The Wings downed the Sharks 3-0 on Saturday night, putting together a strong gameplan of keeping San Jose to the outside and counter-punching when appropriate. They were largely allowed to conserve energy in the 2nd night of a back-to-back thanks to a Gustav Nyquist goal to give them the lead early in the 2nd period.
In this episode of Key Play Breakdown, we’re going to look at how a real strong play with the puck sprung the Wings for an odd-man rush that gave a sniper the lane he needed to score what would become the game-winner.
The play starts as Tommy Wingels picks up a dumped-in puck in his own end and plays it over to Justin Braun to get away from the forecheck of Gustav Nyquist. Thomas Vanek gets quickly on Braun and deflects his pass up the zone. With Helm already cycling back, the Wings’ defense is very aggressive here, as Ericsson steps up to keep the gap on Karlsson while Marchenko hawks Nieto.
Nieto is able to sweep it out of the line and then turn to find Wingels coming in late, but with Helm already back to cover, this is a 2-on-2 rush with good defensive coverage. Helm keeps the gap on Wingels while Ericsson positions himself to squeeze the middle. Karlsson delays to stack behind Wingels crossing the line, but Helm gets his stick on the puck and it pops into the air where Helm pushes off and then knocks the puck to the side to end the immediate danger.
As Helm banks it off the boards, Paul Martin makes a good pinch and keeps it in at the line, but can’t control it well enough and has to dump it back down because Nyquist is immediately coming up to put pressure on him while Vanek has the lane across the blue line covered. Here, Helm goofs up and doesn’t get all of the Martin dump-in. The puck stays behind him, allowing Karlsson to pick it up as he moves down the boards towards the corner.
With Karlsson in control, Ericsson has to back off to make sure Nieto won’t have a clear shot if the pass comes to the middle. Karlsson instead goes down low to Wingels who tries to surprise Howard with a short-side tuck-in play.
The Big Rig Keeps on Truckin’
With Wingels getting it low, the defense is in position to cut off the options. Marchenko is in the process of handing off coverage of Nieto in front to Ericsson so he can make sure to cover the far post. As Wingels tries the short side, Ericsson’s instinct to back off after it got by Helm pays off, as he’s beaten Nieto to the point where the rebound comes out and is able to lean in on him and turn to completely body Nieto away from the puck.
From here, the puck initially gets past Ericsson’s stick while he’s busy handling Nieto, but again he makes an instant and correct read and hops two strides up ice first making sure he gets between Melker Karlsson and the puck and then making sure to put the puck as far away from Karlsson as he can while skating up ice with it one-handed.
By the time all of this has gone down, the Sharks’ defenseman Martin has already made the wrong read and is trying to eliminate his gap on Nyquist. Had Riggy gone that way, Martin would be in position to try and cut off his escape, but he’s also just as likely to see Nyquist push it past him and then force him to interfere. The difference here between Martin taking away the gap on Nyquist here and Marchenko having done so to Nieto earlier in the play is the lack of the center getting back to cover. You’ll remember Marchenko didn’t prevent the play from getting up the ice either, but his play was smart because it slowed down the rush where he knew he had coverage.
Instead, Martin is stepping up to take away a passing option Ericsson isn’t forced to take. Riggy has won the positional battle for the puck against two of Martin’s teammates and, while he can’t win the race all the way up ice, all he has to do is hold off Melker Karlsson until Nyquist blows by Martin. As you can see above, this doesn’t take very long.
The Goose Gets Loose
While Ericsson is busy muscling two Sharks off the puck, Thomas Vanek recognizes the turnover and heads up ice immediately. Braun is the last man back for San Jose and he’s forced to try and stay in position to prevent a breakaway for Vanek. Ericsson could have gone Vanek’s way at this point, but it would have required a long backhand saucer that Braun would have had a chance to step up on.
Fortunately, the easier option is to wait for Nyquist to jump inside and past Martin and just push the puck into Nyquist’s path. Goose and Vanek cross the blue line together on opposite wings and Braun is forced to just play the passing lane from the start of his zone in.
Nyquist waits the perfect amount of time on this rush until just before Braun has to make the decision to leave his feet. Just above the faceoff circle and with Vanek still crashing the back post, Nyquist abruptly stops up. Jones is square to the shooter, but he’s a little deeper than he’d otherwise want to be just in case he does have to push off to try and stop Vanek. This is all the room Nyquist needs to snap it over his shoulder for the 1-0 lead.
Jonathan Ericsson has quietly put together an extremely solid set of games lately with his defensive coverage. This play shows good decisions on gap control on transition, a good choice to back off when necessary, two different examples of taking the right angle, and a real strong play up ice to break the Wings’ out on a quick strike counterattack. Riggy did a lot of things right in this game, a lot of them on this particular sequence.
Also, Gustav Nyquist is pretty good.