Scoring goals is all about being in the right spots. Scorers find and use open spaces better than the average player; they recognize dangerous areas, move inside holes in the defence and load up their shots. But what truly separates good scorers from the elite ones, the players racking up 40 or more goals in a season, is timing — the art of arriving in the right spots, at the right time.

Auston Matthews is again on pace for the best goal total of his career. He constantly finds new ways to get the puck from his blade to the back of the net by changing his mechanics: the angle of his shots, his body position, and his feet pattern. As a result, his release becomes quicker and more deceptive every year.

But, more than the modifications to his technique, it’s his ability to time himself with the offensive play that enables him to use his firing ability. For Matthews, timing is the difference between an opponent checking him or his shot flying to the back of the net. It’s the surprise factor that prevents defensive counters.

When roaming the offensive zone, he aims to enter a high-danger area at the same time as the puck. If he gets there too early, it gives a chance to the defence to reposition and neutralize him, and if he is late, either the pass will miss his stick or his teammate will look elsewhere to move the puck.

Matthews’s sense of timing creates two great scoring chances in the sequence above. The puck hits the back of the cage on the second one.

The play starts with a rush. Matthews skates through the neutral zone; Mitch Marner carries the puck and dumps it in the offensive zone. As the Leafs forecheck, Matthews remains out of the picture. He sees the Jets collapse defensively to the puck side of the ice in between blue-lines, and as a result, they can only give pass support on one-half of the defensive zone as they descend to breakout. The goalie playing the dumped-in puck can’t rim it around; he has to send it back to the side it came in.

So Matthews purposely slows down inside space on the opposite side of the play. He waits for Marner to steal possession, before cutting to the front of the net. The winger connects with Matthews, who misses an open net.

But the centreman immediately gets back to work. He tracks the play to the neutral-zone, intercepts a pass, and sends his team on the attack again.

As his team rushes back to the offensive zone, Matthews again lets the gap between him and his teammate expand. He controls his skating and aims to enter the zone a couple of seconds behind. He knows Marner faces a Jets defender on entry and anticipates the winger will have to take the outside lane.

For Matthews, that can only mean that his playmaker teammate will cut back to find a trailing shooter. When the defender blocks the rush at the top of the circle, Marner indeed puts on the brakes and turns the other way. The move attracts a second defender, but Matthews arrives in support just in time. He comes in behind the opposition, receives a pass in the space between the two opponents, goes backhand, forehand and scores.

Matthews’s pin-point timing in the plays above directly leads to his shooting chances from the slot and his goal. It came from his ability to do three things very well: anticipate player reactions, choose the best skating route and move at the appropriate speed.

Anticipating player reactions

Some players always have their head up. They know where to find friendly sticks at all times; not many adjustments are required to connect with them. Those players are rare. Most have some quirks — maybe they cut laterally a couple of times before making a pass, or they wait to be in a specific spot to look around for a target. Others just fire at the net every chance they get — rebounds and tips then become the best scoring chances.

Learning the tendencies of line-mates, or developing chemistry plays a big role in the development of offensive timing. And so do offensive strategies; they dictate player movements and the areas of the ice where teammates instinctively send the puck, as they expect a player to be there in support.

Matthews earns great scoring chances in the clips above by anticipating the play of teammates. He moves to the net when shots and passes are about to move there, reads the rotational movements of the offence, and springs loose for a release at just the right time.

Like in the last clip, where he sees that Rielly getting the puck and going down the wall. Matthews pushes away from defenders slightly ahead of the play to become a one-timer option for the defenceman.

But, of course, it’s not enough to only account for teammates’ movements on the offence; there are five other players on the ice.

Those players also operate inside a system; they each have their own specific and complementary duties. The predictability of the defense is a strength — defenders know what to expect from each other —  but it can also be exploited by attackers.

Matthews, to prepare scoring chances, lurks in the open spaces away from the defensive box. If the play moves to one-side of the ice, he circles away to the other one; if it descends behind the net, he climbs to the top of the zone. In other words, he anticipates defensive responses and aims to remain behind defenders’ backs, making it hard for them to track his position. He disappears and reemerges; he escapes and dashes back in — but only when a teammate is ready to hit him with a pass.

Choosing the best skating route

Skating route is a term that describes not only where a player goes, but also how he gets there.

The ultimate goal of a scorer is to find high-danger areas, so the endpoint of a skating route is often the slot. But, while the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, in hockey, it’s often better to take detours to get to a shooting spot. It helps create space, get in position for a release and avoid checks.

In the first two clips above, Matthews cuts east-west off the rush to first level with his teammate, and then increase his gap with the defensive line. By sliding behind his rush partner, he creates a pocket in which to receive the puck and release. His teammate continuing to move towards the net also pushes defenders further back, allowing Matthews to advance all the way to the slot before firing.

If the centreman had continued to skate parallel to his winger, the defender facing him would have easily taken away his space, and therefore, his shot. His altered skating route gave him a much better scoring chance.

In the last clip, Matthews does the same thing in-zone. He moves low from the point to give pass support to Morgan Rielly carrying the puck down the opposite wall. But Matthews doesn’t immediately gun for the slot to stand there calling for a pass. He slowly descends.

A defender looks for the Leafs centreman and sees him right behind — no danger there. But as soon as Rielly gets his head up to look for a pass, Matthews cuts to the middle of the ice. He jumps past his coverage, who doesn’t have time to react.

Matthews skating route allowed him to keep his momentum and time himself perfectly with Rielly. With a deceptive arrival in the slot, he could catch the puck unimpeded and immediately release it.

Skating at the right speed

Skating at maximum gear all the time removes opportunities. It’s often best to slowly approach an offensive sequence to avoid getting into the checking range of a defender. It can take a few seconds for a scoring chance to develop; a player skating too fast could be forced to stop in a scoring area and wait for a pass, allowing the defense to adjust their coverage.

The other benefit of trailing a play is that it can create a gap in which to set up a shot.

Matthews beats a defensive winger to the offensive zone in the first clip above. But he still aims to arrive after his teammates. As a trailer, he has space necessary to prepare a feint against a defender pressuring him head-on.

The Leafs scorer repeats the same formula in the following sequences; he controls his speed, glides in the zone and arrives in the slot at the same time in time to connect with his wingers.

Poor offensive timing

If the three abilities above don’t work together well, then the offensive timing and the quality of chances deteriorates. Here are a few examples of players not timing themselves with the play appropriately.

In the above sequences, Leafs skaters either arrive in the slot with too much speed, or are late to the play. They don’t anticipate the offensive rotation well enough and don’t recognize the move they should make in time. Sometimes, they do move at the right moment, but don’t take the appropriate skating route — which has them end up too close to defenders or in an awkward position to shoot on net.

Consistently getting the right timing remains very hard, even for top scorers like Matthews (he features on one of the clips in the video). Most of the times, defences still manage to intercept passes or neutralize attackers before they can attempt a play to a dangerous area. And often, teammates simply rush their decisions and don’t see the best options available. Players don’t score on every shift.

But the concept of offensive timing reinforces that it’s often what happens a few seconds or zone away that makes the real difference between a goal and a missed chance — things like a slight change of momentum or a step left or right.

Details have a large impact on scoring. Great timing requires high mental engagement, consistent teammates, and exceptional decision making, which is why it separates the good from the elite scores.

That being said, some offensive strategies can help goal-scoring talent flourish more than others. Even if the Maple Leafs currently struggles on the defensive side, especially with the loss of key defencemen, the changes brought by Sheldon Keefe have liberated the offense. By involving defencemen in the attack and stretching opposing defenses, the system enables more shooting opportunities from the slot.

This strategy plays heavily into the strengths of the Leafs main scorer and will most likely add a few more goals to Auston Matthews total by the end of the year, helping him push for the lead in the league.

This previous article analyzes the changes to Leafs system.