I spent four years as a video coach for a minor league hockey team. My job was to cue up the video, then sit back and let the coaches analyze it. It wasn’t a glamorous job, and the pay was meager (they fed me), but I consider it to be one of the best experiences of my life.
For one thing, I got to give away free tickets, which is probably the only reason I have any friends. More importantly, I observed how professional hockey coaches watch the game. Their analysis is very different from what you get from TV commentators. Those film sessions taught me to look for details beyond who scored the goal and who passed him the puck. I learned that credit and blame for goals was not always obvious.
I’m going to attempt to share that insight with you now. What follows is a recap of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final through a breakdown of all 7 goals.
Lightning goal: Ryan Callahan from Victor Hedman and J.T. Brown; 1-0 TB; 19:33 to go in the 1st period (video)
Tampa opens in a 2-1-2 forecheck. Two forwards chase the puck while the third forward hangs back. In this case, Brown and Callahan pressure the Penguins below the goal line before Valtteri Filppula even gets into the picture. Brown eventually wrests the puck away from the Penguins and sends it to Hedman at the point.
Hedman makes a fantastic play. He cradles the puck while skating backwards in order to move into a better shooting position. This also takes him out of line with the Penguin trying to block the shot.
Meanwhile, Callahan outmaneuvers Trevor Daley down low. Hedman’s wrist shot, while strong, is taken too far out to be dangerous on its own. But Callahan uses his stick to deflect the puck (you see it on the slow-mo replay). The last-millisecond change in direction is enough to elude Matt Murray, and the Lightning are out to an early lead.
Daley takes a lot of the blame for this one. He loses a one-on-one battle with Callahan for the puck, then loses another battle with Callahan for positioning. Daley knows it, too; watch him look skyward after the goal is scored.
Lightning goal: Andrej Sustr from Nikita Kucherov and Alex Killorn; 2-0 TB; 5:32 to go in the 1st (video)
As the Lightning begin their rush, the Penguins have even numbers. Killorn wisely skates out wide so that when he gets the puck, Ben Lovejoy is too far away to challenge him. Even so, the Penguins still have good position. Daley ties up Vladislav Namestnikov. Lovejoy and Nick Bonino switch on Killorn’s drop pass so that Kucherov can’t get to the net. Suddenly, there’s Sustr. Where did he come from? How does a 6’8″ defenseman charging the net go unnoticed by the Penguins?
The view from behind the net tells the story. Carl Hagelin is tangling with Braydon Coburn and can’t backcheck. Now watch Sustr. He busts his ass to join the play. Phil Kessel is the farthest man up the ice. He hustles, but is so far behind that Sustr reaches the offensive zone before Kessel crosses the center line.
The Killorn-Kucherov drop pass does one great thing–it keeps the Penguins focused on the puck. Had Bonino noticed Sustr coming, he could have left Killorn (the one guy Kessel could have reached) and picked up Sustr. But Bonino is mesmerized by the sleight-of-puck, and Sustr finds himself uncovered in a prime scoring location.
Credit Sustr for one more thing. He scores this goal on his proper wing, meaning his stick-side is closer to the boards. He has to let the puck cross in front of his body before he can shoot it, which prevents him from getting his hips and shoulders aligned in proper shooting form. Kucherov’s pass is a rocket. It takes a lot of skill to merely get the puck on net from that position, and Sustr roofs it in one motion. Sustr helps himself by sliding his bottom hand lower down his stick for additional leverage. It’s those small details that win hockey games.
Tough game for Daley. On for the first two Lightning goals, then injured in the 2nd period.
Lightning goal: Jonathan Drouin from Ondrej Palat and Victor Hedman; 3-0 TB; 5:22 to go in the 2nd period (video)
This play begins in Tampa’s defensive zone, where a Bonino turnover springs the Lightning for a three-on-two: Drouin, Kucherov, and Tyler Johnson against Hagelin and Justin Schultz. The Penguins play it well enough for help to arrive, and Kucherov resorts to banking the puck back to Hedman. And that’s when the trouble starts for Pittsburgh.
In the picture above, all four Penguins are looking at Hedman–five if you include Murray, but that’s his job. Hagelin and Schultz are just standing in space. The Lightning player circling behind the net? That’s Drouin. No Penguin has an eye on him.
Hedman does. He skates to the middle of the ice, drawing the Penguins further into the trap while creating a passing lane between himself and Drouin, who is now camped to Murray’s right. Hedman lasers the puck to Drouin. The Lightning now have a two-on-one with Drouin and Palat against Schultz less than ten feet from the goal.
Murray makes an athletic move across the crease to square up to Drouin. Schultz freezes; he’s caught between Drouin and Palat, covering neither. Drouin tries a pass to Palat. The puck ricochets off Palat’s skate and back to Drouin. Murray is gone, having slid to his left to defend a posssible shot from Palat. Drouin fires the puck into the goal cam.
Yes, the Penguins were down a man, and the Lightning got a friendly bounce. That’s no excuse for allowing this goal. The Penguins’ mental errors up-ice had them scrambling into defensive position. In their confusion, they lost track of Drouin, who put himself in an advantageous spot. “Puck-watching” is a term coaches use to describe plays like this. The last two goals show why it matters.
Lightning goal: Tyler Johnson from Nikita Kucherov and Alex Killorn; 4-0 TB; 2:12 to go in the 2nd (video)
Another goal that starts with the Penguins on the attack. Sidney Crosby gets double-teamed–possibly the only way to stop Crosby–and Anton Stralman takes the puck. Stralman chips it quickly before he’s checked–by both Patric Hornqvist and Chris Kunitz. All three Penguin forwards are in the corner, and Schultz, a defenseman, is at the hash marks. You can’t see the puck, but it’s against the boards, and Killorn is about to corral it. The only Penguin back is Brian Dumoulin.
Schultz, racing back, can’t deny Killorn’s head man pass to Kucherov. Kucherov carries the puck deep, then hooks off for support from the oncoming Killorn and Johnson. A nifty passing play ensues: Kucherov to Killorn, back to Kucherov, across to Johnson, goal. Schultz had inside position on Johnson. How did Johnson manage to get his stick on the puck?
Replay gives us the answer: he didn’t. Kucherov’s “pass” to Johnson is about six inches off the ice. It clears Schultz’s stick, bounces off Johnson’s shin guard, and into the net. It’s a legal play, as long as Johnson doesn’t intentionally kick the puck in (if his reflexes are that good, more power to him).
The issue is with the Penguin forwards. First and foremost, either Kunitz or Hornqvist needed to stay high in the zone. Or both of them stay back; that would have been less wrong. Instead, both went after Stralman in the corner and gifted the Lightning an odd-man rush.
I want to address the next point because the Crosby haters will surely bring it up. Crosby is the only one with a chance to get back. And he does, but just barely, without breaking into a full stride. I get the criticism. He doesn’t pump his arms wildly or use the short, choppy strides we commonly associate with hustle, so we assume he isn’t hustling. But Crosby might be the most efficient skater in the NHL. He covers a lot of ice with each stride, and does so under control. I wanted to see a couple more hard strides from Crosby on this play, but I’m willing to second-guess the smartest hockey player on the planet only so much.
Penguins goal: Phil Kessel from Nick Bonino and Brian Dumoulin; 4-1 TB; 18:42 to go in the 3rd period (video)
As tends to happen, Pittsburgh’s comeback starts with a bounce of the puck. Dumoulin passes to Bonino at center ice. Defenseman Slater Koekkoek (try pronouncing that one without looking it up) steps up to challenge Bonino. Bonino’s attempted dump-in knocks Koekkoek’s stick out of his hands and rebounds to Bonino.
As Koekkoek retrieves his stick, the three other Lightning in the frame focus on Bonino (more puck-watching!). Kessel is on the far side, fresh off the bench. Granted a second chance, Bonino delivers a perfect pass to Kessel, who moves in on Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. The only defender is the statue of Braydon Coburn.
If someone asks you for the prototypical Phil Kessel goal, you might show them this one. Wrist shot, on the rush, from the right circle, low blocker side, just above the goalie’s leg pad.
Penguins goal: Evgeni Malkin from Ian Cole; 4-2 TB; 8:47 to go in the 3rd (video)
One or two hockey players can’t “take over a game” like in other sports, but, occasionally, a superior talent can dominate a play, or a rush, or a shift. A reason Pittsburgh is feared is because they have two such players in Crosby and Malkin.
Another rush for Tampa ends as Johnson’s pass is deflected harmlessly to the corner. Then Malkin goes to work. He fends off Johnson. He leads the Penguins into the offensive zone. He surveys from the boards, then cuts to the slot. He finishes with a quick snap shot that deceives Vasilevskiy. Frankly, I’m not sure why Cole got an assist.
I want to take a minute to appreciate that shot by Malkin. The last move he makes–it’s subtle, but it changes the angle of his shot, and his release is so quick that Vasilevskiy can’t react. In traffic, no less. That’s a beauty of a goal.
There isn’t much the Lightning could have done to stop Malkin, but they didn’t do themselves any favors. After getting overpowered, Johnson takes a second before chasing Malkin. And, even then, his skating looks labored, not purposeful. The strong side defenseman is Koekkoek (that name!). He engages with Kunitz, who uses the opportunity to entangle himself with Koekkoek and free more space for Malkin. On the weak side, the 6’5″ Coburn starts out well, using his stick to discourage any pass to Bryan Rust. But Coburn overplays toward Rust, and can’t recover in time when Malkin cuts to the middle.
Tampa fans could cry foul and claim that Kunitz interfered with Koekkoek. But Kunitz is a veteran player, one who plays in the margins of the rulebook, and he knows well that referees just aren’t going to call that a penalty. Maybe Cole’s assist should go to Kunitz.
Penguins goal: Chris Kunitz from Justin Schultz and Conor Sheary; 4-3 TB; 6:52 to go in the 3rd (video)
Not two minutes after Malkin’s goal, the Penguins find themselves on the power play. Kunitz and Callahan are locked in a battle along the boards. Bonino supports his teammate and slides the puck back toward Letang. Filppula reads it and nearly intercepts; he continues on to pester Letang.
From behind the net, you can watch Sheary scamper out to provide Letang an outlet. I love how Letang makes his decision to wire the puck to Sheary before the puck arrives. Sheary spots Schultz heading for the net. Sheary lifts the puck just far enough off the ice to go over Stralman’s stick, while keeping it low enough to hit Schultz’s stick. That deflection causes the puck to rebound off Vasilevskiy’s pad directly to Kunitz, and Kunitz finishes.
I have no idea what Hedman is pointing at, but I’m pretty sure that’s not his job. While Schultz and Kunitz are breaking toward the net, Hedman is standing still with his skates pointing up-ice and his hips turned toward the boards. He eventually gets turned around, but is too late to pick up Schultz. The damage is done.
But that’s nitpicking. This goal shows the importance of power plays. Simply put, the Lightning needed another player.
The Kunitz goal would be Pittsburgh’s last, and Tampa won the game. The series is now a best-of-three going back to Pittsburgh.
The big talking point going into Game 5 is the Penguin goalies. Marc-Andre Fleury took over for Murray in the 3rd period and made 7 saves–Fleury’s first game action since March 31. Does Mike Sullivan stick with the hot hand (Murray), or go with experience (Fleury)? You’ll notice I didn’t call Murray out, and that’s because he wasn’t at fault on any of these goals. As far as I can see, it doesn’t matter which goalie plays.
The bigger story to me is the injury to Daley. He plays the second most minutes on the defense after Letang. Olli Maatta likely draws back into the lineup after being scratched the last 3 games. Maatta is supposed to be Pittsburgh’s second best defenseman, but he’s had an inconsistent playoff marred by injury. Daley’s absence also means bigger roles for Dumoulin and Cole; can they handle it?
Two Lightning goals came off the rush, and a third (Drouin’s) followed a Penguin turnover. This fits with Tampa’s reputation as a quick-strike team (Lightning isn’t just a nickname, but apparently a team philosophy). Daley’s speed provided a counter to Tampa’s rushes; without him, mistakes like the Kunitz-Hornqvist double-check will be magnified. Do the Penguins back off from their own aggressive style? And which team would that benefit more?
These answers, and more, tonight in Game 5. Cue video.