Friday, September 23, 2011

And so it begins

Summer is officially over. I have to wipe condensation off of my windshield every morning before leaving for work, the Pumpkin Spice Latte has returned to Starbucks, and, best of all, hockey's back.

Granted, it's not exactly hockey at it's highest level, but I'll take a split-squad game any day if it means that it gives the guys at NHL Home Ice Radio something to talk about and makes them stop playing "Best of...the NHL Awards" recap shows.

The Wings traveled to Pittsburgh on Wednesday night with half of their team in tow and took on a Sidney Crosby-less Penguins squad, so basically it was a split-squad game for both teams. Evgeni Malkin made his first start for Pittsburgh after suffering a season-ending knee injury last February. He looked to be back in shape, and some articles are already suggesting that he's back to Art Ross Trophy form which, like, whoa premature.

Pitt 1 Det 0; 11:40 in 1st period- Kunitz from Malkin
The play starts to break down when Kronwall sends a cross-ice pass that's just past Eaves' stick. The puck ricochettes off the boards to Malkin. Eaves' forward momentum has brought him past Malkin, and he has to turn and come back to try and forecheck. Malkin has all the time he needs to send a tape-to-tape feed across the ice to a trailing Kunitz.

This is pretty clearly a broken play. There's no chance for the Wings to employ any strategy on the forecheck, not with Kronwall trapped behind the net, Eaves in poor position to defend, and Stuart alone on an island in the slot having to cover the trailing man and the low winger.
Kunitz gets the puck and skates around Stuart's outstretched stick. He wrists one that appears to hit Howard's shoulder and go in, but it's hard to tell from this camera angle.

Pitt 1 Det 1; 13:54 in 1st period- Kronwall from Datsyuk & Stuart
I love the way this plays out so very very much. If this happens the rest of the year, then we're in better shape than I thought and Pavel's on his way to a very solid point total.
We start with the Penguins in a solid defensive position. They've got both defensemen back and a forward in the neutral zone, so there's no real chance of an odd man rush here. Datsyuk is carrying the puck along the right side and is met near the blue line by Richard Park. Datsyuk skates through the stick check of Park, keeps control of the puck, and makes his move near the top of the faceoff circle.
Datsyuk has two options here; option one is forcing a pass to a well-covered Patrick Eaves. Option two is dropping the puck back for the trailing man into that giant red box in the photo above.
Datsyuk makes the smart choice and drops the puck to Nicklas Kronwall. Kronwall has the puck and he has plenty of space to get off a shot. One of Pittsburgh's defenders is in the corner covering Datsyuk, the backchecking forward has just entered the Pittsburgh defensive zone and can't get to Kronwall in time, and the defender in front of Kronwall is far enough away that Kronner will be able to shoot before he has to worry about the defender making a play on the puck.
Kronwall picks top corner glove side and unleashes a great wrister that beats Fleury for the goal. I love everything about this play. Datsyuk draws defenders in and opens up space for other players, and defenders jump up into the rush to take advantage of easy opportunities. Therein lies the beauty of Datsyuk; he opens up space that allows our offensive defensemen to thrive.

Pitt 2 Detroit 1; 10:58 in 2nd period- Malkin from Sneep & Martin
A quick disclaimer: this type of goal is bound to happen in the preseason. You've got a group of Red Wing that likely will be spending the season learning their craft in Grand Rapids, and they're trying to slow down Pittsburgh's top line and top D-pair. Meh.

A Wings player (I think it's Lashoff but can't quite see the number) steps up on Pittburgh's D-man, who easily sauer passes one ahead for Malkin. You can tell from the screenshot that Malkin's going to have plenty of room to move along the right side boards as Ryan Johnson is behind him and Fabian Brunnstrom is too far to the left (which like, duh he's a LW) and has his own defensive responsibilities to worry about.
Enter Garnet Exelby. He's got his stick behind him, trying to take away Malkin's pass to the center and keep him along the right side boards. He does this, but it doesn't end well.
This is the exact moment at which it's over for Exelby. Malkin uses some kind of swim move to push past Exelby and from here on out it's just a footrace.
See that red box along the bottom? Jimmy's got that locked up. See that red box up top? Not so much. The yellow circle is the puck. Guess where it's headed. Exelby's stick has been all over the place on the play and he doesn't stick check here, instead resorting to a good ol' fashioned shove from behind. Too bad the puck's already in the air. Nothing left to screencap here; it's a Pittsburgh goal.

Pitt 3 Detroit 1; 13:25 in 2nd period; Niskanen from Morrow & Asham
Not a whole lot to talk about on this goal. Pittsburgh's on the power play, they win the draw, move the puck to Niskanen, and a hard slap shot from the blue line finds its way past a well-screened Jimmy Howard.
The Wings defenders are barely able to get out of their faceoff formation before Niskanen has gotten the shot off.
The defender didn't do a good job of clearing the front of the net, and it costs on this goal.

Pitt 3 Detroit 2; 2:48 in 3rd period- Hudler from Exelby & Datsyuk
Maybe I'm giving him too much credit but Pavel impresses again on this play. He creates the opportunity that leads to the tip-in because of the respect (and sometimes ill-advised moves) he draws from defenders.
Pittsburgh's set up well defensively. It looks to me like they're playing zone defense. Datsyuk moves through the middle and behind Letang's zone, made possible because Letang is focused on Hudler and the puck.
Hudler sneaks the puck under Letang's stick to Datsyuk, who's going to turn with it and walk back up the left-side boards.
Here's Pittsburgh's first mistake. It seems like Letang should move back towards the net and let Datsyuk move up along the boards as he's got help up high in the zone. Instead, he turns and gives chase to Datsyuk. This is going to bunch three Pittsburgh defenders up high.
There ya have it. Three Penguins above the faceoff circles. Pay attention to Hudler on the right side. He's all alone behind the defenders. All the Wings need to do is work the puck down low and they've got a scoring opportunity. Datsyuk passes to Exelby at the blue line, and Exelby takes an awkward chop at the puck...
Remember what I said about Hudler? That's him with the stick out and on the ice (woot fundamentals), about to get a tip.
And that one's behind Fleury. Just for fun, take a look at who's in front of the net. Even in the preseason, he's making life miserable for opposing netminders. Gotta love it.

Hard to get a good read on anything after this game. There were mistakes on both sides, but what really surprised me was Pittsburgh's third goal. I'd classify it as a soft one, as there wasn't anything terribly unusual on the play (erm, other than the fact that the puck ended up in the back of the net).

The Good
  • Pavel Datsyuk- he consistently altered plays and moved defenders around, often drawing them out of position. If he's not the most talented player in the league right now than I don't know who is.
  • Jiri Hudler- Despite saying that he doesn't feel like he has to prove himself in camp, he does and it's showing. It's not just that he scored the last goal, but that he made smart plays with the puck and found open areas of the ice. That's what a top six forward does, and that's how he played.
The Bad
  • Jimmy Howard- While he may have been hung out to dry a few times, he was consistently beaten high. He wasn't terrible but I wouldn't say he was solid either.
  • Garnet Exelby- I know he picked up an assist on the last Detroit goal, but that doesn't save him from being on the wrong side of the list. His defensive play on the Malkin goal (or lack thereof) was concerning. He's got to learn to use his stick effectively, as trying to shove elite players off the puck isn't going to cut it in the NHL.

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