After a promising loss to the Blue Jackets to start the season in which a young Wings team was outplayed by Columbus but found a way to get to OT thanks to some carefully-measured aggression, Detroit earned another promising loss to Los Angeles on Sunday by outplaying a team not as good as Columbus and getting a... worse result?
Hey, when expectations are that rookie mistakes are better from actual rookies, you take what you can get. I was hoping to get farther into the season before I had to do one of these for a Red Wings’ mistake rather than doing them for Detroit goals, but to be honest, both of the Wings’ goals in this game were flukey power play tallies and the only other real noticeable plays worth breaking down involved lessons for Michael Rasmussen and Christoffer Ehn in keeping their sticks on the ice around the net-front.
Instead what we’ll get is a rookie mistake from a guy who isn’t a rookie, but is still young enough to (barely) fit the narrative of being a kid who’s still learning. Here’s the play:
With the score still at zeroes early in the second period, LA strikes first off an Ilya Kovalchuk rush that feeds late-coming Anze Kopitar for what was a really good play to feed an excellent deke-and-shot from one very talented NHLer to another. I don’t want to strain to take credit away from both Kovalchuk and Kopitar here because they do a lot of things right to create the opportunity, but I’m mostly here to focus on what the Detroit players did.
LA has the puck after Kopitar picks it up loose in the corner of his own zone off a shot from Andreas Athanasiou finishing up a shift. Larkin is just on the ice and up the boards for a changing Vanek as Abelkader heads in to pressure Kopitar. To escape, Kopitar lifts it out of the zone past the three Detroit forwards to Ilya Kovalchuk at his own blue line to head up ice in a 2-on-2 with Alex Iafallo; together they face recent-to-the-play Dennis Cholowski and Libor Sulak, who would be nearing the end of his shift.
Larkin is the next-closest player as you can see, allowing Cholowski and Sulak to play a little tighter through center ice. Cholowski is challenging Kovalchuk at the line probing for a mistake to see if he can get in a poke check, knowing that if he’s able to slow his man down at all without letting him by cleanly, it likely gives Larkin all the time he needs to make up fro getting walked.
To Kovalchuk’s credit, he patiently waits for the right time to try this and it might honestly be what catches the Wings here:
Cholowski goes for a stick lift while making sure to keep his body position to the inside (which is smart), but Kovalchuk has already started his deke, which Larkin is watching. It’s impossible to tell for sure, but it looks like this move scares Larkin into the worry that Kovy has gotten around Cholowski and commits the young center to taking over that center-lane defense he’s afraid just got exposed.
Unfortunately, it didn’t get exposed, but what did was the trailer. Libor Sulak has to mind Iaffalo coming up on the back door (as well as the concern about perhaps having to step in for a short 2-on-1 if Cholowski is beaten cleanly by the Kovalchuk move. With Larkin committed too close to Kovalchuk, nobody is there to pick up the third man in for the Kings, who happens to be Hart Trophy finalist Anze Kopitar:
Kopitar uses all the extra space created by Iafallo dragging Sulak to the goal-front and Larkin being out of position to keep his body in dangerous quick-shot position through his cut down the middle. Sulak is now faced with a different 2-on-1 than he was anticipating and Bernier is forced to guess when and where the shot is coming from. The Wings’ goalie guesses wrong and instead of the quick forehanded wrister he anticipates, Kopitar brings it to the backhand and roofs it over the goalie’s glove.
The Blame Game
Again, I don’t want to take anything away from Kovalchuk and Kopitar. From the flip out of the zone to beat what was well-layered pressure by the Wings to the blue line deke, the cross-ice pass and the excellent approach/finish, this was a difficult play for the Wings to defend and a good goal by exceptionally talented players.
All that said, Dylan Larkin getting overzealous with his backchecking and forgetting his responsibility to cover the pass to Kopitar was the single biggest mistake here and the only one I’d categorically say was the absolute wrong decision. Cholowski maybe could have gambled to challenge Kovalchuk earlier in the neutral zone, but that would have been a big gamble against a slippery winger. Libor Sulak would have had to have made a supremely gutsy read to get into position to stop Kopitar once Kovalchuk got him the puck and, frankly, the way Kopitar handled the puck on his way in, he’d have likely taken advantage of that read to create a different chance.
I’d like to have seen Bernier be more patient with when he chooses to go down, but this all happens too fast.
All-in-all, it’s a learning experience for Larkin that sometimes trying to do too much can lead to covering too little. He’s a smart kid and we’ve seen plenty of veterans around the league make understandable misreads like this, so I’m not too worried going forward.