It’s already been a good season for Nathan MacKinnon, and things are just getting started.
On Thursday night, he put up a pair of goals against the Buffalo Sabres, contributing heavily in the team’s 6-1 victory over Jack Eichel and company.
While a large part of that is his own offensive talent, though, every goal has two sides — the offensive skill and the defensive breakdown. Here, I’ve taken a look at what had to go wrong (and who did the right things on the scoring end) to make one of those goals by MacKinnon, the first of the two on the night, possible.
For reference, you can watch the highlight here via NHL.com:
After the Avalanche went up 3-0 in the first period, Nathan Beaulieu cut down the Avs’ lead to 2. A mere 28 seconds after the blue liner scored on Varlamov, though, Rantanen would make a perfect pass to a wide open Nathan MacKinnon — one player that everyone in the league knows shouldn’t be left wide open in the slot.
Let’s take a look at how this goal transpired, and how the Avalanche completely deflated the Buffalo Sabres late in the second period.
To start this play off, Tyson Barrie makes a very innocent play from center ice to get the puck in the zone and fires the puck along the boards behind the net. Everything looks fairly normal here on a play that happens countless times a game.
As the puck wraps behind the net, Carter Hutton attempts to stop the puck behind the net, but fails. Gabriel Landeskog then gets to the puck a half a second before Jason Pominville.
MacKinnon gets himself into a great position in the corner, while Rantanen places himself in front of the net. It’s already apparent that Buffalo’s defense is playing very passively, which is not the type of defense one should be playing against the top line of the Avalanche.
Landeskog pushes the puck past Pominville as Jake McCabe comes from behind the net to tie up MacKinnon, allowing the puck to go past him. However, Rantanen’s “hockey IQ” is on display here as he cycles behind the net to collect the loose puck. At this point, Buffalo’s defense is entirely focused on Rantanen — which allows MacKinnon to get lost in the shuffle.
Rantanen would end up being outplayed by Marco Scandella, who turned up the boards and attempted to clear the zone. Unfortunately for Buffalo, official Francis Charron would get in the way of this clearing attempt and the puck would get lost in his feet. Notice how most of Buffalo has already started their exit of the zone. Also notice how everyone has lost track of one of the most dangerous players in the world in Nathan MacKinnon. MacKinnon is quick to notice what is going on here and shifts himself into the middle of the slot.
Rantanen collects the puck as Charron gets himself out of the way. MacKinnon loads himself up in the slot, and only Jake McCabe is lightly aware of him.
Notice here how out of position everyone on Buffalo appears to be at this point.
In their defense, one does not generally expect for their zone exit to be broken up by a referee. However, McCabe is playing very far back and no one on the ice for the Sabres is even on the same side of the ice as MacKinnon. Hutton is aware of what is happening here and makes a push off his left leg to get into an active reaction butterfly position. However, look at how small he makes himself in this photo. Hutton is not a large goaltender by any means, but the 6 foot goaltender looks much smaller than he should and is extremely deep in the crease.
MacKinnon collects Rantanen’s backhand pass and quickly gets a shot off from one of the highest-danger areas on the ice. McCabe attempts his own sliding save but at this point it is far too late for a player with MacKinnon’s release. Again, notice just how deep in the net Hutton is and how small he has made himself. There is something to be said about being compact and tight as a goaltender but he leaves more than enough net wide open for MacKinnon who fires the puck over Hutton’s blocker.
On the replay there is a very good example of Buffalo’s most fatal flaw on this play. MacKinnon is completely lost to all the Sabers on the ice. Buffalo did not expect for the referee to get in the way of this attempted zone exit, but notice that Rantanen is still pressuring Scandella, so everyone on the Sabres focusing as shown above is not the smartest team play.
Notice how every single Buffalo Sabres player is solely focused on Rantanen after he collects the loose puck from Charron’s blocked zone exit. Jake McCabe does have his stick shifted towards MacKinnon, indicating he is aware of his presence. However, McCabe was left abandoned and alone and he has to decide whether to play the potential shot from Rantanen or the potential pass to Mackinnon. He is also very much out of position (again due to the unfortunate breakup by the referee) and is playing way too deep to really make a play in either situation.
From this angle we can see just how small Hutton has made himself. He is playing fairly deep in the crease and has his hands up to try to make a reaction save. For a player of Hutton’s stature and going up against a player like MacKinnon, he might have been better off pushing out and setting up in a blocking butterfly position with an aggressive angle on MacKinnon. We can also see he is about a fraction of a second slow on his push to the right as MacKinnon has already initiated his shot and most of the left side of the net (from MacKinnon’s perspective) is open as he unloads his shot.
From this angle again we van see just how late Hutton was to get into position for MacKinnon’s shot. He is just barely getting his blocker up after the puck has already zipped past him. Notice again just how much of the net was available for MacKinnon from the highest-danger position on the ice.
Buffalo was definitely hit with a bit of a bad luck on this play, but there were plenty of defensive breakdowns and a slow (if not wrong) reaction from the Sabres’ goaltender. For those of you that watched the game you know that this goal essentially deflated the Sabres’ as they lost the small amount of confidence they had 28 seconds after scoring their only goal of the game. While this goal was not the game-winner or even part of the piling on that came from the 3rd period, it might have been the most important goal scored by the Avalanche in this game.