Many of us joked last night that this empty-netter from Smith was selfish because he had a goal-starved Tomas Jurco in the middle of the ice with a perfect opportunity to get a bit of confidence going, but you all see that Abdelkader is in the picture too here and you know that Abby would have just stolen the pass and fired it into the crest of an invisigoalie.
As is the norm with these highlight packages, NHL.com will show the frosting of the play but leave out the cake that creates the foundation for how it happened. The Wings got a 3-on-1 rush against an empty net. That's not supposed to happen. It does happen here because of two excellent board plays by Red Wings veterans.
Check out the gif:
Here's how it goes down:
- We start out with Duncan Keith bobbling a puck at the point. Tomas Jurco is taking the angle to the net away with a calculated bit of aggression that says Keith won't recover control fully enough to get around him by the time Jurco gets there. This pays off when Keith is forced to just dump it below the net to reset the play and hope that the Hawks can pull it off the boards for a clean possession or good scoring chance.
- Niklas Kronwall is having precisely none of that shit. Kris Versteeg has the first angle on the puck (which is ok because it's Kronwall's job to keep the puck to the outside here, not to win this race). Kronwall chases him to eliminate any space for Versteeg and gets his stick in to keep the Chicago forward from stopping the puck and potentially spinning to his forehand facing to the middle of the ice. Instead, when the puck goes by, Kronwall pushes Versteeg and takes up the real estate allowing Kronner to recover and spin around with control.
- Next, knowing that he's got no time to screw around with it, Kronwall pushes it around the boards to the weak side. He knows there's going to be a defenseman at the opposite side point, but the low corner he's facing will be empty, save for his own teammate whose responsibility has suddenly switched from a combo of back-post watchdog and point-man coverage straight to being an outlet for the pass. Too much mustard on the pass and it slides to Trevor Van Riemsdyk. Too little and Ben Smith gets it.
- The pass fro Kronwall is a beauty and Abdelkader has time to take a look over his shoulder and gauge exactly how the defenseman is going to pinch on him (knowing full well it's going to happen). Van Riemsdyk goes with the traditional straight up the boards pinch to prevent Abdelkader from chipping it up the glass and out of the zone. Abdelkader recognizes this and also recognizes that he has support from Datsyuk who is skating up from his previous defensive job of watching Ben Smith at the far-post.
- Instead of tying it up and letting another board battle commence, Abdelkader pulls it off the boards and uses his own body to shield it from Van Riemsdyk. Abby realizes he's abandoning control of the puck here, but it doesn't matter. Van Riemsdyk has no ability to get his stick on this puck because he's got Abdelkader's body in his way and he's already used his stick to tie up Abdelkader's lumber.
- Datsyuk recognizes what Abby is doing and takes two steps to build up speed for control of the puck. This catches Patrick Kane in a bad spot as Datsyuk picks up the puck. Kane has already had to commit to his lane of arrival and really doesn't have enough space to recover from the multiple possibilities presented to Datsyuk by his stickhandling. Kane's option here is to hope Datsyuk screws up or take a penalty. Neither happens.
- As Datsyuk steps around Kane to the inside, Marian Hossa is the next to try an aggressive line straight at Datsyuk. This is a big gamble, but any passive play here by Hossa turns this into a 4-on-2 against an empty net instead, so he goes for broke. Datsyuk is Datsyuk though, so broke is what Hossa gets.
- While all of this is going down, Brendan Smith recognizes that the Wings are gaining full possession of the puck and he's in good position to leave the slot coverage and help Datsyuk on the breakout. Kronwall is already back at the front of the net and Abdelkader is in good position to get back if the puck is turned over inside the blue line. This frees Smith up to head up ice.
- Smith is joined up ice by Jurco, whose sole responsibility since he pinched Duncan Keith has been to keep an eye up top. Marian Hossa is essentially his coverage responsibility on this play, but Datsyuk has the puck in good position, so Jurco positions himself at the blue line to give Pavel a secondary outlet option.
- Finally, Abdelkader gets in on the fun after stepping around Van Riemsdyk low. He sees the play developing and immediately pushes up ice. This is supposed to drag Kane with him out of the zone, but Kane simply stops skating and lets the play drive on to its natural conclusion. You might give Kane a bit of a pass here, except when Smith doesn't handle the Datsyuk outlet cleanly, Keith could have used that opportunity to attack him more aggressively at the Chicago blue line. Instead, Keith backs off to get into the passing lane hoping that the left-shooting defenseman puck-carrier can't hit the backhander from there. A harder-charging backchecker on this play likely increases the odds that Keith is able to prevent an empty-netter.
This, my friends is how puck possession by the empty-netted team turns into a 3-on-1 rush against a goalie-less cage. Beatifully smart plays by a defenseman and a winger, intelligent support from the two-way center, and a couple of very smart calculated positioning plays by the younger winger take advantage of a panicked bobbling dump-in, a bad board play, three trapped pinches, and a winger who would rather pray one of the game's best playmakers forgets how to pass than turn back up ice and help his defenseman. What a pretty breakout this was.