One of the most noticeable additions to playing style of games three and four in Nashville have been the attempts (from both teams) to spring players for breakaways. Let’s look at one of the more egregious plays that lead to a breakaway - and a goal - against the Predators.
Here’s the goal.
This play starts with a face off win by Nashville in the Penguins’ zone and a shot at the net that’s deflected past Murray. Fisher and Crosby race for the puck, but Crosby gets there first. He’s on his backhand, so he can’t just turn and carry the puck up ice as easily as he could otherwise. Dumolin provides him with an outlet pass behind the net, but with Fisher trailing it’s a risky move. Instead, he shovels the puck up the boards, hoping for a breakout.
Cue the giant board pile! Josi pinches quite low to help contain the puck, so James Neal (not pictured) jumps up to the blue line to cover for him because look whose stick is sniffing around just outside the zone... Jake Guentzel. Not the kind of guy you want to provide a prime scoring opportunity. Viktor Arvidsson also helps to cover for his offensive defenseman by sliding to the back of the group in case the puck pops out that way and Josi is suddenly wildly out of position. It’s one more added layer of protection, and it’s a great and thoughtful move by Arvy. Crosby and Fisher stalk the outside of the pile, waiting for the puck to pop out.
The location of this board battle makes this an extremely important one for the Preds to win. They are so high up on the boards that the Predators won’t have much regroup time if things head south (...spoiler alert, I guess). In this situation you have to do absolutely everything you can to manage and move the puck if you win, and prepare for some serious backchecking if you lose.
The puck pops out towards Fisher and Crosby, and Crosby gets a stick on it.
Fisher is 100% aware of who he is on the ice with and hurriedly gets a stick on Crosby, which sends the puck flying out of the zone and to a waiting Neal (unseen). The gaggle? (pod? herd? swarm?) of players just inside the Penguins’ zone take off after it, simultaneously trying to backcheck and regain control of the puck.
I told you these teams have been trying to spring guys for breakaways. Check out how deep in the neutral zone Guentzel is (I think that’s his stick, anyway... might be Ellis’). I mean, dang. Now did you notice what sending a cherry picker out like this does to the neutral zone? It makes it big and wide and open, which can be good and bad. It means lots of room for puck movement, but it also means that the defensive player not covering the cherry picker (here, Neal) has to do literally anything other than a D-to-D pass.
I’ve seen multiple instances of Pittsburgh players cherry picking throughout the last two games, and I’ve started to develop a pet theory: If Pittsburgh can multitask by (A) attempting to score via cherry picking and (B) conveniently stop Nashville from mobilizing their highly offensive defensemen in an offensive rush through the neutral zone, which often begins with a D-to-D pass, by taking away one Preds defenseman via a cherry picking forward (AKA forechecker), why not?
Got that? Seriously though... tell me the risks. You turn over the puck in the neutral zone and what, have a 4-on-4? Okay. Maybe a 4-on-3? Eh not great, but your fourth (and fifth) forward will be backchecking, so it’s not the worst. Pittsburgh’s number one goal here in this play is to score, without question. That being said, however, I do feel fairly confident that this also has to do with taking advantage of one side effect of cherry picking, which is that it can create opportunities for neutral-zone turnovers by cutting off the D-to-D pass, as the cherry picker becomes the forechecker. Something to chew on and watch for as a more specific tactic in game five.
Sure enough, Ellis is forced to hang back to cover Guentzel, which leaves Neal without the preferred option of shifting the puck across the zone to his partner. Fortunately, Josi hauled some butt to help out on the backcheck, but under immediate pressure from Sidney Crosby, Neal’s pass to him doesn’t quite connect. Guentzel starts heading back towards his own zone, preemptively backchecking. Crosby notices that Neal isn’t going anywhere and that Ellis is all by his lonesome, so he goes for a wander towards the Preds’ zone.
Neal’s pass flies right past Josi, and Dumolin doesn’t waste a second, one-timing it right back up the ice to a waiting Sidney Crosby.
Welcome, Ryan Ellis. Go back and specifically watch Ellis for a moment. As soon as he appears on camera, you can see him turn around, notice Crosby, and throw his head back slightly in a clear “OH $#!%” moment. He totally bit on the puck going towards Dumolin on the boards and somehow missed Sidney Crosby just standing there. I mean goddamn man... that’s your job. My best guess is that he was anticipating Dumolin shooting the puck in deep down the boards and wanted to catch that as it happened, but I’m honestly just not sure.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Gross, smelly history.
Pekka did almost have that.
And Fish did some serious backchecking. So props for that, even in a losing effort.
Here’s a secondary view of the goal.