Film Study: How Nashville took advantage of matchups in transition to beat Alex Nedeljkovic twice in overtime
Mistakes by Carolina skaters created an opening, so Matt Duchene and Luke Kunin used the smart play of the Canes’ netminder against him
After two games in the Nashville Predators’ playoff series against the Central Division’s number 1 seed, they faced a two-game deficit against the heavily-favored Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes, led by rookie sensation goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic, had limited Nashville’s scoring opportunities all series long.
The next two games went into double overtime, and John Hynes’ focus on quick transition passes and creating high-danger scoring attempts proved to be exactly what the Predators needed to even up the series at two games apiece.
Let’s look at how both game-winning goals happened, starting with Matt Duchene sending the Game 3 winner home.
Game 3: Josi’s lob pass frees Duchene to create 1 on 1 matchup
Josi evaluates his options: Before we talk about the Game 4 win, we’ll first take a look at what Nashville did to win Game 3 (also in double OT). Here, Roman Josi has the puck (circled) on the wall in his own zone. Ahead of him (from top to bottom) are:
- Filip Forsberg, who has forward Teuvo Teräväinen in front of him and the wall to his left
- Ryan Johansen, who may be able to beat forward Nino Niederreiter, but will have to split Teravainen and defender Jake Bean
- Matt Duchene, who is down the center of the ice, but has only the rookie defender Bean in his path
Josi, of course, chose option 3 and sent a beautiful lob pass into the neutral zone in front of a streaking Duchene.
Entering the offensive zone behind a lobbed puck: Here is where Roman Josi’s lob pass first hits the ice. Duchene has skated quickly through the neutral zone and is in the right spot to collect the pass while continuing to move forward. Teräväinen and Niederreiter, who had cut off Forsberg and Johansen in the previous frame, are now essentially out of the play.
Bean, the defender, is left alone with Duchene moving backwards—his foot position means he has to turn to his left to try and stay with Duchene, because he cannot skate backwards fast enough to keep up with the Predators’ center.
Getting Nedeljkovic to move right: Duchene has beaten Jake Bean, who is now behind the play. At this point, Duchene has two options:
- Attempt to take a shot on Nedeljkovic, who has excellent positioning to defend his glove side
- Bring the puck over with one hand to get Nedeljkovic to shift to his right
Taking the shot here would likely be a save, so Duchene starts to sweep the puck for the second option.
Nedeljkovic moves right to cut off the stick-side, and focus on making the save glove-side: With the goaltender moving to his right, his lateral movement is quick enough to attempt to get in position to cut off the shooting lane to his stick side. Thinking that his right side was protected, Nedeljkovic reaches out to poke check the puck from Duchene, who is now in range.
Duchene lifts the puck high glove-side while Nedeljkovic is moving right: Duchene’s sweeping motion got Nedeljkovic to move to his right to open up a shooting lane glove-side. He avoided the poke check, meaning he only has to beat Nedeljkovic’s glove, so Duchene lifts the puck over the shoulder and into the net, giving Nashville a victory in the now 2-1 series.
Here’s the entire replay via NHL.com:
It is difficult enough to beat Nedeljkovic—who has been a breakout star in his rookie season—but Nashville used precise passing and quick decision-making to create a mismatch between Duchene and Bean, then got the young goaltender moving one direction only to shoot in the other.
Would Nashville be able to utilize this type of strategy again in last night’s Game 4 at home? We know the answer, of course, but let’s see how it happened.
Game 4: A quick entry pass from Granlund to Duchene makes Carolina forget about Luke Kunin
While Kunin (circled) gets a new stick, the Predators quickly enter the offensive zone: Kunin, who broke his stick in the moments prior, appears to take himself out of the play to get a new stick, so the Hurricanes get back to defend against Mikael Granlund’s entry pass to Roman Josi on the left side.
Josi’s shot from a distance creates a long rebound: With two defenders to beat in front of him, Roman Josi takes a shot from distance. Nedeljkovic doesn’t need to make the save as it goes wide, but the rebound goes to Calle Järnkrok, who has snuck into the zone on the right wall.
With no direct passing options, Järnkrok sends the puck around: Calle Järnkrok (labeled 3) has the puck, but none of the other three Nashville players are open to pass to. Josi (labeled 1) is on the other wall, and Mikael Granlund (labeled 2) is surrounded by defenders. Alexandre Carrier (behind the score bug, labeled 4) is behind Järnkrok with a defender between them, so he sends the puck around the boards.
Dougie Hamilton makes a decision, while Kunin is still nowhere to be found: The Canes’ star defender Dougie Hamilton has three options right as Järnkrok sends the puck around the boards:
- He can stay net front since each Nashville player is covered by a teammate or far out of the play (Josi at the top of the left circle)
- He can move straight back to the left of the net to attempt to intercept the puck, although Teräväinen is in a better position to do so
- He can continue moving with his momentum to the right, then loop behind the net and attempt to stop the puck
At this point, Hamilton is playing his 33rd minute in the double overtime game, and his momentum is carrying him to the right, he continues along that path and makes a quick turn to loop behind the net.
Jack Han, former analyst for the Toronto Maple Leafs and assistant coach for the Toronto Marlies, tweeted about Hamilton’s decision here:
Second OT. Physically and mentally tired. He turned the right way but the net was there and he chose the path of least resistance. Even if he knew what not to do, the circumstances put him in that spot.— Jack Han (@JhanHky) May 23, 2021
Han was hesitant to call this a bad decision by Hamilton when I spoke to him; he noted that fatigue from the long game made it tough for the Carolina defender to do much else. Hamilton had played 33 minutes at this point and Han notes that “in the second overtime, [his path] is tough to override.”
Greg Moshopolous, goaltender and fellow correspondent on the Renegades of Puck radio show agreed. “It seems like a communication issue because he and his partner at that moment are positioned to protect the front just fine. The fact that he went with option three is likely attributed to fatigue.”
Luke returns with a new lightsaber stick: Despite losing his stick just seconds ago, Luke Kunin reappears undefended with new equipment, quickly moving between the circles. Granlund has retrieved the puck on the back wall with Teräväinen in front of him. Dougie Hamilton is still in the process of looping behind the net from his position in front—had Hamilton stayed netfront, he would be in position to block shooting lanes from Kunin.
Granlund sees the streaking Luke Kunin and makes the pass.
Nedeljkovic has déjà vu: Once again, Nedeljkovic is facing a free Nashville player—Hamilton is the only defender near the play, but the goaltender has good position to cut off his stick-side shot from Luke Kunin. In the last game Duchene moved towards the stick side, then shot glove-side, so Nedeljkovic looks to make the glove save.
Nedeljkovic commits to the glove save: As you can see above, Nedeljkovic moves his glove down, expecting a shot to that side. Since Hamilton has made his way in above the red line and is trying to block the shot with his stick, the goaltender also commits his stick (outlined in blue) to cover his five-hole or the left side.
Kunin flips the script, sends the puck in short-side: Seeing that the goaltender has fully committed to stopping shots to his glove side, Kunin instead shoots the puck to the stick side, with only Hamilton’s block attempt between him and the net. Nedeljkovic has moved slightly to his left to prepare the glove save, and Luke Kunin threads the needle through Hamilton’s stick and into the unprotected (but small) stick-side window to win the game.
Here’s the entire replay via NHL.com:
Alex Nedeljkovic has been a star in his rookie season, and the young goaltender has played extremely well in the series so far. But the Nashville Predators were able to create matchup advantages with quick transitions, and both Duchene and Kunin were able to use Nedeljkovic’s instincts against him to get him to commit to the wrong shooting lane. Both Predators would have had a significantly harder time against Nedeljkovic if defenders were between them, but the quick transition passes helped free both players to take one-on-one opportunities and beat Nedeljkovic and even the playoff series at two games apiece.