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Key Play Breakdown: Dueling Blue-Line Gambles Pay Off Jets for Game-Winner

Winnipeg Jets v Detroit Red Wings Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Wings lost again after a promising start showcasing improved effort for a team that got clowned in their last game on Monday. Unfortunately, they couldn’t keep up that level of play for the last 40 minutes and a solid one-goal advantage turned into a tentative tie before devolving into a disappointing loss. I’d like to highlight the good play by Thomas Vanek on the power play to help retrieve the puck and create the space needed for Andreas Athanasiou’s goal in this game, but the Jets’ game-winner is more-illustrative of this game.

The Setup

The play starts at the end of some extended pressure by the Wings as a Nyquist shot is blocked and the puck bounces over Nick Jensen’s stick at the blue line. Jensen retrieves, but dumps it back in while the team changes. Adam Lowry bounces it off Christopher Tanev on the right wing side to enter the zone. Cholowski is caught a bit flat-footed by the unexpected bounce but is covered by Frans Nielsen hustling back. Tanev gets to it first in the corner but is turned away from being able to do anything immediately dangerous with it by good positioning from Cholowski and Nielsen, instead being forced to circle back and reset the play to Byfuglien filling in the strong-side point position.

Byfuglien immediately feeds the puck across the blue line to his defensive partner Ben Chiarot on the weak side to buy time for his teammates to establish their positions in the zone. Tanev crosses the ice at the half-wall while Lowry and Andrew Copp take up net-front positions in case Chiarot wants to shoot from the Byfuglien feed.

The Finish

From the still, you can see that the Jets are getting set up and the Wings’ defense is doing the same. By the time Chiarot looks in, Nielsen is already taking away the shooting angle he would have to take advantage of having two forwards at the net-front, so instead he goes back across to Byfuglien for a risky pass which is nearly picked off for what would have been a breakaway by Justin Abdelkader.

Instead of a breakaway, what we get is a lane for Dustin Byfuglien to walk to the faceoff dot and shoot the game-winner in off Jimmy Howard’s shoulder pad.

The Blame Game

We’ll start by saying Jacob de la Rose and Mike Green are least-blameworthy here. JDLR is tracking where he should be and Green’s only issue is maybe not batting the puck out of midair and away from the net off Howard.

Dennis Cholowski doesn’t make an egregious error on this sequence, but he had several opportunities to make a better play, starting with letting the puck by him on the zone entry and then with him losing proper contain on Copp. You can see him setting up to try to take away Copp’s ability to get back to this side of the ice when the puck is on Chiarot’s stick, but he loses that positional battle momentarily and this prevents him from being able to come out and challenge Byfuglien directly after he realizes that Abdelkader has lost his man.

Abdelkader’s gamble is the key to this whole play. If you’re going to take a stab at intercepting the (dangerous) pass from Chiarot to Byfuglien across the blue line, missing it is going to leave your team out to dry just like this. Abdelkader hadn’t played well enough in the game up to this point for me to shrug it off as a responsible gamble and it wasn’t the only one he had lost so far (previously allowing scoring opportunities to form while chasing unnecessary hits). It’s possible I’m being unfair to Abby here, but based on the game state (and my lack of confidence in his ability to finish on a breakaway), I’m not sure I want him gambling for an intercept here.

Lastly, I do accept that Jimmy Howard shouldn’t let this goal happen the way it does. A shot from the faceoff dot is a high-danger chance and he played really well, but seeing the game winner bounce off the goalie’s shoulder and into the net is never going to sit right. It seems unfair to lay blame at the guy who did things 95% right for the one big wrong thing he did, but that’s what he gets for choosing to be a goalie.