The New Jersey Devils won the Most Important Game of their Season on Tuesday night 3-2 in overtime. Their reward is that they will play the Most Important Game of their Season on Thursday because Tuesday's game tied up the playoff series against the Florida Panthers 3-2. Needless to say, it was a fantastic result.
Overtime only lasted 5:39 thanks to a wrist shot from the left circle by Travis Zajac. It was obviously a meaningful goal. It gave the Devils an overtime win in the playoffs and extra life in the series. It was also a very slick goal, a wrist shot that cleanly beat Scott Clemmensen and inside the left post. Most of all, it was an excellent finish to a play that began all the way at the other end of the rink. Yes, Zajac's shot was true, but the his linemates Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk helped make it possible. This was not lost on Peter DeBoer, who gave the following quote to the media - as reported in this post by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice:
On the play that led to Zajacâs goal:
"Itâs clichÃ©, but your best players have to be your best players this time of year and that play ours were â" Parise with the backcheck, Kovalchuk with the great pass and Travis with the finish. And Marty with a save at the other end just prior to that. I donât think thereâs any secret formula there. Those guys know that and weâve got to do it again."
Taking all of this into account, it only makes sense to do a breakdown of Zajac's overtime winning goal. Please set your viewing to "wide" and continue on after the jump to see the biggest goal of the season - at least until the next one (I hope).
The Goal Video
From NHL.com, here's the video of the goal itself. It's longer than most goal videos, but I think it's fine. It is a game winning goal in the playoffs after all.
The Players Involved
Note: All screenshots come from the video from NHL.com. All text and poorly drawn arrows and circles were inserted by me. Also, I'm going to start a few seconds into the video, where Kulikov has the puck at the far sideboard. This is where the play truly begins:
Here's the situation. Weaver just kept the puck in play and flung hard around the boards. Kulikov takes it and looks to the net. Weiss is down low, but Zidlicky's positioning blocks that passing lane. Salvador is down in the center of the slot, closest to Versteeg - he's supported by Parise with Zajac lurking behind further. Kovalchuk is gliding towards the action, which is already well covered. Still, he glides instead of strides so he can keep Kulikov from tossing it back to Tomas Fleischmann, who's at the point covering for Kulikov.
Martin Brodeur, veteran that he is, is covering the right post and anticipating a shot. One is about to come as indicated by the black arrow.
Kulikov's shot is low and not very hard. Brodeur makes a save but the rebound doesn't go far. Weiss is going for a jam play at the post. Hey, Florida just took their sixteenth shot in the game and it's OT - there's no reason not to go for it. The problem for the center is that the Devils in the slot collapsed very quickly. Salvador's already getting his body on Weiss. Zajac drops to the top of the crease so he can get the puck if it goes loose, or worse, swing it out if it gets slithers past Brodeur. Parise and Versteeg wheel around in different directions and look close than they actually are. Zidlicky and Kulikov are away from the fracas, while Kovalchuk watches in the distance. There's no need for either Devil to get involved since it's a one-on-two battle down low with Brodeur going down to prevent anything loose.
Salvador effectively boxes out Weiss and the puck is free. Zajac can now take that puck and get it out there. He could sling it away, he could throw it up to Kovalchuk, or...
...he could directly deal with Versteeg and Kulikov. Versteeg came in from behind Weiss in case he was stopped and now he's in a spot to make a play on Zajac. Kulikov is further away but he's directly in the path of Zajac. Zidlicky can't do anything; and it appears that Kovalchuk is too far away for support. Parise definitely can't help, he's right behind Zajac. Incidentally, note that Salvador has pinned Weiss to the ice; and Brodeur has gone down on his side either due to contact or just scrambling to close off the lower part of the net.
Basically, Zajac has a big obstacle just after he had a chance at the open puck. How did he do in getting past it?
Very well, in fact. Versteeg lunged and lost his own balance instead of knocking the puck loose. Zajac remains upright and able to collect the puck again and go forward. He may have been caught up by Salvador and Weiss. Maybe Zidlicky got away with something? The nearby ref doesn't think so? All the same, there's a lot of bodies around the crease and Zajac ends up with the puck on his stick. This is how the Devils got out of the jam play.
Also, notice that Kovalchuk intersected with Kulikov. So instead of charging into the slot in case the puck came out to the middle, he was met physically by Kovalchuk. It may have not been necessary with Parise in the slot, but it led to the following:
Since Kulikov got a good view of what went on, he bailed out on the attack just after Kovalchuk hit him. Since Kulikov is rather fast, he's able to get in front of Zajac while facing him just above the circle already. That's the second more impressive thing I've seen from a Panther here. The most impressive was how quickly Versteeg got up and is already targeting the puck-carrying Zajac on the backcheck. Weaver has cut towards the middle and is now in frame. Fleischmann is hanging back further as support in case Kulikov is beaten.
From the very beginning, the Panthers had three players actually attacking to the Devils' four. This is something they've been doing all series: ensuring that there are skaters back and defending in case the Devils get a stop in their own end. It's why we haven't seen a lot of odd man rushes by the Devils or breakouts that break down the Panthers. Zajac won a loose puck, he's just at the dot, and he's already got three opposing players ahead of him. Fortunately, Kovalchuk and Parise are pushing forward almost in line with the puck carrier.
Zajac benefits from the other two forwards being in line because he's essentially trapped if he keeps going forward with the puck. Versteeg is coming closer to catching Zajac - and he's still in New Jersey's end of the rink. Kulikov dropped back but faces him to prevent any leading pass to Kovalchuk up the middle. Fleischmann is just ahead of Zajac. Essentially, three Panthers are focused on Zajac.
Therefore, Zajac is already looking to make a cross-ice pass to Parise on the left wing. It's the right move. Parise only has Weaver ahead of him and it'll help keep the play alive. A good pass here could help the Devils finally get some numbers going forward in the neutral zone.
Unfortunately, the pass is behind Parise. It was intended to be behind Kovalchuk; but this puck ends up several feet behind the team captain. To be fair to Zajac, all of this is happening in motion and a cross-ice pass can be difficult to complete.
When this happens, usually, the attack stalls or even ends right here. The good news is that it's Parise only has to deal with Weaver as Kulikov is now in line with Kovalchuk and Versteeg is on the other side of the rink.
With the puck along the boards on the near-side (I've guessed where it was with the circle), it's essentially a race between Parise and Weaver. Parise quickly turned around and so he's closer to the puck than Weaver. Yet, Weaver's along the boards and all he has to do is just get that that puck. He doesn't have to collect it or anything like that; just getting it away from Parise would be enough to disrupt the attack. Weaver can just hug the boards and pin it, even. Salvador is still in the zone with Weiss and Zidlicky is too far away to do anything. This is a one-on-one battle.
Parise, as indicated by his stick, doesn't try to get the puck for possession. No, he's going to try and whack it off the boards and ahead. That's a bit tricky, but it can be done if he hits it at a good angle - which is possible since he's not right along the boards. I don't know if Parise knows, but Kovalchuk has glided down along the red line. If Parise's play works, he would be in a good position to get the puck. Especially since Kulikov is giving him a lot of space and respect in the neutral zone.
Parise wins his battle. (Note: This is the "backcheck" DeBoer referred to in his quote.) Weaver attempts to block it along the boards, but the puck eludes him and goes towards Florida's end. Even better for the Devils, the puck goes right to Kovalchuk and now he can continue the attack. Kulikov dropped towards the offside dot, so Kovalchuk will have some room to work with. Zajac and Fleischmann are still together, though this is where Zajac is going start breaking away from the defending forward. Lastly: Versteeg holds up at the center dot to quickly assess the situation.
Since Kulikov has retreated to the blueline in keep ahead of the situation, Kovalchuk goes around the gliding puck so he can collect it on his forehand. This is an excellent move as it'll allow him to have more control going forward.
Versteeg recognizes what's happening and he's going to start heading towards his own end of the rink. Likewise, Zajac skates towards the left side and gets away from Fleischmann. This will become important later. Last but not least, Parise and Weaver are now out of the play. Parise served his purpose well.
Kovalchuk dangles the puck into the zone for the Devils to gain entry. He'll step inside that blueline shortly as the attack continues. Kulikov is stretching his stick but he's just shy of making a play on the puck. He played too far off Kovalchuk and I wouldn't be surprised if Kovalchuk figured that out.
Meanwhile, Fleischmann didn't pursue Zajac and just drops back into the zone He's watching Kovalchuk instead of Zajac - just like Versteeg. Zajac continues to skate laterally along the blueline. He intends to go behind Kovalchuk in the hopes of getting some space into Florida's end. Zajac has no idea how much he'll actually get.
On paper, this should be a favorable situation for the Panthers. Kulikov and Fleischmann are back on defense against two Devils and Versteeg can quickly make this a two-on-three situation. However, Kovalchuk draws the attention of all three Panthers. Versteeg is the closest to Zajac but look at his head - he's watching #17 cut across. Kulikov has his stick out, but he's focused on Kovalchuk. Fleischmann turns as he prepares to face the puck carrier.
As a result, Zajac has a lot of space in front of him - and he's going to keep going forward at his current pace.
In retrospect, I'd say this is the moment of doom for Florida. Kovalchuk has now turned to face the net and Zajac is wide open on the left side. Versteeg is unaware of Zajac; Fleischmann is focused on Kovlachuk; and I think only Kulikov knows that there's a second Devil in a threatening position in the offensive zone. That would explain why Kulikov's stick is stretched out. He's trying to dissuade Kovalchuk from making a pass. While his intention was good, he made the first move. That's a bad decision because it gives Kovalchuk's two tells. The first is that there's some space on the ice that Kulikov is trying to dissuade him from. I'm sure that gave Kovalchuk an idea on what he should do The second is that since Kovalchuk had the puck, all he had to do was wait out Kulikov.
Just as Kulikov pulled his stick back just enough, Kovalchuk hits Zajac in stride. Versteeg actually almost intercepted the pass. He was just too late. Just by the blade of his stick, you see a little black blur - that's the puck. Had Versteeg paid more attention to Zajac, or just reacted a little sooner, he can stop this play. Instead, Zajac now has a great window of opportunity. Parise kept the play alive and Kovalchuk turned it into something threatening. It's now up to Zajac to finish the play. Literally - no other Devil can help him out here.
That window of opportunity was a lot smaller than I thought it was live. While Zajac has the puck, he's got Kulikov and Versteeg pursuing him. Versteeg is behind Zajac but a little delay by the pivot and he can easily catch up him to make a defensive play. The bigger thread is Kulikov. Remember: Kulikov is both very aware defensively and very fast. So he's lunging across in the hopes to cut off Zajac before he gets a shot off or block the puck if he does shoot. He's going to end up on the ice in desperation.
At the same time, look at Clemmensen. He's trying to set himself for the shot. However, as you can see, he's not really challenging Zajac or even in a good position. He's just getting his glove out, he's right where the blue paint ends, and he appears to be shifting his legs. Thinking about it now, I wonder if Zajac showing backhand as he is here threw him off a bit. In fact, I wonder if Zajac knew where he wanted to place this puck right at this moment.
This is the moment right before the Zajac's shot. Let's consider this situation. Versteeg is about to swing his stick but he's essentially a non-factor here. Fleischmann and Weaver are non-factors. Clemmensen is now in a more set form, but he's showing plenty of daylight in this picture. He's not really cutting off the angle and I think Zajac knows it.
The most dangerous Panther here is Kulikov. He is now on his knees in the midst of a diving play, comes very close to blocking Zajac with his stick. It's actually right in Zajac's shooting lane and the center is going to have to thread the puck carefully beneath the stick while shooting towards the right, or far, post.
One last point: Zajac is all alone here. Kovalchuk (now at the right point) and Parise (still in the neutral zone) aren't anywhere near the play to support Zajac. The defensemen are too far back, they ceased being involved back when Zajac carried the puck out of his own end. If Zajac is blocked or Clemmensen makes a save that creates rebound, then the attack is essentially done. There won't be any second chances for the Devils on this play.
There was no need for a second chance.
And so everyone celebrates the team getting a second chance in this series.
This goal all started with a nervy defensive play. Jam plays down low are difficult because one bounce makes the difference between a goal or a stop. Given that it was overtime in the playoffs, that's just nerve-wracking. Bryce Salvador gets nothing on the goal, but his takedown of Weiss was important to prevent a potential heartbreaker. Zajac, the goal scorer, calmly reacted to seeing the loose puck, avoided the Versteeg and Kulikov obstacles with help, and pushed ahead with the puck.
The goal almost never happened. Zajac's cross-ice pass was a great example of a good idea gone bad due to execution. Parise turning and beating Weaver to the puck was impressive and his intent to bang it off the boards to get it ahead paid big dividends. It was a great example of a potentially broken play being salvaged. Parise got a secondary assist on the goal, but he was the first player to keep the attack alive.
The goal wouldn't have happened if the Devils rushed. The only spots where we saw a Devil skated hard to make a play was Salvador cutting off Weiss and possibly Parise beating Weaver to the puck (I think Parise's normal speed is faster than Weaver's). Yet, the forwards moving up ice to Zajac skating into open space on the left side were done at a reasonable pace. If any of them skated as fast as they possibly could, then this play doesn't happen. Parise may have too far back to retrieve the puck before Weaver, or worse, Zajac gets trapped initially because his forwards are too far ahead to make a pass. If Zajac darted in on the left side of Florida's end and went in as hard as he could, then he would have been too deep for Kovalchuk to make his pass. The defending Kulikov and/or Fleischmann would be in the way. If Kovalchuk skated as hard as he could, then three Panthers don't keep focus on him and he ends up too far out wide to make a play. No one was slow, but the skaters moved at a reasonable pace. Any faster or any slower, and this play simply doesn't happen at all. There are times where a player needs to skate at 100% speed to make a play happen; but this wasn't one of them.
The goal could have been stopped. Kulikov is a very good defenseman - he's got good awareness and he's very fast. He was quickly back defending after Kovalchuk contacted him on offense and he was just inches away from stopping a shot by Zajac. Clemmensen really doesn't look good on this shot. He didn't really challenge Zajac. If he did, maybe he gets a save. Instead, he's seen in a butterfly position after the shot gets past his right pad (he kicked it out too late) looking glum.
Lastly, this goal is the result of most goals: the sum of talent, good decisions, and some luck with respect to events out of the Devils' direct control. The first is a given, the second is controllable, and the third is up in the air. It's beautiful when it all comes together. Just like how Zajac's shot got under Kulikov and past Clemmensen in the overtime period of a must-win game.
You've seen the goal, you've celebrated the goal, and now you've read the breakdown. What do you have to say about it? What about the play impressed you the most? What was the bigger aspect of the play: the initial defensive stop by the Devils, Parise knocking that puck forward, Kovalchuk drawing attention and making that pass to Zajac, or Zajac's shot? What was the luckiest part of the play for the Devils? What did you learn from this breakdown? Please leave your answers along with any other thoughts about this particular goal in the comments. Thank you for reading.