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Frame-by-Frame Analysis: Tic-Tac-Toe!

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Well I planned to have this ready for Wednesday, but then Ryan Johansen happened.

Since Joey scored in his first game as Predators, prepare for a double shot of FxFA this week. For now, let's take a look at a goal that starts in Nashville's defensive zone and, though some good decisions all around, ends in the back of the Rangers' net.

Nashville Goal: James Neal (14) from Mike Ribeiro (18) and Colin Wilson (11)

So purty. Let's talk about what went right for the Preds and what went wrong for the Rangers, shall we?

We begin at the tail end of an offensive attack by the Rangers. The puck pops up to winger Kevin Hayes at the blue line. Hayes is covering for defenseman Brian Boyle, who joined the Rangers' initial rush into the zone. Hayes does his best to put the puck on net, but under the almost immediate pressure of James Neal, isn't able to take a clean shot.

Keith Yandle, the defenseman hiding down in the corner, sees A) Hayes lose control of the puck, and B) Boyle right in front of him, so he scrambles over to cover the completely undefended left side of the ice. His assumption is that Boyle will get back in position and cover the right side of the ice that he abandoned (and he's correct).

Let's have a brief aside on teamwork and positioning - the Preds, specifically.

This is all positive, I promise! About 20 seconds before this screen cap Filip Forsberg (LW) went for a line change because the Rangers had the puck behind their net. While he was skating off, the Rangers started the puck up their RW side (Preds' LW, our bottom of the screen). Neal (RW) saw that the Rangers would have a clear path through the neutral zone without a Preds LW, so he swung across the ice to play LW. When Colin Wilson (LW) got on for Forsberg, he started making his way over to the LW before he noticed Neal was there, so he went back to RW and stayed there.

Ribeiro was playing center in the neutral zone and stayed there as everyone entered the Preds' zone. So in the above picture, we see Wilson playing RW, but Neal is playing... center? Sorta? Ribeiro is LW? When the Rangers broke into the zone, Ribeiro was one of the last Predators in on the backcheck. Neal noticed that the slot was wide-freaking-open, so he covered for Ribeiro (who was honestly not that far behind him), and Ribeiro then covered for Neal on LW.

I love that all of these coverages were so seamless that I didn't even notice them at first. That's great on-ice awareness and solid teamwork. This should also be expected, as it's relatively basic hockey, but let's be honest - given the number of times that I've had to highlight a guy who didn't cover the right player after a teammate covered his original position, it's nice to see that the Preds did this well. Just thought I should mention that.

It's barely one second later and you can already see that Boyle has scooted back into position. Neal and Hayes collide, effectively taking each other out of the immediate play, while Hayes' half-whiffed-on shot flutters over to Ryan Ellis. Ellis, as he often does, seizes the opportunity to join the rush and hopefully serve up a heaping dish of odd man rush (aren't those just delicious?). J.T. Miller realizes his defensemen are about to face an odd man rush and starts booking it back to help. Nice backcheck there - he really moves.

Fortunately for Nashville, Hayes gets bowled completely over but Neal only trips a little bit, falling to one knee before popping back up. His speed here helps ensure that the Preds will at the very least have a 4-on-2, maybe a 4-on-3 if Miller is able to get back quickly enough.

Now Ryan Ellis. He has three choices here. The first choice is to pass the puck to Wilson, who has a jump on him and is already making his way into the neutral zone. The second choice is to carry it through the neutral zone himself. The third choice is to try to get the puck to Ribeiro. Seeing as the third choice is more of a last resort given Neal's and Hayes' positioning. and the second choice forces Wilson and Ribeiro to hit the breaks hard while Ellis catches up (which also gives the Rangers time to catch up), the first choice seems like the go-to.

And yeah it worked, but man... I'll be honest, I don't like this pass. This is how you kill your teammate.

Look at how Wilson ends up having to receive this pass: he has to look behind him to see if the puck is coming, then he has to look down between his legs -while continuing to skate forward- to make sure he anticipated the puck's trajectory properly. All it takes is one opponent salivating for a hit to take Wilson's freaking head off. Suicide passes are the scariest and every defenseman, myself included, has made one or two that ended badly for the receiver. It's an awful feeling.

The 'textbook' better option is probably for Ellis to cut around the Neal/Hayes fender-bender towards the middle of the ice, and then try to hit Wilson on the tape right as he enters the zone, but it's also very easy for me to say that while sitting back in my big, cozy armchair, eating my box of Cheezits. Sometimes in the heat of the moment, you're forced to make the best of a bad set-up; all considering, Ellis didn't do that badly. It's a clean, crisp pass with just the right amount of speed on it and it's well placed. So good on Ellis.

Wilson gets the puck and cuts towards the middle. This is smart because it gives him more options to move the puck; if he stays along the boards, he's much easier to angle off and it's much easier for the Rangers to force a turnover. Ellis scoots in behind him while Ribeiro (out of frame) joins them. Miller isn't too far behind on his backcheck.

Let me point out something that Wilson does that I really like: See how he has stretched out so far that his shoulders are barely hanging in their sockets? He's giving Boyle and Yandle the illusion that they juuust might be able to actually reach him and the puck. And guess what? When he drops the puck off to Ribeiro, it totally throws off their speed and distance control. As I've discussed before, this is a critical and hugely difficult part of playing defense. If you can take that control away from your opposing defensemen, you've given yourself a big advantage. (I highly recommend rereading the linked article for a refresher on this concept if you don't remember the details.)

Watch Boyle and Yandle in the next few frames.

Boyle and Yandle aren't panicked, but they're certainly in that grey zone between "It's cool" and "Oh *$%^...". I can also almost guarantee you that there is zero communication happening between them, because they both hit the brakes and neither one seems to have considered that Wilson and Ellis probably aren't going to politely stop along with them.

Miller is the third man back. You know what the third man back's job is? To look for the trailing player and become his new best friend. At this point that isn't Ribeiro (he's the puck carrier), so it's gotta be someone else, right? Someone he would want to pass to?

Miller may have forgotten about that. He probably breaks an ankle trying to stop quickly enough to interrupt Ribeiro's speedy pass to...

EXXtraaa MAAAAAAAAN!

I can hear Miller's ankles from here.

Also, Boyle and Yandle are now out of the gray and definitively in the "Oh *$%^..." zone. They're frozen and flat-footed, Wilson and Ellis are now both behind them, Miller's positioning makes him pretty much ineffective, and James Neal has all the time and space he wants.

Doo-doo-doo-DOOO! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a bunch of Rangers watching James Neal open the door to the slot and walk right on in like he lives there!

The other thing worth considering here is that Hayes was clearly following Neal in. I assume he must have recognized that Neal was the perfect candidate for a pass, right? It's hard to tell because he's out of frame for so long, but based on the fact that Miller didn't do anything until the Ribeiro pass, I'm gonna guess that Hayes didn't yell out to him or anything. Maybe he was too far away. Maybe he didn't realize what was going to happen until it was too late. Or maybe he just didn't feel like yelling. We'll never know. Thanks though, J.T. 'Preciate that.

Aaaaah. There's nothing quite like watching as all five members of the opposing team stand back and watch as your guy walks on in and scores a goal.