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New Jersey Devils Goal Breakdown: Michael McLeod’s Game Winner in Buffalo

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Michael McLeod scored two goals in the last game the New Jersey Devils played prior to a league-enforced postponement of games. His second goal ended up being the game winning goal in a 5-3 win in Buffalo. This post breaks down how it happened and why Miles Wood and Nathan Bastian richly deserved the assists on the play.

New Jersey Devils v Buffalo Sabres
Michael McLeod scored two goals on Sunday, January 31 in Buffalo. This picture is after the first one. The post is about the second one.
Photo by Sara Schmidle/NHLI via Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic struck the New Jersey Devils amid their weekend set in Buffalo at the end of January. The NHL postponed all of their other games last week as well as their originally planned game against Pittsburgh tomorrow. After rescheduling 27 games within the season, the New Jersey Devils are scheduled to return to action in Philadelphia on Thursday. Hopefully, they do so. Ahead of that night’s game, let us recall the last goal the New Jersey Devils scored against a goaltender.

Michael McLeod scored his second goal of the day in Buffalo, his third of the season, and the goal stood up as the game winning goal in a 5-3 win over the Sabres. The “fourth” line of McLeod, Miles Wood, and Nathan Bastian had a great afternoon and this goal was a highlight of their performance. Let us breakdown how it happened and learn again how much can happen within 11 seconds, see how physical play can be effective, and why Carter Hutton may wish he did better in this play.

The Game Situation

  • It was the third period. The two teams were in a 5-on-5 situation. The score was 3-3.
  • The goal was officially recorded as being scored 10:40 into the third period.
  • The scorer credited McLeod with the goal, Woodwith the primary assist, and Bastian with the secondary assist.
  • The Devils on the Ice: #1 Eric Comrie, #14 Nathan Bastian, #20 Michael McLeod, #22 Ryan Murray, #44 Miles Wood, #70 Dmitry Kulikov
  • The Sabres on the Ice: #12 Eric Staal, #19 Jake McCabe, #24 Dylan Cozens, #40 Carter Hutton, #53 Jeff Skinner, #55 Rasmus Ristolainen
  • Jenna recapped the whole game, so please read that to learn how the Devils played that afternoon. This post is only about this one goal.

The Video of the Goal

The NHL.com video of the goal itself starts off blurry for some reason. However, the full game recap video from NHL.com has the whole play in much clearer definition. I have pulled the following screenshots from 3:39 to 3:48 from that video with some screen captures taken in the replay following that segment of the video.

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.

The Breakdown

The play effectively begins with the “fourth” line putting in work. Specifically, Wood and Bastian are in the “dirty” areas with McLeod, Murray, and Kulikov much higher in the zone. Murray received the puck at the center point.

Part 1: Murray winds up at the center point.
Part 1: Murray winds up at the center point.
Screen captures from NHL.com video

Due to the events prior to the clip, Rasmus Ristolainen is also higher up in Buffalo’s zone and he is locked onto Murray. While their eyes are on the puck, Cozens is on the same side as McLeod and Skinner is with Kulikov. As those six are above the circles, there is a battle in front. Bastian managed to get in front of Hutton as Wood has drawn both Staal and McCabe in front of Bastian.

Murray has already wound up a slapshot in this screenshot. However, he has no real shooting lane to the net with the traffic in front. So while it looked like he will about to unload a shot here, he is going to drift back across the digitized ad. Kulikov and McLeod will “rotate” to account for this with Kulikov heading deeper into the zone and McLeod drifting out more to his right.

Part 2: A shooting lane emerged and Murray released a slapshot.
Part 2: A shooting lane emerged and Murray released a slapshot.
Screen captures from NHL.com video

It is not clear from the broadcast view and the replay from the reverse angle did not show this shot. However, it is clear that Murray saw a clear pathway to Bastian in front of the net. With Ristolainen coming in closer, it was a bit of a risk as he was in a position to block the shot. The worst case scenario would be if the shot block bounced the puck past Murray and into a space where only he could get it. Thankfully, there was no block. The shot went past his stick. This was the first of three times a puck would go past a Sabres stick on this play. This was the least problematic of the three times.

Please look at the other players in this moment. Cozens and Skinner both had their eyes on the puck, but they do recognize their coverage as they stick with McLeod and Kulikov, respectively. Put some more respect on Miles Wood for this play. He not only had Staal and McCabe cover him, but he drove them just away enough from Bastian to make that shooting lane possible. Bastian’s screen remained in place. If the shot was low, he would have a great chance to re-direct it.

Part 3: Bastian’s deflection attempt goes wide.
Part 3: Bastian’s deflection attempt goes wide.
Screen captures from NHL.com video

Murray’s shot was low and Bastian went for a re-direction. He tried to tip it past Hutton’s right. Instead, the re-direction sent the puck past the right post (it is a blur in this screenshot, literally right in front of the post) and towards the endboards. Staal disengaged from Wood, who is still tied up with McCabe, and was in a position to get to the loose puck before anyone else. While Bastian and McLeod (and Kulikov and Murray) see it, they were not in a position to go after it. It was not a bad decision. However, at this screenshot, it looked like the Sabres would survive the attack and begin to respond.

Part 4: Staal collected the puck in the right (near side) corner.
Part 4: Staal collected the puck in the right (near side) corner.
Screen captures from NHL.com video

As expected, Staal retrieved the puck first. He had it initially on his backhand and he was facing the corner. He will need to turn towards up the zone and put the puck on his forehand to take advantage of what is happening. Both Cozens and Skinner turned and started to head up ice. Given the placement of the Devils at the time of the shot, only Murray was actually back by the blueline. If Staal was able to turn quickly, he could launch a quick pass up to Cozens and both he and Skinner could counter-attack. Ristolainen could even join him. However, the time it will take to do this would not be enough.

Notice how the other Devils are reacting in this screenshot. As Cozens headed up ice, McLeod turned and started to head towards the half-wall. Doing so could deny a potential pass up the boards from Staal. That was actually clever; whether it was instinct or something the coaches told him to do, it would prove valuable. Bastian, who made the re-direction, pursued Staal. Wood, who was now free of McCabe, also headed towards the puck carrier’s side of the zone and planned to react accordingly. Kulikov headed back to the blueline as to not get caught (or not as badly caught) if the Sabres are able to begin a rush up ice. That was in accordance with Skinner. It seems like the Sabres have the Devils in trouble in this screenshot. Not quite.

Part 5: Bastian is about to physically engage Staal and McLeod got to the half-wall.
Part 5: Bastian is about to physically engage Staal and McLeod got to the half-wall.
Screen captures from NHL.com video

Staal’s turn was not quite done by the time Bastian got up to him. The young winger made up a lot of ground quickly. He is in a position to physically engage the veteran center. I want to you to notice Bastian’s stick first. In this screenshot, Bastian put out his stick to get in front of Staal’s stick before actually checking him. The intent of this move is to deny Staal from passing the puck. While McLeod was at the half-wall, Staal could still chip the puck past McLeod and get it up to Cozens. Or he could throw it up the lane between McLeod and Wood to Cozens, whose stick blade is on the right corner of this screenshot. Bastian does not necessarily know where McLeod was at this moment, so he gets his stick out to at least keep Staal from making a clean pass out of the corner. What happened next was even better.

Part 6: Bastian checks Staal and the puck goes back into the corner.
Part 6: Bastian checks Staal and the puck goes back into the corner.
Screen captures from NHL.com video
Another angle of Part 6, Bastian’s hit on Staal
Another angle of Part 6, Bastian’s hit on Staal
Screen captures from NHL.com video

It was hard to see on the broadcast, but the reverse angle from one of the replays of the goal showed Bastian’s intent working wonderfully. Because Bastian got his stick out, he blocked a potential passing attempt by Staal. As Bastian bodied up Staal, the block pushed the puck behind the two back into the corner. While McLeod went hard into the half-wall to deny a pass up ice, it turned out to not be needed. Good on McLeod to do so. While Cozens was wide open, all he got was a great view of the right winger pasting his teammate to the glass and knocking the puck back.

Since the puck was put back behind the two, only one man was in a position to retrieve it. Miles Wood. He also saw what was happening and the moment he saw the puck move behind the two players, he began to speed up to head to the corner. This was when things started to go from not bad to very bad for Buffalo on this play.

Part 7: Wood collected the puck in the corner.
Part 7: Wood collected the puck in the corner.
Screen captures from NHL.com video

Wood swooped in to collect the loose puck. He was free to do so and to move around the corner. After the hit, Bastian and Staal saw this happen, but they will end up “behind” Wood’s movement despite heading along in the same direction. As Wood curled around the corner, two very important movements happened away from the puck.

First, Ristolainen came back into the play. I think he stayed up high in the zone as Skinner and Cozens joined him to support any potential rush up ice. However, he was the only one of those three Sabres to realize he needed to get back on defense. Ristolainen hustled to get back in frame and get just past the dot as Wood headed out of the corner. The defenseman is making the effort to try to deny the Devils from making something out of this play.

Second, as Wood collected the puck, McLeod left the half-wall. He headed towards the same dot but - and this is crucial - behind Ristolainen. Unless Cozens would hustle like Ristolainen, McLeod will become wide open in the circle. He will make himself an option for someone who has the puck behind the goalline and needs to make a quick pass. Someone like Miles Wood in about a second.

Part 8: Wood passes the puck to a wide open McLeod
Part 8: Wood passes the puck to a wide open McLeod
Screen captures from NHL.com video

Ristolainen careened towards the goal line and Wood recognized the pressure. Ristolainen smartly stuck his stick out to his left to try to deny Wood from passing it out from his location. Unfortunately for Ristolainen and Buffalo, this was the second time a puck would go past a Sabres’ stick on this play. Wood sent the pass under Ristolainen’s stick and right to McLeod. This the second time a puck eluded a Sabre stick and it would be a problem for Buffalo. Unlike the first time, it would be costly. And the third time is about to happen in less than a second.

Notice all of those thin blue lines. Staal, Ristolainen, Hutton, and even McCabe are locked in on the puck. McLeod was seriously that wide open. And Wood completed the pass to the young center. Cozens would be too late to stop what is about to happen.

Part 9: McLeod one-times the pass from Wood
Part 9: McLeod one-times the pass from Wood
Screen captures from NHL.com video

As Wood was about to get slammed by the 6’4”, 220 pound Finnish defenseman, McCabe and Hutton did track the puck well enough. McCabe was able to shift towards McLeod and get his own stick out in the hopes of blocking or re-directing McLeod’s shot. Hutton also squatted down somewhat in preparation of a shot. Unfortunately for Buffalo, this would be the third time a puck would go past a Sabres’ stick on this play. The shot would get under McCabe’s stick, so his effort to disrupt the shot was a failure. The third time a puck went past a Sabres stick on this play would become the most problematic as the shot would go in. Their misfortune was New Jersey’s gain.

This was also beneficial because look at McLeod’s skates. While he did get the one-timer off, I cannot imagine he got as much on the shot as he wanted. His skates were not set at the time of the shot. One of them nearly had his ankle on the ice. It turned out to be enough. After all, this post is a New Jersey Devils goal breakdown and not a New Jersey Devils scoring chance breakdown.

Part 10: Hutton made a save?
Part 10: Hutton made a save?
Screen captures from NHL.com video

In this screenshot, the puck is now in the paraphernalia of Carter Hutton. Live and even on replay, it looked like Hutton made the save. He is down in a butterfly position. The shot was low, so he just needed to get his pads down and keep his form from letting anything through. His stick was even on the ice. The form was just about textbook. Of course, it was not effective enough.

Meanwhile, look at Bastian in this moment. Should the puck go loose, he was in a perfect position to capitalize on it. Staal was not exactly engaged with him. McCabe was too busy with McLeod and looking back at his goaltender. Cozens was too far away. Ristolainen was occupied with crushing Wood. It did not ultimately matter, but it is worth highlighting to show how well the forwards did from start to finish on this play.

Part 11: No, Hutton did not make a save. McLeod scored.
Part 11: No, Hutton did not make a save. McLeod scored.
Screen captures from NHL.com video

Hutton’s form was not enough despite how solid it looked. The puck trickled through his legs after all. It had enough momentum to go over the line. While the call was made with 9:20 left on the clock, the puck got in almost two seconds earlier. That is beside the point. The point is that McLeod, Wood, and Bastian all earned one from a shot that Hutton really should have stopped. Yes, it was a one-timer from the circle. Yes, it was a quick play. However, he was in a position to make the save, he dropped into a butterfly form that would have stopped it immediately if he dropped into it slightly faster, and his form could not keep the puck from going through after getting in position. Pucks trickling through a goaltender for a goal is often a bad goal for a goaltender allow. I have to say this was one of those. Hutton came up short and it hurt his team.

(Note: I noted in the screenshot that the puck went through Hutton’s legs. Upon further rewatches of the video after writing this post, I am not 100% certain that happened. I think it did just based on how the puck went over the line. If I have that wrong, I am sorry. I am not wrong that Hutton should have stopped it, though.)

I also have to say that his team did not exactly finish the drill either. After the one-timer, Bastian continued to the net and even got to the crease. Had the puck trickle through Hutton and not cross the goal line, Bastian was prepared to put it into the net himself. You can see his stick behind Hutton, ready to tap the puck in as necessary. Neither Staal or McCabe did anything about the right winger. Cozens (and Skinner, out of frame) could only watch this happen. By the time Ristolainen recovered from exerting his big body presence on Wood, it was too late. The Devils went up 4-3 and the People Who Matter all around the world had another reason to praise the line of Wood, McLeod, and Bastian.

The Takeaways

The line of Wood, McLeod, and Bastian just crushed the Sabres and scored four out of the five goals that afternoon in the victory. Among them, this is my favorite as it showcased why this “fourth line” ended up playing almost as much ice time in 5-on-5 as Jack Hughes’ line. The movement with and without the puck from all three forwards was excellent. On this play in particular, I have nothing but praise for each of them.

Wood impressively took two Sabres, broke away from both after Murray’s shot, and then watched the play like a hawk when Bastian engaged Staal. That meant he was in a perfect position to take advantage, which was the catalyst for this goal. His pass to McLeod was wonderful and well worth taking a big hit from Ristolainen. Wood could have opted to skate ahead and hope to get past the spot Ristolainen was aiming for with his speed. Wood could have opted to turn and reverse. Instead, he made the right decision to pass without hesitation to a wide open teammate. He richly deserved his primary assist.

Bastian only received a secondary assist for the goal, but he was anything but secondary in this play. His screen of Hutton at the start was great. While it did not go the way he wanted, his re-direction of Murray’s shot was successful. Bastian chased after Staal and had the presence of mind to focus on the puck instead of the man. It would have been easy for him to go for the glory of a big hit. He could have fouled him just in rushing to make a play. Instead, Bastian got his stick out to deny a pass from Staal and so his bodycheck helped dispossess Staal. Without that, there is no goal to breakdown here. And I really liked how Bastian kept moving even after McLeod’s shot. He continued to the net and put himself in a position for a score just in case the puck did not cross the line. Like Wood did on his super-late second period goal in the same game, Bastian played to the whistle in a very good way. He did a lot to get that secondary assist and I think he should receive as much credit as the other two forwards on the play.

I was also impressed with McLeod’s movements prior to the one-timer. When the re-direction went wide and Staal headed to the corner, McLeod immediately headed towards the half-wall on that side of the zone. Again, I do not know if he was coached to do that or if he figured out to do that in the run of play. But it was a smart one as it would have made a pass up the zone by Staal even harder for the veteran to complete. It ended up not being necessary, but it was still the right play. With Wood coming out of the corner, his movement to the circle and to do so while being behind Ristolainen made him a wonderful option for Wood. The one-timer itself was not ideal but most one-timers are not. It was enough to get through the goaltender for his second score of the day.

I really cannot find much fault with what the Devils did on this play. If you want to see great examples of reactions on offense, then watch this play. If you want to see how players putting them in positions to succeed without the puck, then look at Wood and McLeod on this play. If you want to see how a physical situation can spring an offensive opportunity, then look at Bastian’s hit. If you want to see why defensemen should wait for a lane to fling a long shot towards the net, then look at Murray’s shot at the beginning of this play. If you want to see how pucks can get through defenders just by moving the puck beneath their sticks, then watch this play as it happened to Buffalo three times.

I can find more fault in the Sabres on this one. If you want to see how a numbers disadvantage on defense can hurt you, then notice the screen situation at the beginning and then the lack of Sabres beneath the dots anywhere near the puck after Murray’s shot. If you want to see how skating away for an offensive rush can backfire, then notice how Cozens and Skinner did nothing to help on this play. Sure, Ristolainen came back later but at least he came back (and with authority). If you want to see how puck watching on defense can undercut your effort to stop the opposition, then watch everything on this play since Wood collected the puck. While the end result was directly caused by Hutton giving up a bad one, the Sabres skaters could have helped themselves a lot more on this one.

Lastly, it is plays like this that makes me appreciate how Devils head coach Lindy Ruff kept rolling these three out there that afternoon. When a combination is finding success, then let them have more opportunities to succeed. Just because they are listed fourth on a broadcasted lineup or Amanda Stein’s notepad does not mean they have to be given just 10 minutes of ice time. They were playing well earlier in the game and Ruff rewarded them with more shifts. They paid it back with another big goal - one that held up as the game winner. I would like to see Ruff re-unite them again for future games and hopefully reward that with even more goals.

Your Take

That is the goal breakdown of Michael McLeod’s eventual game winning goal in Buffalo, his second of the day and his third of the 2021 season. You have now read what I saw in the play that led to this important third period goal in Buffalo. Now I want to know what you think about it. What did you learn from this breakdown? Who among the forwards impressed you the most? We know he did not, but do you think Hutton should have stopped McLeod’s shot? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on this breakdown of the McLeod’s game winning goal in the comments. Thank you for reading.