would have been great if he did, but then it would have meant that Kovalchuk is still at 29 goals of the season. Second, the defensive coverage on Kovalchuk was very soft. No one picked up Kovalchuk wide. When he got the pass, Kovalchuk didn't have to do anything fancy as he had the first Flyer beat. Third and foremost, part was that he had the foresight to wind up his wrist shot early. Kovalchuk loves to shoot it hard and fast, but he hangs his stick back to do that. If he delayed a bit in doing it, then his shot could have been blocked by the diving Flyer. He just missed him with the shot and fortunately missed Sergei Bobrovsky as well.
David Clarkson Goal Examples
This goal turned out to be the first the Rangers wouldn't answer. At first glance, it was a total fluke by Clarkson. In fact, I thought Petr Sykora actually scored live. However, after further review, we see that Clarkson made this possible.
The Luck: First, Brodeur getting that puck out into the neutral zone was certainly fortunate. Without it, there's no play to begin with. Second, Petr Sykora's shot hit Clarkson in the leg and the puck re-directed past Lundqvist. Clarkson wasn't even looking and just skated ahead after his pass, so the deflection was even more fortunate.
The Effort: Clarkson wasn't 100% lucky on this one. First, he came back into the neutral zone towards the center which gave Brodeur an out when he made that weird stop. Second, Clarkson just skated ahead and laid a very good drop pass for Sykora. The decision to drop it was the right one given he had two Blueshirts in front of him and Sykora followed him properly. Lastly, Clarkson didn't intend to deflect it, sure, but he only got to do it because he headed towards the net. He didn't go wide, just straight, and, well, the goal happened.
The Devils didn't settle for four goals past Nabokov last Thursday. No, they kept going forward and Clarkson potted a fifth one into the net.
The Luck: Clarkson just drove to the net and no Islander decided to pick him up. Steve Staios was busy with another Devil and I'm not sure who was supposed to take him. Clarkson just hung out and knocked in the puck. It's not exactly a goal coming off a hardworking effort. Jacob Josefson, sure; but Clarkson was just the finisher.
The Effort: Clarkson could have followed this rush up ice any other way. He could have trailed back. He could have went down low for support. He could have stayed wide in case the puck was knocked to the space on that side. Instead, he did what coaches and fans preach: go to the net. Clarkson didn't panic or fidget, he just got to the crease and hung out behind Nabokov. Zidlicky fired a great tape-to-tape pass and Clarkson didn't fool around. A simple flick by Clarkson and it's in. Clarkson went to a good spot and didn't botch the play.
Last Saturday, the Devils were on the brink of being shutout by Anders Nilsson for a second straight time this season. David Clarkson scored a late equalizer that made sure that didn't happen.
The Luck: Nilsson was forced to be great in this game. He definitely got most of it but the puck just squirted into the net through a very small hole in his positioning. It was an important goal, but it was also a really lucky break. It also helped the rebound on Ponikarovsky's shot went right to Clarkson's direction.
The Effort: The full video shows why this is an excellent hardworking goal. Clarkson just does a great job keeping the puck away from Andrew MacDonald and forces him to chase him. He goes around the net, he makes a good feed to Alexei Ponikarovsky for a shot and Clarkson picks up the long rebound. Clarkson then goes around the other way and forces his way in front. Like a basketball player posting up his defender, Clarkson just creates his own shot. Clarkson did a lot on this play to make this goal happen and he was rewarded.
The Point & Other Conclusions
While I only looked at three recent goals scored by both players, I feel they are good examples of the concept of luck and effort working together. None of these goals happen if their teammates didn't make a good decision or execute that decision appropriately. None of them would have happened if the other team didn't make a mistake or a bad decision, something that would fall under the larger designation of a "good break."
At the same time, none of these goals happen if Kovalchuk or Clarkson did something different with or without the puck. Kovalchuk skates to get into open areas and plays with great awareness of what's going around him. Clarkson is a bit more simple as he tends to go to the slot or around the net to his damage. While the two players differ there, they're both putting in efforts to varying levels where they succeed. And if they don't succeed, they end up with at least a shot on goal. Kovalchuk is exceptional in this regard as he's third in the league in shots on goal with 265. Clarkson is no slouch in his own right with 199, sitting in 37th out of all NHL players. That many shots indicates that they are persistent and usually consistent at trying to score. That, right there, is evidence that both players work hard on the ice.
The luck gets them success, but there wouldn't be any if they didn't make the correct effort needed. I picked both Clarkson and Kovalchuk for examples showing this off because they are regarded differently. Kovalchuk is an offensive sniper who's expected to get 30+ goals consistently because he's done so in the past. Clarkson regularly plays on the third line and while he gets significant power play minutes, he's surprised a lot of people with 28 goals already this season. Yet, in the big picture, both players get their goals following the same equation. No one's doing it all on their own with metaphorical bootstraps. They're also not just demanding handouts and expecting everything for them to be set up to score. Both benefit from good breaks, good bounces, and good fortune; and both play and perform at a level where they're at least contributing something to the game even if they're not lighting the lamp.
The recent 2-1 win over the Isles game is a perfect example of this combination occurring at a team level. The Devils out-worked and out-played the Isles. They did what they could to succeed, and they did but only with some run of luck - events that favored New Jersey though it was out of their hands. That run of luck wouldn't have happened if the team didn't make a point of it to hammer Nilsson with shots. Last night's 0-3 loss to Philly is a perfect example of what happens when a team is provides a second rate effort and doesn't get good bounces: they suffer a bad loss. The team as a whole failed to perform, failed to put in the necessary effort, and so they failed to even have a shot at getting something out of the game. If the luck was better, it wouldn't have mattered since the effort wasn't present to take full advantage. Even in that shutout loss, I don't think it's coincidence that Clarkson and Kovalchuk each ended up with 4 shots on net and 5 and 10 attempts, respectively. They know what they need to do to succeed. It didn't work out for them then, but you know that they know the next game is another night to keep up their work. With that in mind, perhaps we shouldn't be so surprised they're top goalscorers on this team.
Essentially, this is a lot of words for me to tell you what you may have already known using two top scorers on the team: get shots, keep trying to get shots, and with some good fortune, they'll become goals. Keep doing it and you may get a lot of goals. It's not one or the other as some think it to be. It's not a put-down to bring up luck nor is it a cop-out to bring up effort. Both are required. I hope the Devils players themselves remember this for tomorrow's game and in future games like Kovalchuk and Clarkson have demonstrated this season. Thanks for reading.