Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Why Connor McDavid is lethal to goaltenders: an in-net perspective

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.

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The Breakdown

Goal 1:

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.

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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.

The Mix

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.

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Goal 2:

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:

For ease of breakdown, this gif displays the goal in slow motion.

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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.

Inside the Nation: Just for kicks

The perfect picture to encapsulate this was tweeted as a criticism of Smith, courtesy of Jesse Spector:

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!

  • Maple Mousse

    While McDavid was amazing on his second goal and the little to no tell he gave before roofing it was the main cause of Smith losing it, I also think Smith was cheating a bit as he had just barely stuffed Connor earlier on a similar play, where he blocked Connor’s signature soft-touch Five-Hole move. So maybe he felt over-secure that he was stuffing this madman’s graceful attempts that usually work, and thought Connor was up to his old tricks again.

    Without realizing that Connor adapts almost instantaneously. Even to those adapting to his previous go-to moves. Split-second thinking and a Smooth-Dancing Cheetah on Ice.

  • giddy

    It’s hard to believe someone could be born with ALL of the abilities as he has been blessed with. It’s one thing to be a player with his speed and ability to handle the puck at those speeds, but then he also comes loaded with one of the highest hockey IQ’s to ever play the game. Add in his incredible work ethic, no-nonsense yet humble attitude and some soft hands, and he truly could be the greatest to ever slap a piece of rubber around on frozen water.

  • AlexTheOilersFanSince2006

    Is this what being a fan of this great team comes to now. Other people wishing injury on McDavid? He scores 1 hat-trick against the Flames and I’ve seen about 20 “someone needs to injure this guy” comments online. What a pathetic lot of people. After what happened in Edmonton and Vegas, you’d think these people would stop and think twice before spouting off garbage like this. But they’re about as classy as Bertuzzi.

  • Red Deer Dan

    What I’d really like to know is if anyone has ever scored the ONLY three goals in a season opener before! Anyone know?…
    It’s finally a fantastic time to be an Oilers fan. Take that, Decade of Darkness!