What I want to do now is take a closer look at two of the goals from last night’s game. The goals in question both came in the second period. The first is Jonathan Huberdeau‘s beautiful goal at 1:16 into the period to tie the game 1-1. The second is Mike Fisher of the Predators putting his team back up 2-1 at 12:48 into the second.
Dmitry Kulikov plays a role in both goals and he will be the focus here. He makes a great play on Huberdeau’s goal but a not so great play on Fisher’s. Here is the first goal:
This is a play that does not happen without Dmitry Kulikov jumping up on offense. As Scott Gomez leads the rush up the right side of the ice Kulikov cuts down the middle of the rink to the front of the Predators net.
Above we see Kulikov highlighted. He is surrounded by three Predators. Right now, Gomez does not really have any options as Kulikov is surrounded and the passing lane to Versteeg over on the left side is clogged up by the back checking Eric Nystrom.
Now look at what happens as the play continues:
As Kulikov continues to the front of the net, Nystrom has no choice but to follow him and this leaves a ton of ice open for Jonathan Huberdeau streaking in behind the play. Now all the sudden, Gomez has a very viable option and he hits Huberdeau with a nice pass at the top of the Predator’s zone.
Something else to keep in mind is the terrible defensive effort by the backchecking Viktor Stalberg (#25). In the picture above you can see that Stalberg has an opportunity to at least attempt to stop Huberdeau but as the video rolls we see that Stalberg is in a leisurely glide from the moment he crosses the blue line. If he took even one stride he would have been able to catch up to Huberdeau and at the very least put a stick on him to try and disrupt the play. Lazy defensive play like that probably explains why Stalberg only played 10:07 last night.
Now the seas open up for Jonathan Huberdeau:
We see that Kulikov has effectively taken Nystrom out of the play by cutting hard to the net. Kulikov even then gets physical with Nystrom just to be sure that he cannot recover defensively.
Huberdeau now has the puck in a danger zone with tons of open space between him and the net. If you are the Predators, this is not a good situation to be in. Despite all this, it looks like one of the two Predator d-men will be able to close in on Huberdeau but LD Mattias Ekholm (#42) is worried about Gomez and Kulikov and RD Kevin Klein (#8) is stuck between Huberdeau and Kris Versteeg. If Klein closes out on Huberdeau, all Huberdeau has to do is dish a quick pass to the wide open Kris Versteeg. If Klein stays with Versteeg then Huberdeau has a wide open path to the net. What does Klein do? He tries to split the difference but you are not going to stop a player as skilled as Huberdeau by ‘splitting the difference’ and Huberdeau easily dekes around Klein and finishes the play with a beautiful goal.
The key to this play is Dmitry Kulikov jumping up into the play. Whenever a defenseman gets involved on an offensive rush things get immensely more complicated for opposing defenders who now have to defend against four players rather than the usual three forwards. Kulikov’s rush to the net opens up space in a dangerous area for a dangerous player.
Scott Gomez executes brilliantly on his end as well. This is Hockey 101 right here; if there is nothing in front of you on an offensive rush, hold up, wait for the play to develop, and find the open man, which is exactly what Gomez did. But again, the reason the open ice was there was because Kulikov’s rush necessitated the full attention of Eric Nystrom. Without Kulikov, Nystrom can just wait and pick up the late arriving Huberdeau and the Panthers have no play and no goal.
Not long after Huberdeau tied the game 1-1, Mike Fisher put the Predators back up with this second period goal. Fischer and Huberdeaus’ goals share some similarities. They both involve late arriving forwards finding tons of open ice in dangerous areas. While Dmitry Kulikov was integral in opening up space on Huberdeau’s goal, he was also responsible for the open ice that led to Fischer’s goal.
This goal is all about positioning. I show the image above, which is ten seconds prior to the goal, to illustrate the defensive responsibilities of the two defensemen on this play. Mike Weaver is responsible for the right half of the ice while Kulikov is responsible for the left half. Shortly after this, the Predators get a chance on Jacob Markstrom who makes the save and the puck ends up in Weaver’s corner.
Now the puck is in Weaver’s corner and the Panthers are defending appropriately. Kulikov is in front of the Panther net and in good position. His responsibilities are to defend the man in front and also defend his left half of the ice. What is troubling about this picture is that all five Panthers are focused on the puck and three Predators i.e. there is a lot of open ice that the Panthers seem to be unaware of.
This is where things get bad. As we see in the picture above, Kulikov vacated his earlier position in front of Markstrom and is now standing to Markstrom’s right. The problem here is Kulikov is standing right behind fellow defenseman Mike Weaver, the two of them are essentially covering the same area. Two defensemen doing the job of one means that elsewhere there are zero defenseman doing the job of one. In this case, Kulikov is to blame as he has vacated his responsibility leaving the left half of the ice unaccounted for. LW Tomas Fleischmann has also gotten further out of position as he is closing in on the passer Craig Smith which results in even more open space to the left.
The Panthers here are essentially committing five guys to cover one half of the zone and three predators. That means there are two Predators uncovered somewhere and the entire left half of the defensive zone wide open.
The resulting play is simple for the Predators. All Craig Smith has to do is find the late arriving Mike Fisher who is streaking in off the bench to fill the empty space vacated by the Panthers defense. By the time Fischer gets the puck, it is too late. Kulikov has to scramble acrros the face of the goal to get back to his position meanwhile Fisher has the puck and a wide open lane to the Panther net. All thats left here is the crying.
These two goals illustrate the importance of space in the NHL. Professional hockey players are so talented that they only need a few inches and a split second to get off a deadly shot. If you give them wide open space in a dangerous area and time to make a play, they will beat you more times than not.
The two goals illustrate the value of late arriving forwards and the havoc they can wreck on defenses. The Huberdeau goal resulted from a defenseman, Dmitry Kulikov, jumping into the play attracting defensive attention thus opening up room for Huberdeau to operate. The Fisher goal was a result of poor positioning and players getting sucked into a play while abandoning their defensive responsibilities.