The Columbus Blue Jackets, who entered the week with the worst shooting percentage in the NHL, erupted for their first five-goal game of the season in a 5-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens.
On the surface, it's easy to say that regression (in this case, positive) to the mean was inevitable. Emil Bemstrom deserved that puck luck on a bank shot. Boone Jenner was properly rewarded by the hockey god's for a huge blocked shot on the penalty kill with a perfect re-direct to give the home team some insurance.
But the difference in this game, at least, to me, was the Blue Jackets' ability to move the puck across quickly, authoritatively, and with confidence, across an imaginary line that hockey coaches have dubbed the "Royal Road".
The Royal Road is an imaginary line that splits the ice in two (hot-dog style). Research has indicated that cross-ice passes result in dramatically higher goal expectations. For those who want to read more, here's a fairly recent article that is a great primer on the topic.
From the article:
The most effective way to create offence in the NHL is a pass across the Royal Road. This is judged as any pass that goes across that line below the tops of the circles that results in a shot on goal. It accounts for 22% of all goals that Valiquette has reviewed. My shot quality research confirms this study as players shoot 30% on average on a pass across the Royal Road vs. the typical 8.5%. This type of movement is essential to goal creation because when the puck moves laterally with speed in this manner, it doesn’t allow the goaltender to remain square because they struggle to set their depth and angle, making the save more difficult.
It's not an exaggeration to say that the entire Blue Jackets/Canadiens game was dictated by Royal Road passes. The Canadiens scored once and the Blue Jackets twice on these plays, so nearly half (3/7) of the goals in the game resulted from the same type of play. Let's dig in.
Eric Robinson (David Savard, Alexander Wennberg)
Robinson opened the scoring just 1:24 into the game with his second goal of the season (and career, and against Carey Price...). Though Robinson scored the goal, the goal-scoring play itself was made by Wennberg and Savard.
At 0:04, you'll see Wennberg retrieve the puck and slide a (Royal Road) across the zone to David Savard. He's able to make that pass because most NHL teams keep their weak-side winger (in this case, #14 Nick Suzuki) in the slot. Savard catches it and Suzuki does a nice job to take the shot away, but in doing so leaves a (Royal Road) passing lane available (watch his stick placement at 0:06). Robinson, who's almost out of the frame, just needs to get the puck on net before Price can get set, and he does just that.
Eric Robinson 2, Carey Price 0!— FOX Sports Columbus (@FOXSportsCbus) November 20, 2019
The @BlueJacketsNHL take a 1-0 lead just 1:24 in thanks to @e_robinson19's second career goal, both of which have come against the Montreal netminder. #CBJ pic.twitter.com/4IlGt2pQx7
Artturi Lehkonen (Phillip Danault, Jeff Petry)
Montreal's Lehkonen did a nice job to score a similar one-timer through the Royal Road goal late in the first off a nice dish from Danault. A freeze-frame at 0:05 will show you everything you need to see. Dean Kukan is unable to prevent the Danault pass, Vladislav Gavrikov has his man tied up in the slot, and there is a mad scramble by the three Blue Jackets forwards to help protect the most dangerous part of the ice.
Lehkonen makes a smart read to not go towards the middle of the slot. For one, Joonas Korpisalo might have gotten a stick on it (he nearly did, anyway). But he also knew that there would be serious traffic there, and by being off to the side of the play (like Robinson), he would go more undetected. Boone Jenner, as a center, is responsible for the third Montreal forward in this case (unless a winger, like Gus Nyquist, who was close by) beats him back into the zone. Neither are able to pick him up and the puck winds up in the net.
Artturi Lehkonen is left all alone on the doorstep and buries it. pic.twitter.com/yBkjd7FZBA— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) November 20, 2019
Pierre-Luc Dubois (Gus Nyquist, Oliver Bjorkstrand)
Dubois finished off the scoring with an absolute beauty of a goal, his second goal and third point of the night.
The Canadiens, slow to get back into their zone pushing for offense, allow Bjorkstrand to retrieve a loose puck and then shovel a pass to Nyquist. Nyquist does exactly what he should and threatens the middle of the ice (0:05). While Nyquist is getting to a dangerous area, he's attracting a lot of eyeballs from the Canadiens players. Dubois, reading all of this, goes to the "soft" ice, ice with little to no traffic (0:06). Nyquist sees him and threads a beautiful Royal Road pass to Dubois, who has 6x4 of empty net.
Of note is that all three of these goals showed a brilliant pass but an equally brilliant read by the eventual goal scorer to find ice in a less contested, albeit dangerous, part of the ice.
Royal Road plays are a proven way to score goals at any level, and this game was littered with examples. Aside from the three plays discussed, check out timestamps: 1:28, 1:39, 1:47, 2:06, 5:17, and 7:55 for more Royal Road plays.