On February 6, 2015, Patrik Elias became the ninety-first player in the history of the National Hockey League to have scored at least 400 regular season goals in his career. Here's the full list of all 91 players from Hockey-Reference. It's a significant milestone not just because it's a nice round number, but it's definitely not a common occurrence. Elias not only had to deal with two work stoppages, but he didn't play in the 1970s, 1980s, or the early 1990s where scoring was more prevalent. Out of these 91, only eight players made their debut at or after 1995 and reached that mark. It takes more than just having excellent offensive skills to get to such a mark, it also takes longevity and consistency as well. So congratulations are in order for Elias to get that far.
What better way to do that than by looking closer at the goal itself? The strike gave the Devils a 2-0 lead fairly early in the second period. It also ended up being game winner over the Toronto Maple Leafs by the . The goal wasn't just important to Elias, it was important to the game. It also was important to those who want to get an idea of how important a pass into the neutral zone can be and how backchecking can go wrong. Elias has every right to cherish the goal, but the whole play that lead to it deserves more notice.
The video I've used for this breakdown comes from NHL.com. All screen shots are from the video, all added text and poorly drawn shapes and lines come from me with Microsoft Paint.
The video begins with Marek Zidlicky winning a puck along the sideboards. With plenty of bodies around him, he slides a pass towards the middle. This is an outlet pass that commonly catches the Devils in trouble, what with their tendency to build up play around the boards. The pass went right to his defensive partner, Jon Merrill.
As Merrill collects the puck, you can immediately see the Leafs are in trouble. There's four Leafs nearly in a line here. From top to bottom, Joffery Lupul (he'll be coming off), Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak, and Roman Polak. Two Devils forwards ahead of that group recognize the situation. Martin Havlat has already darted up ice. Travis Zajac is starting to do so. Patrik Elias, well, he's just hanging back.
The thin red line is my way of showing that Merrill is looking up at Travis Zajac. You can tell he's going to try to hit him with a pass. He can't do it here.
So he'll do it here. It's worth noting that Polak and Bozak (maybe Kessel too) had their eyes on Merrill while skating into the neutral zone. They're paying attention to the puck as opposed to what's happening towards their end of the rink. It'll be a bigger problem in a little bit. Here, not as much, though Merrill recognizes his attention. It's hard to tell in the screen shot, but Merrill has lifted the puck in trying to make a leading pass to Zajac. Zajac is coming across the center circle. Merrill just has to anticipate where Zajac is going to be and saucer pass it to that area. This way it'll get past Polak and get Zajac behind three Leafs with the puck.
Merrill did the first part very well. The second part, not as well, but Zajac was able to settle it down as he gains the zone. It's a remarkably difficult pass to make cleanly as the puck was airborne. If Merrill did so, then this could be a two-on-one. Instead, Havlat has to stand on the blueline until Zajac gets in. Now, he can go forward, though he'll have to spend some time to accelerate.
That's an important distinction for Havlat. While no one is on him now, that won't last. Morgan Reilly was back on defense and he's paying full attention to Zajac. Polak realizes his partner sees Zajac coming, decides to trust his partner, and has now turned his head towards Havlat. Will he take him? (Spoiler: Yes.) Also, Kessel and Bozak are still coming back to support their defensemen. They've slowed up a little and they'll split up. Kessel is going to head towards the side where Zajac is; Bozak is going to remain more centrally. Notice that they're focusing on the puck carrier.
Zajac gets full control into the zone but now has to stop. He could take a shot here, but it's not a smart decision to make. James Reimer would be ready for it. While it's not a totally bad spot, it's not necessarily an ideal location to shoot either. Reilly has blocked off any passing lane across the slot. Polak, who came into his own end skating, is now on Havlat, who had to wait for Zajac to gain the zone. Polak correctly covers Havlat's left side and he's looking at Zajac. Zajac can get a puck past Reilly, Polak is in a very good position make a play on it. As a result of all of this, Zajac will hold up here and hope for a better option. It will come.
This is the moment where it goes really wrong for Toronto. There are four Leafs back, three of them are looking at Zajac. Reilly should be, after kneeling for a potential block, he's going to go after the puck. Polak might be looking at Zajac too. And he's now on the other side of Havlat heading towards the net. The two forwards, Bozak and Kessel, are back but they have no idea what's going on behind them. This a major problem.
Coming back to help on defense is one thing, but we know that ever since Merrill made that pass to Zajac, Kessel and Bozak had their eyes locked on Zajac. They know Reilly has Zajac and they know Polak has Havlat. Yet, both will gravitate towards the puck carrier as opposed one of them hanging back or turning around to see if a Devil will soon join them. Hence, there's a whole lot of space available for Zajac. He has the puck behind him to protect it from Reilly, knows it. It doesn't look like it, but there's a big gap between them (and around them) to make a pass into that space All he needs is a teammate. The third forward is just coming on the ice and he's going to be too far away to do anything about it. We don't see it here, but Zajac does and we all know who it's going to be.
It's Elias! Zajac could've passed it back to Merrill, who was also open. but with Elias charging up on the other side of the zone, that's the better play. You can see why. The two forwards went towards Zajac can't do anything about this. Polak and Reilly can't because they took Havlat and Zajac, respectively. By changing the side of the attack, Reimer hastily goes to his left in anticipation of a shot. The Leafs have to hope Elias doesn't beat Reimer because the skaters are in no position to do anything to #26.
Elias beats Reimer blocker-side and cleanly. Less than a minute earlier, Elias got a gift of a turnover from Mike Santorelli and beat Reimer to one side, only hit the frame of the goal. Elias essentially got another chance at it and made it count. He put the puck well inside of the goal. I'm sure Reimer going hard to his left made it a little easier for Elias to beat him on his right. More importantly, Elias had the time and space to collect it and fire it. While he wasted no time shooting it the lack of pressure meant he could focus entirely on where to place it.
That gets him deserved hugs from his teammates and a reason to smile. Elias' 400th career goal.
There's a lot that went right for New Jersey and one big thing that went wrong for Toronto. Let's start with the Leafs. While Reilly and Polak arguably did their jobs, the forwards didn't trust them enough to bother to see if anyone in red would come and support Zajac and Havlat. It bears repeating: Had one of them hung back or turned around then it's very possible Zajac doesn't make a killer cross-ice pass to a wide-open Elias. Backchecking is more than a forward just getting into his own team's zone; he has to help his defense make a play. Looking to swarm the puck carrier may work if they get there in time and if the puck carrier didn't have time to make a decision. Kessel and Bozak didn't and Zajac did.
As for the Devils, plenty went right from Zidlicky's outlet pass to Merrill. Merrill may have not given Zajac a perfect pass, but he gave him one that was more than good enough. Zajac was able to collect it, settle it, and still have control heading into the zone. Havlat didn't get the puck at all, but instead of just hanging out on the side and hoping Zajac would find him, he went to the net. This drew one Leaf, Polak, away from the play and may have opened more space for Elias. Zajac definitely deserved his primary assist and then some. He made a great pass, but he also made the right decision to not rush what would likely be an easy shot for Reimer or try to get past Reilly. That patience may frustrate some, but when there's a purpose for it, then it's all worth it.
These breakdowns show how important the play was, but let us not ignore Elias. He was very clever to come in late. Rather than rushing up ice just behind Kessel and Bozak, which may have garnered their attention, he delayed a bit more. He saw which side would be open, got into it in time, and collected Zajac's pass perfectly. Once he had the puck, after observing Reimer going hard to his left, Elias didn't hesitate whatsoever. He didn't pull a Zidlicky and charge towards the net for nothing or attempt a pass to someone else. He knew he had a shot, he knew where the puck needed to go, and he knew he had the opportunity. His knowledge of the game has been constantly praised throughout his career. The Devils' all-time scoring leader displayed it yet again, as he scored his 400th goal. What a finish.
You've seen the goal again and you've now read the breakdown. Now I want to know what you think. What did you learn from this goal breakdown? Would you agree that the bad backchecking by Kessel and Bozak really hurt the Leafs on this play, or was there something else that you noticed that hurt them? Zajac's pass was great, but what about Merrill's? Lastly, how did you react when Elias scored his 400th goal? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this play and the goal in the comments. Thank you for reading.