An old coach once told me that hockey is a game of mistakes, and all we had to do was make one less mistake than the other guys.
Sound like a coach we know?
The Blue Jackets failed to do that Monday night. When the Toronto Maple Leafs scored late in the third period of Monday night's 4-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets, John Tortorella immediately went over to Lukas Sedlak for, shall we say, a teaching moment.
John Tortorella said the coverage on Toronto's go-ahead goal was "dumb" by his fourth line. And he discussed it with Lukas Sedlak after it happened: pic.twitter.com/ulnK23De0I
— 1st Ohio Battery (@1stOhioBattery) November 20, 2018
Tortorella had this to say after the game:
"Dumb. It's pee-wee coverage and we couldn't handle it. It pisses you off."
So let's break it down. What exactly happened on this goal that made Tortorella so frustrated? And who is to blame?
— NHL (@NHL) November 20, 2018
A few housekeeping items before we begin. First, a high-level understanding of defensive zone hockey coverage. Hockey isn't so different from basketball or football in that there are man-to-man and zone defense concepts, and most teams run a hybrid of the two. Generally speaking, the two defensemen and the defensive center will match up man-to-man on the attacking team's three forwards, and the two wingers will play more of a zone coverage higher in the defensive zone.
Second: this whole play happens in just five seconds, so I'll reference the replay angles, too. Like many goals, so many things had to happen - or not happen - to create such a glorious chance.
And in just a few seconds, everything spiraled out of control for the Blue Jackets.
0:01/0:30 - Riley Nash loses the draw clean to Zach Hyman, the eventual Maple Leafs' goal scorer. Sedlak, who is the left winger on this draw, actually gets a nice jump and almost beats John Tavares to the puck (Note: often times teams will line up their left wing on the right side to "jump through" the circle instead of lining up on the boards so that the player has time to generate speed). Losing face-offs in the defensive zone is strike one, but it isn't the fatal flaw that led to the goal.
0:02/0:31 - Tavares has the puck in the high slot on his strong side (forehand), and the world is his oyster. David Savard pressures from his back side and Sedlak is taking away the middle of the slot.
0:03/0:32 - This is where things start to turn sour for the Blue Jackets. Tavares, being the slick player he is, drops the puck to the right point to Morgan Rielly, who happens to lead all NHL defensemen in points this year.
0:04/0:33 - Sedlak has milliseconds to make a decision, and ultimately concludes that sticking with his current man (Tavares) made more sense than playing his position, where his responsibility is the top of the zone where Rielly currently occupies the puck (ironically, Sedlak has played much of his pro career at the center position, where this would be the correct read. Wingers have easier defensive responsibilities, but Sedlak played this as if he were playing center).
As soon as Tavares drops the puck, Sedlak should have gone out to play Rielly, and trusted that his other winger (Markus Hannikainen) will get a stick in the lane, or that his center (Nash) or defense (Savard or Markus Nutivaara) will take care of Tavares.
Instead, Rielly is left unoccupied with nothing preventing him from walking down towards the goal. Nash, feeling extremely alone at this moment, decides he must leave his post in front of the net and pressure the puck*.
*I discussed this thinking with several hockey people to get their take on it. In my mind, Nash would have been better served staying home and protecting the crease, and allowing Sergei Bobrovsky to take on Rielly one-on-one. But my contacts generally agreed with Nash's decision to pressure the point. One said: "Nash had no choice but to challenge the point, who was wide open with nothing but space towards the net." Another: "Sedlak still makes the first mistake. (If) he plays it right ... Nash never has to make the decision".
0:05/0:34 - Hyman does exactly what a grind type player flanked by Mitch Marner and Tavares should do, which is win the draw and go to the net. With Nash leaving the front of the net to defend an upcoming Rielly blast and Sedlak failing in his coverage, it's a simple 3-on-2. Savard is in good position on Tavares, and Markus Nutivaara does a masterful job (seriously, watch #65 on the replay at 0:33-0:34) in moving Marner from a dangerous area. Unfortunately, nobody else was home to cover Hyman, who makes a nice tip to score a big goal.
This play is a perfect representation of how little things impact the game. If the Blue Jackets don't ice the puck seconds before, they can get their tired (and bad) fourth line off the ice. Instead, a tired fourth line is forced to take a defensive zone draw against the Maple Leafs' top line.
And if Sedlak stays with his defensive responsibility, perhaps the Blue Jackets get a big clear, send this game to overtime, and get a valuable point (or two) in the standings.
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