Last night, the Oilers’ third goal – like all their goals – came on the power play, but it was pretty ugly. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins fired a slap pass that was redirected by Taylor Hall and then redirected by Shawn Horcoff past Semyon Varlamov in the Avalanche net.
The whole shift leading up to the goal was an interesting one.
The Oilers have just lost a power play draw in the defensive zone.
The key players on this sequence are numbered. David Jones (54 for Colorado) is going to try and take the puck past Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93 for Edmonton). Justin Schultz (19 for Edmonton) is in good position to backstop Nugent-Hopkins, and Shawn Horcoff (10 for Edmonton) will also lend a hand here.
Nugent-Hopkins knocks the puck free as Jones skates by; it’s now between him Nugent-Hopkins and Horcoff and moving toward the Oilers’ captain.
Horcoff picks up the puck. Jones has followed Nugent-Hopkins away from the corner, but is in a position to put some pressure on the Oilers in their own end.
Horcoff skates to his own net, drawing Jones toward the middle as he does so, and then drops the puck off to Schultz to setup the breakout.
Both Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle (14 for Edmonton) go to the right hand boards to give Schultz options; he fakes a pass in that direction.
Ultimately, Schultz fires the puck to the left side of his own end, where Taylor Hall (not on the screen) is already moving directly out of the zone.
Hall (4 for Edmonton) isn’t in an ideal position here, trapped on the left wing all by himself, though at this point he has a relatively clear lane to both Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins. Brad Malone (42 for Colorado) is going to turn and put pressure on Hall right away – a sensible move, given that he’s isolated. (Side point: I saw a lot of Malone in the AHL earlier in the year, because the Barons seemed to play Colorado’s affiliate in Lake Erie every other night, and was really impressed by him as an energy/checking line player.)
Hall gets a little lucky here, squeaking the pass through Malone’s skates and landing it behind Eberle, who slows and turns around to receive the puck. Malone jumping up rather than falling back made this particular zone entrance less smooth than other ones – we see that if he had played things more conservatively, Horcoff would have driven hard for a gap in the middle – much like Ryan Smyth did to help the Oilers gain the zone on Hemsky’s third-period goal against Vancouver.
Because Hall’s pass worked out, the fact that Malone and Jones were both aggressive works in the Oilers’ favour here – they now have a 3-on-2 advantage entering the zone and Ryan Wilson (44 for Colorado) can’t really afford to risk engaging Eberle too aggressively.
Still, Wilson gambles a little bit, playing Eberle tight, so Eberle does the obvious thing and drops the puck back to Nugent-Hopkins, entering the zone behind him.
Wilson is able to get back into position to prevent Nugent-Hopkins from going to the net too aggressively – Wilson actually handles this sequence really well – so Nugent-Hopkins gives the puck back to Eberle.
Eberle heads behind the net, then cycles the puck back to Nugent-Hopkins, again forcing Wilson to chase and then fall back. In the meantime, Schultz has gained the point (far left), Hall has put himself in position to help with the cycle, and Horcoff has gone to the front of the net, where he’s battling for position with Erik Johnson (6 for Colorado).
Zipping ahead a few seconds, Nugent-Hopkins and Hall have gone back and forth, with Wilson and Jones engaging and retreating depending on who has the puck. Hall’s decided to try something different now, though.
Hall stickhandles, than tries to go back to Schultz at the point with a hard pass. Jones plays this well and gets his stick back into the passing lane, causing the puck to deflect high.
The only purpose of this screenshot is to show Wilson jumping.
By rights, the Avalanche should get this puck – but Hall jumps into the group and gets possession before anyone can clear it.
Hall gets the puck to Eberle, who should be in position to attack the net – the Oilers have a 3-on-2 down low – but the puck bobbles on him.
The momentary flutter is enough to allow the Avalanche forwards to move low, so with the opportunity gone Eberle gives the puck back to Hall.
Hall passes to Schultz and starts for the high slot, even as Schultz shuffles back to the middle of the ice. The Avalanche penalty-killers get ready for the shot, though we can see that Schultz’s best option is clearly Nugent-Hopkins at the half-boards.
Schultz goes to Nugent-Hopkins, and the Oilers are set to attack – Hall drives the middle, with Eberle just past him along the same, relatively clear passing line – if Nugent-Hopkins can hit either, the Oilers will get an ice scoring chance. Unfortunately, Hall falls as he drives to the slot.
Nugent-Hopkins tries for Eberle, but somehow Malone gets his stick on the puck; it pops up and everybody’s looking for it.
The puck bounces clear of the cluster of players in front, with the Oilers in good position to regain possession.
Schultz gains possession, and passes out of danger to Eberle.
Eberle waits a moment to draw the penalty kill over to him, then returns to Schultz.
Schultz passes to Nugent-Hopkins, and the Oilers are in good position to try the same attack again – Hall is in the pocket at the middle of the ice, Eberle’s on the far side in the same passing lane, and Horcoff is in good position to create trouble in the crease.
Nugent-Hopkins slap-passes the puck to Hall, who redirects to the front of the net.
And the puck bounces in off Horcoff’s skate.
I see things this way:
- The lost faceoff only cost the team four seconds – primarily because the Avs couldn’t dump it back into the Oilers zone. Put another way: there’s this weird dynamic on the power play where a defensive zone draw is probably less important than an offensive zone draw.
- I’m generally a fan of conservative play on the penalty kill, particularly when falling back towards the defensive zone, but the way the Avalanche attacked did open up a weakness in the Oilers’ breakout – the first forechecker encouraged Schultz to move the puck to Hall, and Hall was vulnerable. If his pass had been picked off (and it nearly was) the Avalanche would have had a shorthanded 2-on-1. Of course, had Schultz passed to Eberle/Nugent-Hopkins exiting the zone, the Oilers would have come up ice with a 4-on-3, so maybe this is more on Schultz for choosing to use the left wing when a right wing exit is basically what the Oilers seem to have drawn up.
- I love the structure to the zone entrances on the power play this year. Tyler Dellow talked a lot about this over the summer and it’s something I’ve been watching for – the Oilers have been awfully deliberate at this and so far it’s been working great.
- Hall makes a bad pass, but pursues aggressively and manages to negate the problem – that aggressive pursuit once the puck hit a stick struck me as more noteworthy than the poor pass itself. Every power play is going to have passes picked off, and that sort of aggressiveness can mitigate the damage when it happens.
- The Avalanche are really aggressive all over the ice, and the Oilers handle this exactly the right way: short, safe passes. The gorgeous setup through the box is what I typically think of as the power play pass, but its those small plays that get the penalty killers moving and open up lanes that do the bulk of the work.
- When Nugent-Hopkins gets the puck with a bit of space, the penalty kill is always going to be in trouble. That passing line with Hall in the pocket and Eberle on the far side is designed to capitalize on anything but a very tight penalty kill box, and for na aggressive power play it’s going to be very hard to keep that box tight as the Oilers move the puck around the zone. If the puck gets through to either Eberle or Hall, there are huge problems – Hall’s in the world’s best scoring position and Eberle’s going to be taking a brilliant shot on a goalie moving cross crease. Nugent-Hopkins also has the option to attack low if the defenceman on his side is pulled to the middle by Hall, or to go back to the point if the box is in good position to thwart an attack.
- It’s also easy to see why Horcoff’s role in front of the net has been given to him, Smyth and Hartikainen. There are basically two parts to the job: stand in front of the net and get repeatedly cross-checked while fighting with the defenceman for position, and be ready to retrieve the puck if it comes loose in your general area. It’s a waste to put a classicly skilled great shooter/great passer in the spot – that guy’s never going to score anything but a garbage goal, and doesn’t really contribute to the power play cycle. It’s also probably not a bad idea to put a guy in there who stands up well to punishment – Horcoff is by all accounts a fitness freak, Smyth’s made a career in exactly that spot, and Hartikainen is an immovable chunk of Finnish granite.
- I also really like Hall in the pocket, because he’s also filling the rover role – jumping in to help and add another passing option whenever there’s a problem. He seems like a unique fit for the assignment.
It was an ugly goal, but that doesn’t mean it was the result of anything other than a carefully coached and well-executed plan.