As bad as last night’s game ended, the New Jersey Devils did manage to score first (and second, and third, and fourth) against the Winnipeg Jets. It was provided by one of the multiple Devils making their regular season debut with the team. Nikita Gusev was hyped up as one of the best scorers in the world outside of the NHL. It would not take long in his first regular season game for Gusev to score his first career goal. And at 18:00 into the first period, Gusev put home the first New Jersey Devils goal of the 2019-20 season.
As is tradition on this site, we will break down how the Goose lit the lamp. This was the result of two turnovers. One that did not lead to issues for Winnipeg but led to the second one that eventually ended with Gusev scoring. It is a great example of the beauty of hockey. In a blink of an eye, something can happen out of seemingly nothing and that something can lead to something great.
The Game Situation
- It was 5-on-5 hockey.
- The goal was scored 18:00 into the first period, or with two minutes left in the first.
- The scorer credited Gusev with the goal and Jesper Bratt with the assist.
- There was no secondary assist awarded - and there should not have been one.
- The Devils on the Ice: #25 Mirco Mueller, #35 Cory Schneider, #37 Pavel Zacha, #45 Sami Vatanen, #63 Jesper Bratt, and #97 Nikita Gusev
- The Jets on the Ice: #2 Anthony Bitetto, #3 Tucker Poolman, #26 Blake Wheeler, #27 Nikolaj Ehlers, #30 Laurent Brossoit, and #55 Mark Scheifele
The Video of the Goal
From NHL.com, here is the video of the Devils’ first of the season and Gusev’s first of his NHL career:
All screen captures in this breakdown are from this video. Multiple angles are used. Text, shapes, and poorly drawn arrows and lines are from me using Microsoft Paint.
Instead of starting at the clip from the TV view, I will use the behind-the-net view from the replay on this goal for most of this breakdown. It includes a crucial event that took place before the beginning of this video. It shows the event that led to the event that led to the event for the goal.
The puck was dumped into the corner. Jesper Bratt gave chase as the Jets defense attempts to recover it. He is following Tucker Poolman, who has the inside track to the puck. He should get to this puck easily. Anthony Bitetto came over to support Poolman in case Bratt does something. In the back, you can see Pavel Zacha having entered the zone. He is going to head towards the side as he awaits what the Jets are about to do.
The first problem for the Jets on this play is that Poolman does not get this puck. He misses at trying to move it. He misses at trying to gain possession. The puck is left in the corner. That is a problem.
It was not that big of a problem. Bitetto was following the play, after all. Bratt was following Poolman. Both of them are now behind the goal line and away from the puck. Bitetto will be able to retrieve this puck. He does not have a lot of time. Both Bratt and Poolman turned around and Bratt will engage with Bitetto. Impressively, Nikita Gusev flies in from the other side of the zone to also engage with Bitetto. Zacha saw all of this and continues to the half-wall. His read is that Bitetto will try to clear the puck up the boards. Was Zacha’s read correct?
By the way, Nikolaj Ehlers enters the frame and will be important in a little bit.
Zacha’s read was indeed correct. Before Gusev or Bratt could get to Bitetto, the defenseman fired the puck around the corner. Zacha was in position to block the clearing attempt and he did with his right skate. The puck hit off the skate and popped up in the air. This is the turnover that led to the more crucial turnover. As a result of this event, Ehlers turned away from the corner and will now head to Zacha.
As an aside, note that Sami Vatanen is at the blueline. If the puck got past Zacha, then he would have had a chance to keep the puck in the zone. It would not have been easy but it would have been possible. While Vatanen has no actual involvement in this whole sequence, I do want to point out that he did the right thing here. Even if it was not necessary, he was in a place to support Zacha as needed.
Because the puck popped up in the air for a little bit, it had to come down before Zacha could get his own stick on it. This allowed Ehlers to close the gap. He has to make a play now. Unfortunately for Zacha, his only real option is to move the puck around the corner in front of him. It is not a bad idea. Gusev worked his way on the inside of Bitetto. He can - and will - seal off the defender to allow the puck to go through. Bratt is still in the corner and receive a puck around the corner. However, Poolman is watching this develop and he is in a better position to make a play. Especially since Bratt makes a decision to go backwards from this moment in time.
By the way, Mark Scheifele is now in frame at the top of the left circle. He will get involved in a little bit but for now he is watching this transpire in the corner.
Zacha was able to get the puck around the corner right before Ehlers checked him into the boards. Gusev was able to seal off Bitetto so the puck could continue around the corner. However, those two good things were negated by Bratt moving further back. This allowed Poolman to easily head back to the corner and intercept the puck from Zacha.
At this point in the breakdown, look at how organized the Jets look. As Poolman is about to take the puck, Blake Wheeler is next to the slot and Scheifele is left of the left dot. No Devil is near them. Bratt is behind the goal line while Gusev and Zacha are busy with Bitetto and Ehlers. Poolman will have options to move the puck up and out of his zone. Zacha’s denial of Poolman’s clearance appears to be handled appropriately.
Appearances are deceiving. Again, in this frame, it looks like the Jets are in no trouble. Ehlers is waiting at the half wall in case Poolman wants to move the puck around the boards. As Zacha moved away from the boards, Ehlers has a chance to keep the clearance going or make a quick pass to Scheifele if he takes the puck. Bratt is heading back up in the zone but there are three Jets ahead of him on the left side. Poolman could attempt a pass to Bitetto or Scheifele. If it goes awry, Wheeler is there to support them from the slot.
There are only two issues for Poolman here. The first is that he has the puck on his backhand. It is harder to control a puck on a player’s backhand. It has to be done sometimes, though. Given that Poolman is a right-handed shot and the play is in the left side of the zone, he is forced to be on his backhand. Turning fully around is not really an option because of the second issue: Gusev. The whole idea of forechecking is to apply pressure. Gusev is doing just that. He followed Poolman after he intercepted Zacha’s rim around the corner. He is in front of him, hoping to deny Poolman at whatever he is trying to do. I think Poolman is attempting a pass. But what I think does not matter here.
It does not matter because Gusev’s forecheck works. Poolman’s attempt is blocked by Gusev’s skate. Instead of heading up ice, the puck ricochets towards the slot. It was almost serendipity that Bratt was heading up-ice because he was in a great position to intercept the puck. But the puck eluded him. It was bouncing a bit. I do not think Bratt was expecting it either. It was a fortunate and unexpected deflection from Gusev’s skate.
In this moment in time, there is still no need for the Jets fan to panic. Yes, Poolman’s pass (or clear) was blocked. But Bratt did not get the puck. The puck is heading right towards Bitetto. He just has to handle it. Wheeler and Scheifele are still nearby. Zacha is not a threat. The only Devil on the right side of the zone is Mirco Mueller, who is at the blueline. All Bitetto has to do is collect the puck and then move it up ice.
Bitetto did not collect the puck. Bitetto could not handle the puck. He loses it among his skates. It may be only lasted a second or two but that is a long time in hockey. It is enough time for Bratt to turn around and be in a great position to take the puck away. Wheeler, who was higher up in the slot, now needs to hustle deeper into the slot to support Bitetto. This turnover is becoming a bigger and bigger problem for the Jets.
Away from the puck, note where Zacha and Gusev are. Gusev is going to head towards the slot himself. Zacha makes a wide turn towards the middle, behind where Scheifele is watching. Poolman is out of frame and still in the corner. He is going to hustle towards the middle too.
Bratt collected the puck from beneath Bitetto and dragged it to his left. Brossoit, from his knees, is moving quickly to just stay in front of the puck. This caused Bratt to drag it to a wider angle since firing it directly at the goalie would likely just be stopped. However, Wheeler and his long reach denies Bratt an opportunity to shoot here. From what I saw in motion, it appears to me that Wheeler whacked Bratt’s left glove. That is usually a minor penalty. You cannot strike the hands - especially on a shooter. It was not called. It also prevented Bratt from getting a shot off. Wheeler risked a penalty to deny a potential goal. It worked - for a second.
As Wheeler and Brossoit are locked onto Bratt, look at the other players. Zacha is about to enter the slot in front of Scheifele. Poolman is making a beeline to the net. Gusev is heading to the slot as well. Bitetto, well, he stays put. I do not know why. He is watching the puck instead of what is happening away from it. Had he peeked to his left, he maybe would have figured out that no one is really on Gusev. Instead, Bitetto is defending the left post as the play is going past the right post.
Bratt, Wheeler, Brossoit, and the puck all continued to their right and towards the goal line. Bratt tried to get a clean shot off earlier. The whack by Wheeler denied that. Bratt is attempting to recover the puck again before Brossoit can get to it. Bratt also stayed in front of Wheeler. The big forward has to adjust his stick position to a have a chance at getting it back inside of Bratt. All that is between Bratt and the goalie is space and the puck. It does not seem like a big deal but it will give Bratt to make one last play on the puck.
Brossoit continued to his right on his knees. This also means that he has over committed to Bratt on this play. Strangely, he does not get his stick out. He has it on the ice to protect the gaping five-hole from his knee-based movement from left to right. Either that or he did not realize he could have just poked the puck away. (Or, if he wanted to take a bigger risk, dove for the loose puck). Brossoit is expecting a shot and has committed to that. He will not get a chance at one.
Away from them, you can see the final play forming. Poolman comes in behind the goalie to protect the net and Bitetto stays by the left post. Scheifele picks up Zacha, who has inside position on him, and lifts his stick way up. This left Gusev to enter the slot with no one really covering him.
Bratt picked up on that, turned away from the goal, and sent a pass to Gusev in the slot. It was a great pass. It is not too hard or too soft. Gusev is in the perfect position to receive it and immediately shoot it. No one can stop this.
No Jet could stop Bratt passing the puck. Wheeler was able to get his stick around but he was too late. Brossoit over committed on the play and he is not even in the crease anymore. And, again, look at his stick. He did not even try to get it in front of him to try to deny the pass, Just like when he did not try to knock the puck away earlier.
No Jet could stop Gusev here. Scheifele is still engaged with Zacha, who broke away from him for a bit. Poolman went to the net to protect it. Bitetto is still hanging out at the left post. The Jets defensemen banked on playing goalie. This all meant Gusev was free to one-time it.
Gusev finished Bratt’s pass! His shot split the defensemen and into the empty net. Gusev scored his first career NHL goal and the team’s first of 2019-20. The Rock erupted in joy.
The TV broadcast angle better shows the end result. Again, note where the defensemen are. They were in the crease. Neither was on Gusev. Scheifele was occupied by Zacha. Wheeler, Bratt, and Brossoit are all past the right post. Gusev just had to get his shot past the defensemen and he did. Honk.
The beauty of hockey is that it is an inherently imperfect game. You can practice as much as you want but how a player reads and reacts to unexpected events that frequently happen in a game makes a huge difference in the game itself. The sequence of events that led to Gusev’s goal is yet another example of that.
First, there was the initial turnover by the Jets. Poolman failed to collect a puck in the corner he should have collected and Bitetto’s clearing attempt up the boards is denied by Zacha. Zacha made a good read to get to the half wall and that allowed him to block Bitetto. Gusev also did well to get over to the left corner to support Bratt.
The play after the blocked clearance seemed to go the Jets way. As well as Zacha did to send the puck back around the corner before Ehlers hit him and as well as Gusev succeeded at sealing off Bitetto from the puck, Poolman recovered the puck. Given where Wheeler and Scheifele were on the ice, he was in a good position to start making a zone exit. The only immediate concern was that Gusev stuck to Poolman on a forecheck.
Second, there was the second turnover by the Jets. Poolman’s attempt at a pass or a clear from his backhand is blocked by Gusev’s skate. The puck bounced towards the slot. Bitetto is unable to collect the puck, which made the turnover become even more painful. Bratt swooped in to take the puck away. In a matter of seconds, the Jets went from a fairly safe situation to a very dangerous one.
Wheeler fouled Bratt to deny him an initial shot but things were already going awry. Bratt stuck with the play. Bitetto stuck to the left post while Poolman headed to protect a net. Neither picked up Gusev heading to the slot. As Brossoit was over committed to and past the right post and Wheeler had to adjust his stick, Bratt had a short window to pass it to Gusev. Pass, shot, score, celebrate.
The goal was created by a combination of forechecking, effort, and luck. The luck is easy to figure out. Who knew the puck was going to bounce off Gusev’s skate and go towards the slot? Who knew Bitetto would not handle that puck and then not move much elsewhere afterwards? (Bitetto not moving from the left post is still something I cannot figure out.) Who knew Brossoit would stay on his knees and just track the puck instead of going after it? As an aside, even though they won the and the pairing had a good night in the run of play, I cannot imagine the coaches would be pleased with Bitetto and Poolman when they review the tape for this goal. Or with Brossoit.
But the luck does not benefit the Devils without Zacha, Bratt, and Gusev sticking to the play. They forechecked successfully. Zacha denied a clearing attempt and eventually occupied Scheifele’s attention, which helped Gusev get open. Bratt did not give up on the puck despite having Poolman intercept Zacha’s pass or missing on the initial deflected puck or failing to get a shot off thanks to Wheeler’s foul. Gusev covered a lot of ground to get to the left corner, sealed off Bitetto when needed, and then headed back to the slot to be an option for Bratt. These three worked hard on a play that seemed at points to favor the Jets. Instead, the trio beat four Jets and the goalie.
We cannot deny that Bratt made a difficult and excellent pass to Gusev and Gusev’s one-timer finished it properly. We must recognize that it was all made possible due to two turnovers. One that did not result in much, but it did set up the situation for the second one that did. And that turnover went from not-good to real bad really fast for the Jets thanks to Bratt and Gusev.
What made this feel especially good at the time was that on the previous shift, Jack Hughes was mauled in the right circle as he tried to cut to the middle. There was no penalty called for reasons I cannot tell you. With that in mind, seeing the Devils come back down the ice, keep a play alive, and score despite another uncalled foul - Wheeler on Bratt - felt like justice. Sweet, sweet justice. Alas, it was in an ultimately losing effort, which I wrote about at length in my recap so please read and comment there about the game as a whole. This post is all about the goal.
Still, the final result should not overshadow the multiple good things that the Devils did and the good things that happened on this play. Yes, the puck bounced the right way, Bitetto could not handle it, and the Jets lost control from then on. But the Devils worked to make them pay for it. It featured good reads by Zacha and Gusev. It featured two denials of the Jets trying to move the puck away. It featured Bratt keeping his head up on the play and eventually making a successful one. It featured off the puck movement that put the Devils in a position to succeed. It featured a successful forecheck and an effort that fans of all kinds want to see from their favorite team. It featured three forwards getting inside and ultimately beating four Jets and a goalie. It featured and ended with a double-first: Gusev’s first NHL goal and the first goal of the 2019-20 season for the Devils.
That is the goal breakdown of the first New Jersey Devils goal of the 2019-20 season and the first for Nikita Gusev. He will likely cherish this one. Now I want to know what you think about this goal. What did you learn from this breakdown? Who made the biggest error among the Jets on this play? Are you now more excited for what Gusev can do for New Jersey this season based on this goal? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on this breakdown of the team’s first goal of the season in the comments. Thank you for reading.