There were four to choose from, and I picked the James van Riemsdyk goal in the third period that ultimately became the game-winning goal. This was a power play goal, and the Leafs power play has been cooking lately. Ignore the nonsense about home/road splits on the video. You might as well talk about even and odd numbered days when it comes to special teams.
First thing to notice is that the Leafs are playing Nikita Zaitsev on the right point, Connor Carrick on the left and the Tyler Bozak line up front as the power play unit.
The play as shown at the start of the video begins with Zaitsev’s pass at the point. He’s being challenged by Zemgus Girgensons, who comes way out to take away the pass across to Carrick:
The rest of the Leafs are all on the right side of the ice, so this is smart choice by Girgensons since a quick cross-ice pass to Carrick has him looking at a lot of net to shoot at. But Carrick is playing the off-side because of the injury to Rielly and the messed-up defender assignments. If he were a left-shot, he’d have a good play. He’s not, and Zaitsev never hesitates to move the puck to the man who makes good things happen, Mitch Marner, at the top of the picture. That’s Bozak in the middle.
Girgensons is keeping Marner from passing back to Zaitsev or over to Carrick. Ryan O’Reilly is closely checking Bozak. The two Sabres defenders are taking the Bozak shooting lane and the Marner pass to van Riemsdyk. The play is obvious, isn’t it? Marner has to pass over to Bozak and hope he can get it through to the net so Van Riemsdyk might get a rebound.
Marner remembered to wear his skates. He moves himself, not the puck, slipping like an eel, backwards half of the time, as Bozak switches and moves out of the slot to the circles.
This slippery move by Marner has caused both Girgensons and Jake McCabe to be out of a good position to do anything useful at all. McCabe had come up to challenge Marner for the puck, which he did very ineffectually, allowing Bozak to slip into the opening.
The obvious play here is that van Riemsdyk will pass to the wide open Bozak who is ready for it, stick down, and then Bozak will shoot it and maybe a rebound will provide a scoring opportunity.
James van Reimsdyk likes to practice.
Those kind of shots, I work on them a lot, so you just try to get yourself in a position there. I was looking to pass actually the whole way, but there was nothing really open.
Van Riemsdyk does not see the obvious pass to Bozak as viable. Carrick is circling around where he should be looking right at an open net. He had been deeper in, and was in the process of moving back to his right. He has no shooting lane where he is, can’t take a pass. He is not a threat and seemed unsure of what to do with himself thrust onto the power play on his off side.
And now, finally, the goal. It is a combination of sick hands, practice, positioning, the amazing Mr Marner, and some bad choices by Anders Nilsson.
Back before the puck ended up on Zaitsev’s stick, van Riemsdyk had it behind the net and passed it over to the half boards. Nilsson was hugging the post hard and in good position, but in the ensuing play, he never went back to that.
At the moment shown above, he seems to be assuming the puck will go to Bozak, a pass van Riemsdyk never considered. Nilsson’s skate is not on the post, his glove is down, and that is a wide open door for a man like van Riemsdyk who has already practiced that sort of shot and got himself in position. Nilsson has zero useful defensive support on the play, as Rasmus Ristolainen is only covering the potential pass to Carrick if Carrick moves in very deep, which he wasn’t doing.
Marner and van Riemsdyk were great while Bozak played the positional shell game perfectly; he drew all eyes to him. Nilsson didn’t make the goal happen, but his decision to assume the pass made it easier.
There are three choices for goals against. One was Andersen giving the puck away on a horrible clearing attempt, the second was a clean win by a good shot, and the third was just weird.
Brian Gionta takes a breakout pass, stops, gets the puck past van Riemsdyk and up the boards to Girgensons without any trouble, and Girgensons and William Carrier have an innocent two on two on the Leafs. The two defenders are Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick. [ominous music plays]
Hunwick has moved into position to take away Girgensons’ pass. Polak, on the other hand, never moves into the shooting lane, and he doesn’t check Girgensons.
By the time Girgensons passes the puck, he has inside position on all but Polak’s stick, and Polak started out with the advantage of the angle and should have been able to maintain the superior position with ease. Girgensons easily sent the puck over airborne.
Andersen is in position, tracking the puck, his glove is up, he’s covering the five hole, all should be well if Girgnesons shoots it.
Meanwhile on the other side, Carrier is driving hard for the net and gaining positional advantage on Hunwick, who has played the entire thing like he is alone on a two on one. By focusing on Girgensons, Hunwick loses track of Carrier speeding past him, and the passing lane becomes wide open.
The fact that the puck is airborne and Carrier bats it down out of the air to score made it seem like an oddity, and if it had been flat on the ice, Andersen might have had it, but at its heart, this is simply a failure to effectively cover a routine play by the defence. Carrier’s skill and positional smarts made it possible for the Sabres to take advantage of the opening they were given, but they were given a gift.
Much has been made about blown leads, late goals and the Leafs third pair. I’ll grant Hunwick a little slack here because he had played a lot of minutes in a game that had five defenders for most of it, and he clearly has trust issues with Polak. He nearly went over and covered Girgensons himself. But it is his inattention to Carrier that allows the passing lane to pivot out in front of him and out of his reach that led to this goal.
But the time of the game is incidental. If you want to claim this is part of a pattern, I need to see some evidence of that, and that evidence would have to include plays they both succeed on as well as fail. So count me as still very skeptical of the theory that they are responsible for blown leads. They’re likely responsible for first period goals too.
Today’s lesson is:
You can only play your own position. Covering for the guy who is not where he should be didn’t work for Anders Nilsson, and it didn’t work for Matt Hunwick either.