After a promising stretch, the Wings have lost two straight games against teams coming into the LCA to play for the second consecutive night. First, they dropped a 3-1 lead and an overtime decision to the Avalanche and on Wednesday, they let a struggling Oilers team find their game in the final two periods on the way to a 6-2 killing.
For this key play breakdown, we’re going to look at the game-winner, scored by Jujhar Khaira at 10:24 of the second period and how it fits into this this postgame callout by head coach Jeff Blashill.
Jeff Blashill had harsh words for young Wings, especially one: "Anthony Mantha has got to be way better. Way better. It's not OK to just be a passenger when you are given the opportunity to be an impact player."— Helene St. James (@HeleneStJames) November 23, 2017
Now to be clear, Blashill didn’t call out this play and this play wasn’t the entirety of what Mantha did wrong in this game, but it does fit into the theme. Let’s get into it.
The Setup - A Lost Puck on an Easy Cycle
We start out with the Wings trying to reset a breakout that had previously been stopped up at the blue line, as Athanasiou collects and goes back to Nick Jensen to start the breakout. Ryan Strome is in first to pressure followed by Jujhar Khaira while Jensen waits for the line to reset. Jensen goes to Mantha up the wall to escape Strome temporarily, but Mantha is skating right back towards the forechecker. Mantha tries to ring the puck around to the far side for Kronwall, but the puck doesn’t get through and ends up back on Mantha’s stick. Strome flies by tracking Jensen, but Khaira is immediately on Mantha as he now decides to try and make space to carry it up the boards himself.
Instead, Khaira takes the right angle on Mantha and the big forward is separated from the puck, allowing Strome to pick it up with reinforcements coming.
The problem here is that it’s just not the right decision by Mantha to try and ring the puck followed by another wrong decision to try and bring the puck back up ice, culminating in the lost board battle and freed up puck. You can see from the angle above that instead of the filled-in lane around the boards, Mantha has space to do the riskier pass right to the front of his net. Mantha should have the awareness to know he has space to make that pass without Khaira picking it off.
Alternately, if you check the behind-the-net angle below, you can see that the other two options for Mantha are to continue the pick Jensen is setting up for and getting in Strome’s way before leaving it for his defenseman coming the right way, or to simply dump it up the boards behind him to where Athanasiou is.
As such, Mantha made the play the forecheckers were counting on him making and for the reason they wanted him to keep the puck trapped in the Wings’ zone... because it led to a turnover.
The Goal - A Shot Block and More Lost Battle Space
After Strome picks up the puck that Khaira separates from Mantha, his lane directly to the net is blocked by Athanasiou, but the reinforcements are coming. Puljujarvi is already in the zone and pushing the center lane to take Jensen while Benning takes up the near-side point position. Scott Wilson is coming off the far wing to make sure the middle is covered and watch the other point when Strome makes a pass to Yohann Auvitu joining the play on that far side point.
Wilson’s positioning here is pretty good (he’s kind of an emergency protection against Puljujarvi getting separation from Jensen in the slot and responsible from keeping Auvitu from walking in on the back door while still being responsible for being in his lane). He goes down immediately to block the one-timer from Auvitu fed by Strome and does that, but is hobbled by the blast and unable to rejoin the play.
The puck comes off Wilson back towards the blue line, but Strome is still cutting across after the pass and beats Athanasiou to it. AA isn’t close enough to accomplish a stick-lift, but he positions himself to try one. When he fails, Strome has room to circle to the faceoff dot and put a pass into the slot. The pass isn’t clean as it bounces off Puljujarvi’s stick while he’s tied up with Jensen, but Khaira is right there and facing the right direction. Jensen has been tied up with Puljujarvi at the net-front and isn’t in position to put a body on the player; instead, he tries desperately for a stick check that fails as Khaira pulls the puck just out of reach and snaps it past Howard.
This one stands as the game-winner.
Breaking it Down
There’s a lot going on here, so I’m going to go player-by-player for the Wings:
Scott Wilson - Already covered his part and the only real criticism I have is that he probably should have positioned himself better to block the shot. There’s a reason they don’t really teach laying out like that. I hope he’s ok.
Anthony Mantha - After losing the battle and the puck, his initial responsibility is covering Benning at the near-side point. What I’d like to see is him being more willing to come back and help out in the slot much like Wilson did. Instead, when he sees AA and Strome chasing the blocked shot, his first instinct is up ice. AA doesn’t get to the puck and by this point, it’s too late for Mantha to come back and help cover Khaira. This isn’t egregious, but the likelihood this is turning into a 2-on-1 rush for the Wings isn’t very high weighed against the chance that Mantha could have been there for a stick-lift to prevent a goal.
Andreas Athanasiou - Staying in front of Strome prior to the pass to Auvitu is good, but the gamble he’s going to get the stick lifted and head up ice isn’t close enough and by losing it, he frees up Strome to make the play to the middle.
Nick Jensen - He tracks Puljuvarvi back to the net-front and is ready to hand him off to Kronwall, but never does (Kronwall’s involvement is next). This locks him up on net-front battling when he’s supposed to be weak-side coverage. He’s essentially responsible for both Puljujarvi and Khaira here because of this and gets overwhelmed by the positioning. Jensen should have separated from Puljujarvi the second the original pass from Strome left his side of the ice.
Niklas Kronwall - After the turnover, Kronwall goes to net-front duty, but doesn’t take Puljujarvi from Jensen, instead choosing to leave to skate out towards Strome as he circles back around. AA isn’t in great shape here, but he’s positioned well enough to keep Strome from being able to cut directly to the front (which would be the purpose of Kronwall coming out). By the time the goal is scored, Kronwall may as well be Sir Not-Appearing-in-This-Film.
Jimmy Howard - Howard tracks the puck around as it goes, but is down in his butterfly way too early while Khaira is pulling the puck around Jensen’s stick-check. As a result, he isn’t taking up enough space for when the shot comes.
Overall, it wasn’t just this play that cost the Wings the game and it obviously wasn’t all on Anthony Mantha making mistakes, but this play does kind of serve as a pretty good representation of the mistakes the Wings made in their loss to the Oilers and their inability to make much happen. The gambles were inappropriate and the safe plays were too-predictable. More skating would have prevented more trouble for pretty much everybody.