On opening night, Connor McDavid scored three goals — putting up a natural hat trick in his first game of the season, the first player to do so since Radim Vrbata pulled off the feat in 2013 (and only the second since 1944.
From a player-to-player perspective, McDavid’s talent is immeasurable. He’s so much faster than his opponents that he, at one point, made two Calgary defenders — one of which isn’t exactly known for being a lead foot — look like they were practically standing still.
From a goaltender perspective, though, he’s an even tougher nut to crack. That, in itself, may be the thing that puts the Edmonton Oilers over the edge this year.
— OilersNation.com (@OilersNation) October 5, 2017
How can you not love this goal?
In part, this is luck; if McDavid is even half a foot to the left or right on this play, he [possibly] doesn’t score this goal. It’s by virtue of the puck landing straight on his stick that he’s able to fire off a quick shot, no windup necessary, that passes Smith before he can blink.
Part of that, though, is just elite positioning by the captain.
One of the things that people tend to criticize Alexander Ovechkin for is his method of play on the man-advantage. He tends not to follow the action with his feet, instead almost floating and seeming ‘lazy.’
I once had a friend – who had a very successful ACHA career as a defenseman with good two-way skills — explain to me that he, personally, would choose to cover the constantly-moving Nicklas Backstrom or TJ Oshie instead of the almost-stationary Ovechkin. You have to hope, he says, that you can distract the other two enough that they can’t get the puck over to the player who isn’t really moving.
If you watch Ovechkin carefully, though, his power play movement is mastery. He almost moves like a goaltender — although rather than making minute adjustments to square himself to the shot like the netminder does, he makes minute adjustments to keep himself open for a vulnerable scoring opportunity. When that puck does head his way, he’s in a perfect position to catch the goaltender off-balance with, like McDavid here, an immediate puck release.
That kind of talent isn’t given enough credit in the NHL, but it seems that McDavid has it in spades.
It’s more than just an accurate release, soft hands, or elite speed. That kind of talent is a deep, nuanced understanding of goaltender angles, movement patterns, and overall spatial awareness of the ice surface.
When a player is in the ‘right place, right time’ like this, catching a quick pass from a talented linemate off of a chance rebound, 9 times out of 10 they’re likely going to be just truly lucky. With McDavid, though, there’s very little reason to believe that he wasn’t fully aware of the space he had for a second opportunity with Smith — and for a goaltender, that’s lethal.
Of course, this is the goal that garnered so much attention — and for good reason in its own right.
According to reports, McDavid clocked up to a 40km/hr velocity by the time he chipped the puck over Mike Smith’s glove and into the top left corner of the net.
It wasn’t just that McDavid acted too fast for Smith to do anything right, though — it was that he acted too fast for Smith to do anything, period.
Take a look:
Connor McDavid magic on opening night pic.twitter.com/7IvgtqEVTH
— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) October 5, 2017
For ease of breakdown, this gif displays the goal in slow motion.
Smith tends to stay far back in his crease, so it’s unsurprising that he starts to back up long before McDavid even approaches the point.
With the speed McDavid was moving, though, a retreat any later than Smith made would have left him too far out of the net; McDavid could have easily changed course and chipped the puck in on Smith’s blocker side, forcing him to try to reverse his course altogether.
Smith drops into butterfly blocker-side first on this play, potentially looking to cut across in case McDavid had crossed royal road — but given McDavid’s speed, the Flames starter would have still likely been left in a poor position to extend his pad far enough to catch a piece of the shot.
Establishing that Smith was actually in the right place at the right time, it only further demonstrates exactly how helpless goaltenders are in the face of No. 97 that he still ended up getting beat cleanly.
The perfect picture to encapsulate this was tweeted as a criticism of Smith, courtesy of Jesse Spector:
McDavid is great, but let's also give credit to the real star of the show, Mike Smith looking down as McDavid roofs it. pic.twitter.com/FlS8K0Q6q6
— Jesse Spector (@jessespector) October 5, 2017
In a vacuum, it appears that Smith ruined his own chances of stopping the puck with ‘poor tracking.’ He’s looking down, while the puck is clearly going up.
When you look at the moving picture, though, Smith was actually looking right at McDavid’s stick during the release. The Oilers captain gave so little ‘tell’ on his shot, though, that Smith had no way of anticipating which direction the shot would head until it was already over his shoulder. Once again; right place, right time… just too humanly slow for McDavid’s magic.
Breakaways are always tough for goaltenders to anticipate; with no outside assistance, they’re left with the task of anticipating a player’s movements before the player even makes them, hoping they guessed correctly.
That makes McDavid such a multi-dimensional threat. He’s not only able to break away with more speed than other players, arriving at the crease faster than most goaltenders are prepared for, but he’s able to execute his playmaking decisions with little to no outward tells. The goaltender is left, as with Smith, simply squaring himself to the shot as best he can while praying that he’s able to catch the puck’s movement before it hits the back of the net.
Is there more to love than just how McDavid relentlessly tortures goaltenders? Of course. Those more interested in the skater side of things are also mesmerized by his hands, his footwork, and his seemingly endless arsenal of shot options; the NHL hasn’t seen this kind of scoring since Wayne Gretzky.
From the goaltender side of things, though, there’s even more to break down in his game – even if, for now, there’s really no way to defeat it.
Here’s to 81 more games of this!