It's not exactly a funny story, but I did a double take when I saw the paused video frame that inspired this article.
I was looking at a highlight of the Anaheim Ducks third goal against the Dallas Stars in Game 2 of last April's playoff series, the shorthanded goal that ended up being the game winner, to evaluate the positioning of the low referee on the missed penalty. After crafting my thought about that, I paused the video to write down my reply.
Then I had to look again to make sure I was seeing things correctly.
I had paused it at the third screenshot in this story, where there are four Stars skaters on the ice defending one Duck - two behind the goal line and the other two nearly touching it. It was the type of swarm defending one usually sees in low-level adult leagues, where "see puck, want puck, get puck" reigns supreme.
Then, as I clicked the frames forward in slow succession, it got worse.
So I'm going to bring you guys back to a goal that is so bad it's actually a little funny to demonstrate how a couple problems hurt the Stars a lot last season - overpursuit and puck staring.
Those problems are evident at every level of hockey and particularly common among younger pro players who are trying so hard to make themselves useful that they end up trying to cover everything at once. The Stars had a large number of these coverage breakdowns early in the year, then seemed to pull out of it, then reverted again at the start of the playoffs. It is something that is almost certain to be an area of focus for the team this training camp.
So let's watch what happens when everything goes wrong. No one gets off without a demerit in this clip, though in my view one player ends up with only a half-demerit. It's a 2-on-5, shorthanded no less, that somehow ends up as a 1-on-Kari Lehtonen.
You can watch the goal in all its terrible motion on YouTube.
Things start off relatively okay. The puck is behind the net with Sergei Gonchar trying to avoid the hard pursuit forecheck of Andrew Cogliano. It is worth noting that the Stars should have probably had possession by this point - the puck got knocked behind the net where Daley could have possessed it, but he let it go to Gonchar to try and set up the breakout. The puck did take a bit of a weird hop off the boards, though, and kind of died where it was.
The Stars are likely trying to set up for a breakout with Valeri Nichushkin swooping low to take an outlet pass, Cody Eakin curling through the middle and Trevor Daley coming to be the backup defender in front of the net.
Unfortunately for Dallas, though, Cogliano is in the process of slashing Gonchar's stick in half in the above screenshot. The low ref is in decent position, though you kind of wish he'd take a stride or two in, and is screened out by the backs of Gonchar and Cogliano . He can't see the stick contact. The high ref is not pictured, but he is likely screened out by the net, Lehtonen and Nichushkin. It's an unfortunate no-angle situation for every official, which leads to a crucial missed call.
Then things start to break down.
(Please excuse my all-world screenshot ability.)
The stick, it is broken. Nichushkin realizes this had gone from breakout to defense, so turns to give his full attention to the play. Eakin and Daley also notice, and all three have the same thought at the same time - that puck needs to be repossessed by a Stars player and fast.
Still, it''s a 1-on-4 situation, and even if you think Gonchar is only half a defender without a stick, the Stars still have numbers and have Cogliano relatively contained behind the net.
Now Cogliano is really, really contained behind the net, but... yeah. This is the screenshot that made me stop and stare. This should not happen.
There are four Dallas Stars players within 15 feet of each other, three within about six feet. Gonchar is smartly exiting the area as he is just in the way at this moment without a stick. But both Daley and Eakin have made the same decision at the same time - to aggressively engage Cogliano rather than having one take him on and the other defend the passing lane.
Eakin is practically climbing up Daley's back in this screenshot, and they are stopping at nearly the same body angle. It really is a little funny, and it's also indicative of both poor communication between the two as well as the somewhat over-reactionary nature of the defending here. Yes, they want the puck back quickly, but this hasn't gone to a red-alert situation yet. Cogliano can't score from back there, after all.
Also, note the head position. All four Stars players are staring at Cogliano. This couldn't end at all poorly, right?
Here comes Colton Sceviour to enter the fray at the far left of the picture. Given that Nichushkin has been on the left wing side most of the play, Sceviour was likely functioning as the right winger and potential long breakout guy until this point, which means he can be given a slight break for floating on his defensive assignments (which would typically be anyone coming screaming through neutral).
So given that Cogliano is coming out of the corner with possession and still has at least three Stars players on him, Sceviour should probably be looking for any Duck coming as the second wave of the attack (I have no evidence of this, but this reeks of a PK line change where guys might be flying off the bench - the single forechecker behind the net with no support could indicate that). Keep that in mind because Sceviour is also staring at Cogliano in the corner. Daley has lost ground because of Cogliano's hard cut and reverse and has given up stick position.
Nichushkin, seeing this, looks like he's heading back down to help provide containment. Eakin has inched back off and seems to be thinking cover the slot, which is a good thought. But he is really in no-man's land at this point, not far enough to cover a pass and not high enough in the slot to cover any other Ducks flying in. I suppose you can make an argument that he's thinking he would win a race for the puck if Daley gets there and can somehow knock it back behind the net, at least.
Still, look at everyone's heads. Every Stars player except Gonchar, including Sceviour, is staring Cogliano into the ice. Cogliano and Gonchar, meanwhile, have spied something...
My god, that's Ryan Getzlaf's music!
Yes, that wing that you'd hope Sceviour would be defending is as wide open as the Texas sky, and Cogliano has found his teammate screaming in at full speed. This causes mass panic among the five Stars. Only one, Gonchar, is in something you could reasonably call "good position" to defend this, and he has no stick to get on Getzlaf.
Eakin is now really in no-man's land, defending a near-side slot with no one in it and not near a passing lane. Daley is within about six feet of Cogliano but sees that Eakin is going to try and double Gonchar's coverage of Getzlaf so decides he needs to start watching the front of the net. Sceviour starts to curl in and Nichushkin starts to come back higher in the zone, where he would probably be in normal 5-on-5 coverage.
And again, look at the Stars heads. Now all five are locked on Getzlaf, and as you'll see in the next screenshot, all five start to close in on him. That's going to end up being a problem.
And now you can see why. Despite everyone being focused on him quite literally two seconds before, every defender on the ice has forgotten about Cogliano. That's not going to end well
Gonchar is trying to make a play with just his arms and without getting called for a penalty but cannot. Eakin hasn't recovered from no man's land yet and is neither close enough to make a play nor in the passing lane. Daley is kind of in the passing lane at this moment, but his momentum is taking him away from it, and I'm not entirely sure he's aware Cogliano is behind him anymore. Even if Daley turns and sees him, there's far too much gap there for him to be able to stop in time and get over.
What you'd hope to see here is Daley and Eakin play this like a 2-on-2 down low, but that requires communication that doesn't appear to be happening. But I think Daley is thinking the coverage is completely broken at this point after the doubling with Eakin earlier, so he's likely lost track of who his man is and is thinking of defending his area. Cogliano, to his credit, has also made a start play, curling up high into a relatively unguarded area before sneaking back in.
Sceviour gets some leeway because he's the high guy, but he missed the initial read on Getzlaf and shows no more awareness than any of his teammates about the risk Cogliano poses. Nichushkin seems to have at least half an inkling that Cogliano is about to become the most dangerous guy on the ice, but he can't get down to him quick enough to tie him up. Of all five Stars, he's the only one I think is aware of how this is going to end at this point.
So that's how that happened.
Essentially, this was a 2-on-5 that the Ducks turned into a 1-on-none via a simple give and go. The Stars all got puck staring and lost in some very confused coverage, where an initial quadruple coverage never sorted itself out.
Nichushkin is the guy who, in my opinion (though I don't know the Stars breakouts or specific plays, so take it with a grain of salt), does the least screwing up on the play. Perhaps he could have recognized that Daley left Cogliano, but that hasn't been his man all play. Gonchar, for all the heat he took on this, actually does the right thing by getting out of the way of the initial play rather quickly and being the first to spy and engage Getzlaf (he probably prevented Getzlaf from getting an extremely dangerous shot off in the high circle). He was slowed by complaining to the referee about the missed call, though, and in retrospect you'd have liked to see him just tackle Getzlaf once he got the puck and take the minor.
Sceviour got caught puck staring and was unaware of the dangerous Duck coming through the neutral zone at the same time he was. If he recognizes Getzlaf and stays closer to him, then the give-and-go nature of this play can't happen. Daley seemed to forget about Cogliano once he sent the puck across the ice - you understand Daley thinking it's then his job to defend the front of the net as Gonchar and Eakin shift up, but he has to make sure a coverage switch is available for that to happen. You can't just abandon a guy in the low circle.
And Eakin ended up going up the back of two teammates who already had the puck carrier marked while not providing a coverage outlet for anyone. As the center (and probably F1 from the first screenshot), he's the guy you'd like to see communicate with Daley on a coverage switch for Cogliano so that you can get both wingers high. While you understand he thought that Gonchar didn't have a stick therefore another guy was needed on Getzlaf, Gonchar can probably impact Getzlaf enough to keep him from getting of a prime scoring chance on Lehtonen without any help. Given that, Eakin probably causes the most chaos while doing the least amount of good in coverage on this play.
I've used this term in comments before, but one of the phrases I liked the most from my time as a newspaper hack was "assignment football," a term high school and college coaches used to mean "I want my players to do their job and only their job, no matter if they think they can help their teammate with their teammate's job." This was often used in conjunction with option offenses, either blocking for them or defending them.
The theory is that once you get caught up in trying to help, once you get stuck on who has the ball and what you think they are doing, you lose sight of the very important assignment you have yourself. This can very much apply to hockey. Double-coverage can work in cases - heck, some coaches design it into their systems - but in many cases it's a bad symptom of puck staring and trying too hard.
The puck cannot put itself in the net. The Stars were at their best last year when they remembered that and concentrated more on covering the dangerous players without the puck than trying to pressure those with it.