My weak tribute to How I Met Your Mother/The Dark Knight aside, can we talk (more) about how absolutely dominant James Neal has been recently?! After three very quiet games to start the season, Neal has exploded with six goals and three assists in his last five games, and has been working his tail off every night. He has been unbelievable. His sixth goal of the season came Saturday night, during a moment of desperation by the Predators as they attempted to even up the score against Pittsburgh with less ten minutes in the third. One of the Penguins was called for a delayed penalty, and the Preds took the opportunity to pull Pekka Rinne and send out The Extra Man - James Neal.
As the Joker once said...
Nashville Goal: James Neal (6) on Marc Andre Fleury from Mike Ribeiro (5) and Barrett Jackman (1)
The Preds gained control of the puck in the offensive zone, regrouped back in their own zone, and are now in the process of transitioning back into the offensive zone. Seth Jones gives the puck to Barrett Jackman and gets off the ice (for Shea Weber). Jackman takes the puck and carries it all the way through the neutral zone. James Neal has taken Rinne's place on the ice and looped waaay deep down into the defensive zone to give the other forwards some time and space to set up a play before he comes zooming in looking for a pass as the third (fourth?) man high.
The man-on-man here are relevant in the next picture, so here they are: Kunitz and Jackman, Malkin and Smith, and as the center, Kessel and whomever he deems necessary to cover (here, Jackman; he isn't exactly a feared Offensive Powerhouse, so why not try to force a turnover? Not a bad move.).
What happens in this moment is what pretty much guarantees the Nashville goal, though no one knows it yet. I have serious doubts that it was planned because of how awkwardly they execute it, but Jackman and Gabby Bourque and Craig Smith all somehow manage to successfully complete a clumsy three-man weave, and Jackman and Smith switch sides. Jackman carries the crap out of that puck into the offensive zone. Go Jackman!
Kunitz and Kessel, both of whom were on Jackman in the neutral zone, follow him. Malkin starts off following Craig Smith (illustrated by his progress from the boards to the middle of the ice), but then does a 180* and decides to follow Jackman instead. ...What the why? I wondered if maybe he suddenly remembered Ribeiro (who is somewhere out of sight on the boards) and wanted to cover him, but after watching and re-watching the play, I am 100% convinced that the only thing Malkin is interested in is the puck.
So a quick summary: Offensive Powerhouse Barrett Jackman is carrying the puck into the Penguins' zone. His presence is so threatening that Chris Kunitz AND Phil Kessel AND Evgeni Malkin all simultaneously decide that they need to cover to him, leaving their two defensemen to potentially deal with 5 other players!
This should go well for Pittsburgh.
A WILD RIBEIRO APPEARS!
Offensive Powerhouse Barrett Jackman drops the puck to Ribeiro and coasts into the zone. Malkin and Kessel now converge on Ribeiro. Kunitz suddenly realizes that he's now in the pretty crappy situation of not having a right winger covering the right side nor a center covering the center, so he begins to transition backwards to cover the middle-right-ish side of the ice. Neal and Smith both begin to creep into the massively-empty other half of the zone.
Before we go any further, let's do a fun little stats search on NHL.com!
Shorthanded Time on Ice for each Penguin last year:
Kris Letang: 192:02
Ian Cole: 11:37
Chris Kunitz: 10:30
Evgeni Malkin: 6:15
Phil Kessel: 00:53 (holy $#^%)
Power play Time on Ice for each Predator last year:
Shea Weber: 240:36
Mike Ribeiro: 238:28
Craig Smith: 202:10
James Neal: 193:29
Gabriel Bourque: 19:24
Offensive Powerhouse Barrett Jackman: 1:08
Gotta say, I like our odds here.
Kunitz is still in the process of trying to cover both the center and right sides of the ice, but what he realizes too late is that he is inadvertently opening up the ENTIRE middle of the ice. When you also consider the fact that Ian Cole is still gliding backwards, you can imagine just how much space the Penguins are about to hand James Neal (illustrated by the gigantic yellow circle if you'd rather just see it).
Kessel and Malkin both race over to Ribeiro, only to have him casually toss the puck away from them and over to James Neal (and he does quite literally toss it, as Neal has to catch it and drop it down to his stick). Bourque and Offensive Powerhouse Barrett Jackman are both heading straight for the net to dig for any garbage they find. Craig Smith is still wide-freakin'-open.
Yeaaaah. That's a lot of room. Any time an offensive player has that much time and space in the offensive zone, you're gonna have a bad time.
I don't know if I've talked much about this before, but here's my spiel on defensemen sliding to block pucks: Unless you have LITERALLY NO OTHER OPTION, don't do it.
Here are the reasons I don't like sliding:
- It takes the slider completely out of the play - especially if the slide doesn't work
- It's hard to determine how fast/slow you will slide and when you will stop sliding
- It can be hard to stop yourself from sliding further (i.e., you might take out or interfere with your goalie or a teammate)
- It's hard to get up quickly enough to reengage meaningfully with the play
- Most quality players can just saucer/shoot the puck over you or wait for you to slide past them
Neal whips a shot at Fleury and catches him in the mask. Worth pointing out is the completely uncovered Craig Smith, who is cocked and 100% ready to shoot. Nice to know there were multiple options!
Cole is not successful at blocking Neal's shot. He barely avoids sliding right into Letang, who is able to step over him. Seriously, just don't slide.
The puck hits Fleury's helmet and bounces near his left pad. Offensive Powerhouse Barrett Jackman tries to redirect the puck into the net with his skate before it slides past him, but he is ultimately unsuccessful.
James Neal keeps an eagle eye out for the puck.
Meanwhile, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel are getting paid to watch this goal.
Could they glide any more casually?
Neal spots the puck and jumps on it like a madman. Offensive Powerhouse Barrett Jackman and Fleury have come into contact with each other, and that's something we'll look at more closely in just a minute.
Cole watches, forlorn, as the end of the end begins.
Letang desperately tries to stop Neal.
Malkin and Kessel are probably eating popcorn and providing bad commentary on the scene unfolding in front of them.
Let's just take a second to really applaud Kris Letang for his impressive form during his dive of desperation. THIS is when it is okay to dive in front of a puck, boys and girls. 10/10 for timing, 10/10 for execution, 10/10 for form! 0/10 for success.
Also, I love love LOVE that Craig Smith is STILL ready for the puck to rebound back towards him. Atta boy Honey Badger!
I have nothing else to say about Geno and The Phil except for that this probably has something to do with why neither of them have much SH-TOI (also probably because they're really good at scoring, but let's just stick with the narrative).
Boom-shaka-laka! To any and all of you who have ever questioned the point of pulling a goalie for the extra man (and there are definitely a few of you out there because I've had to have this discussion multiple times), this is why you do it. Probably doesn't work two out of three times, but you never know... It might.
Goaltender Interference: Do Penguins Fans Have Reason to Complain?
There was some discussion on the Internets last night about whether Offensive Powerhouse Barrett Jackman interfered with Marc Andre Fleury during this play. I took the liberty of watching both the Nashville feed and the Pittsburgh feed to bring you the best angle of the contact that occurred between these two players.
Let's visit the Official NHL Rulebook so we know what we're looking for:
69.1 Interference on the Goalkeeper - This rule is based on the premise that an attacking player’s position, whether inside or outside the crease, should not, by itself, determine whether a goal should be allowed or disallowed. In other words, goals scored while attacking players are standing in the crease may, in appropriate circumstances be allowed. Goals should be disallowed only if: (1) an attacking player, either by his positioning or by contact, impairs the goalkeeper’s ability to move freely within his crease or defend his goal; or (2) an attacking player initiates intentional or deliberate contact with a goalkeeper, inside or outside of his goal crease. Incidental contact with a goalkeeper will be permitted, and resulting goals allowed, when such contact is initiated outside of the goal crease, provided the attacking player has made a reasonable effort to avoid such contact. The rule will be enforced exclusively in accordance with the on-ice judgement of the Referee(s), and not by means of video replay or review. For purposes of this rule, "contact," whether incidental or otherwise, shall mean any contact that is made between or among a goalkeeper and attacking player(s), whether by means of a stick or any part of the body.
Puck bounces off of Fleury's head as Jackman approaches, and Fleury's stick is pointed at the gap between Jackman's feet. Fleury's stick is outside of the goal crease.
Jackman belatedly attempts to redirect the puck in with his skate. Despite his best efforts, it doesn't work. Fleury starts getting up, using his stick to push himself up a little bit. The general direction and location of his stick hasn't changed much and is still definitively outside the crease.
Jackman is still moving forward. Fleury's stick still hasn't moved. The stick is now between Jackman's legs. Snicker.
Jackman actively attempts to avoid contact with Fleury by picking up his right skate to get it over Fleury's right pad. Note that this is all still taking place outside of the crease.
Here's an even better shot of Jackman's leg/skate as he tries to maneuver around Fleury's pad. He has clearly lifted his leg up and angled it behind himself to try to avoid Fleury. Unfortunately, because of the original angling of Fleury's stick, there wasn't much Jackman could do to avoid it getting caught between his legs, despite his best efforts to avoid contact. I suppose the goal is still somewhat arguable, but in my opinion we're finished here.
Please also note James Neal, who is about to bury that sucker in the top corner. Beautiful. He is... the Extra Man!