I believe four-on-four play is utilized in overtime in the regular season for two reasons. The first is that it creates more space on the ice. With more space, the players have more room to work with the puck on offense be it in getting into the zone or moving the puck around within it. The second is that it is a generally unfamiliar situation as even strength is normally five-on-five. Usually, we see it for two minutes or less as penalties cancel each other out. In OT, it lasts five minutes and without that fifth which can lead to some breakdowns on defense and result in a good offensive opportunity or even a goal. Likewise, that loss of a person can also undercut an offense - so it's not like four-on-four suddenly adds instant offense.
Last night, we got to see an example of both in the New Jersey Devils' 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers. Adam Larsson scored in a four-on-four situation to tie the game up at 1-1 early in the third period. It was an important goal as it tied up the game. It was important as it showed that Ilya Bryzgalov can be beaten - something that was in doubt since he stopped everything by New Jersey in the first and second periods.
It was also the only goal that came from a somewhat sustained offensive play by the Devils. David Clarkson banged in a loose puck in front; Travis Zajac took a rebound and wrapped it around the net; and Bryce Salvador cleared a puck that just bounced all the way into an empty net. Those goals were all great and were important in their own right. However, Larsson's goal stands out as it was the result of some great play by the Devils. Larsson's play was great; but it wouldn't have happened without the other three Devils' contributions. It was also an example of how not to defend in a four-on-four situation by the Flyers. On top of all this, the goal was Larsson's first in the NHL playoffs so it carries plenty of personal value too.
With so much happening in such a short amount of time along with how important the goal was in Game 2, it definitely deserves to be broken down. Please set your viewing to "wide" and continue on after the jump to see the Flyers go from four to two, how Adam Henrique played a key role on the play, and why Larsson had so much space to shoot at by the left post.
The Goal Video
As usual, here's the video of Larsson's goal from NHL.com:
All pictures were from this video; any text or poorly-drawn arrows on the pictures were added by me.
The Players Involved
The On-Ice Devils: #5 Adam Larsson, #8 Dainius Zubrus, #10 Peter Harrold, #14 Adam Henrique, #30 Martin Brodeur
The On-Ice Flyers: #21 James van Reimsdyk, #25 Matt Carle, #30 Ilya Bryzgalov, #44 Kimmo Timonen, #48 Danny Briere
Here's where we'll begin. Harrold is in fairly deep into the zone, all the way to the right (far) faceoff dot. He's got the puck and he just stopped. Notice that all four Flyers skaters are back on defense and in a line. Briere is up on Harrold; Carle is in support behind him; Timonen is in the slot keeping an eye out for any rushing Devils; and van Reimsdyk is hanging out. Harrold has to stop as he really can't go any further. Henrique is open, but even if he got the puck, he wouldn't have a lot of space to do anything with it. Zubrus has entered the zone and he's going towards the net. Larsson is off-screen at the blueline.
So far, this isn't bad for Philadelphia. I think they would be happy to have Peter Harrold stop and cut back with the puck along the side. The Flyers are in a good position to at least force the Devils to do something else. This would last for only a few seconds.
Just two seconds later and everyone's spread apart. Carle took Henrique and now they're together below the right dot. Zubrus and Timonen are battling just Bryzgalov's left above the crease. Larsson has moved past the center of the blueline to give Harrold an out if he needs it. James van Reimsdyk is now at the high slot, lurking in case the play moves over in that direction. Lastly, it looks like Briere is keeping up with Harrold.
Only, he really isn't. In the last picture, Harrold has stopped and changed directions. Briere had to respond in kind, but just a little bit afterwards. As a result, Harrold has some separation from Briere - enough to have a shooting lane at the net. Therefore, he's attempting a shot on net before Briere gets in his way. A shot from behind the faceoff circle isn't a good place to shoot; but it's a better option than to hold onto the puck and engage in board play with Briere.
Harrold's shot gets on net and it's easily stopped by Bryzgalov. The puck rebounds to his left, either intentionally or not. This is where things start to go wrong for Philadelphia. As Harrold took his shot, van Reimsdyk went forward. He's blurry but you can make out that he's not even looking at the play. He has no idea that the puck is heading towards the left (near) faceoff circle. Briere at least turns around after Harrold's shot - he bails out after the shot to get back on defense - but he's too far away to do anything. Briere was still in motion, the momentum carrying him from following Harrold. I think van Reimsdyk was pushing up in the hopes that his teammates would get a stop and be able to see him up ice in space for a long pass.
Henrique and Carle disengage and both have to loop around to get back into the play. Only two players can get to this rebound: Zubrus and Timonen. As you can see in this picture, the two are physically battling each other in front of the net. The puck actually went through them to slide out onto the ice.
This picture shows that Timonen absolutely lost the battle in front. Zubrus just out-muscles his defender and essentially boxes out his man. Zubrus can now get to this loose puck. One could argue that Timonen actually held up Zubrus; but if he really did, it clearly wasn't enough. In retrospect, he's going to wish he held him more.
Zubrus is about to collect the puck. Timonen's watching him, which is appropriate as he was originally engaged with him. Interestingly, Carle looks over at him for a bit. He does have the time to do so since Henrique is still coming around. He hung back a little bit in the hopes that Zubrus can hit him with a pass in stride. It's a good thing he didn't since Carle is in a very good position. Speaking of positions, Bryzgalov is in the middle of recovering from his stride to the left post after the rebound. He's going to stand up shortly.
Incidentally, where's Larsson, van Reimsdyk, and Briere?
Ah, there they are - behind everyone else in the zone. Notice how far back Briere (the lower blur) and van Reimsdyk (the higher blur) are. They obviously went to the blueline before and during their intial turn. That meant both took themselves out of the play. They were relying on Timonen, Carle, and Bryzgalov to defend the play. Now, they're hustling back because they know they can be beaten. It is because of both forwards going so far that Larsson jumps up on the play. And look at the separation he has from everyone.
Zubrus collected the puck and wheels around into the empty space in the slot. I think Zubrus notices Larsson cutting in, which explains how his body looks in this picture. Timonen is in a no man's land. He's focused on his man Zubrus, so he has to follow him. As a result, Timonen is now in the slot. However, I think he also sees Larsson breaking in. He won't be able to do much about him unless he focuses away Zubrus. If he does that, Zubrus can just continue his path around the slot and have a great look at the net.
Last and certainly not least, Henrique and Carle are now engaged again in the slot. Henrique does a great job away from the puck to set himself up right in the middle of the slot. He's going to be facing towards the near side, so Carle can't just get by him to desperately cut off Larsson if the defender gets the puck. Additionally, this will distract Bryzgalov. As Zubrus makes his wide turn, Bryzgalov now has traffic preventing him from really knowing where the puck is. The combination with the two Flyers forwards caught behind, Larsson streaking into open space, and Timonen in a tough spot makes this a very bad situation for Philadelphia. The Flyers are simply unraveled. All Zubrus has to do here is make a pass to Larsson.
Zubrus makes that pass and it's a good one as Larsson is able to corral the puck to his right and ahead of him. This allows him to keep going forward without anyone able to knock this puck away.
Of course, the positioning in the prior picture ensured that no Flyer would be in position to do anything to Larsson. Timonen was committed to Zubrus and now he's not a position to do anything. Henrique has great body position on Carle; the rookie center is both preventing Carle from getting into Larsson's space and allowing him to be an option in front for a pass or any loose pucks from a shot. Briere is still behind Larsson and he's still trying to catch up. Most of all, look at Bryzgalov. He's actually looking around Carle & Henrique at this point to his right. Bryzgalov now knows that Zubrus no longer has the puck, and he doesn't know Larsson - who is on the left (near) side of the ice - just got the puck with no one in front of him.
Bryzgalov is now moving to his left but with the traffic in front, I don't think he really knows where exactly Larsson is with the puck. Therefore, he's not really squaring up with any potential shot. How can he? Henrique and Carle are still in his way. Meanwhile, Larsson keeps going and looks up to assess the situation. Notice where Larsson is holding the puck and that Briere has his stick in his left hand. There's no way he can stick-check Larsson. There's no way he can get his stick in front of Larsson or, more importantly, the puck. Even if Briere had it in his right hand, he wouldn't be able to do either. He could foul Larsson; but that's just about it. Briere remains beaten.
Larsson gets to the dot and fires a wrist shot. Again, Briere can't do anything to Larsson and he's the closest Flyer to him. Again, Henrique has been strong in putting his body between Carle and the puck while maintaining his position in front of Bryzgalov. The goaltender sees the puck coming off Larsson's stick, but he's not really in a good position to make a stop here. He's going down in the hopes it's a low shot. That's not a bad guess considering he had to deal with a screen for the last two seconds. However, that leaves a lot of space around the left post, particularly high. Larsson knew that and that's why he's shooting now.
Larsson put the puck in the spot with the most space and scores his first postseason goal in his NHL career. The shot itself was simply fantastic. Bryzgalov got his glove up too late and all he can do is look back into his own net. Celebration commences as the Devils snapped his shutout bid. Later in the game, the Devils get to celebrate three more goals.
It's always remarkable to me, despite the breakdows I do and the amount of hockey I watch, that so much happens in such a short amount of time. In a matter of seconds, the Flyers went from looking good in their own end to being beaten in their own end. In a matter of seconds, a low-percentage shot from Harrold turned into a play that resulted in Larsson getting a great look at the net and putting up an even better shot.
On this play, the Devils did get the benefit of a favorable rebound off Harrold's shot as well as both Briere and van Reimsdyk flying out of their zone to give the Devils even more space. At the same time, there's a lot to like from what all four Devils did on the ice. Harrold didn't risk getting into a battle with Briere along the boards, his shot did get on net, and he went right back on defense in case something went awry. Henrique's play away from the puck was great as Carle took him and he ensured that Carle wouldn't do more than that. His positioning helped cause Bryzgalov to not be in position for Larsson's shot, too. Zubrus used his talents very well on his play. He used his big frame and strength to get away from Timonen and into a position to retrieve a loose puck. His offensive awareness was manifest as he knew Larsson would be wide open in space and dropped a great pass for him against the grain. Larsson read the situation perfectly on this play. With two Flyers heading towards the blueline away from the play; he darted into the zone once Zubrus retrieved the puck. That allowed him to beat Briere by as much as he did. He retrieved the pass, he didn't rush or panic with the puck, and he put a well-placed shot past a goaltender who was hot all game long.
The Flyers faithful shouldn't be pointing a finger at Timonen or Carle. They had their assignments and stuck to them; almost literally in Carle's case. While the goal beat Bryzgalov, the traffic of Carle & Henrique combined with Zubrus curling around in the slot caused enough hesitation to throw him off. No, the fans should be looking pretty harshly at Briere and van Reimsdyk. Briere was a bit too far away from Harrold, which wasn't a big deal, but he took this really wide turn when he didn't have to. He should've turned around more quickly after Harrold's shot and this way he could have had an angle on where the play would go. Instead, he's seen lamely stretching out his stick to no effect on Larsson before the defender scores. Travis Hughes called out Briere in his recap at Broad Street Hockey; but I think some of his love needs to go to James van Reimsdyk too. He absolutely messed up on this play. At least Briere was near Devils in this play; van Reimsdyk covered nobody and did nothing of value on this play. Instead of lurking in the high slot, he just cheated on the play. That really created a lot of space for Larsson to skate into, which led to a Devils' equalizer. It also ensured that when Zubrus got away from Timonen that Zubrus would get that loose puck. Had either forward hung back more and focused on getting a stop instead of expecting one, perhaps the Devils don't score at this moment.
Thankfully, they didn't and the Devils did what they needed to do. They got extra space in a four-on-four situation, their opposition's coverage broke down, and Larsson finished off a great opportunity to score. The Devils got the benefit of the four-on-four play. It became a great memory for Larsson; his first ever postseason goal in the NHL. It was a great goal on its own, given how it happened and the final shot. It was a great equalizer that became the first of four goals in a third period of an overall great Devils game.
Now that you've seen the goal (again) and you've read the breakdown, what are your thoughts about it? What do you think was the pivotal part of this play? Who stood out the most on the play now that you've seen it broken down? What did you learn from this goal? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on this play, the goal, and this breakdown in the comments. Thank you for reading.