The Jets fell to the New York Rangers last night, 3-2. It was a big blow to the Jets' playoff chances, and the second straight game in which the Jets have come mere minutes away from collecting valuable points in the standings. This time, the game winner came courtesy of Rangers' forward Chris Kreider with under four minutes left in the game.
So what happened on the play? I've seen a lot of folks criticize the way that Dustin Byfuglien played this one - and he certainly got beat - but I'm not so sure that it's fair to pin this goal entirely on Byfuglien.
Let's take a look.
Initially, Derek Stepan picks up the puck behind the Rangers' goal and forwards it to J.T. Miller on the wing:
As you can see in this zoomed-out shot as Miller takes his first stride up the ice, Miller has all kinds of time and space. That's Adam Pardy standing at the blue line.
A second later, Miller is well on his way towards skating the puck out of the zone. Adam Pardy appears to be holding the blue line, having taken about half a stride from his previous position towards the centre of the ice.
Realizing that he doesn't have a hope in hell of holding the blue line with the Rangers' having that much open space, Pardy begins to sag back a bit. Meanwhile, Dustin Byfuglien is close to Kreider. In fact, Byfuglien is too close to Kreider. But Byfuglien has outside support in the form of Blake Wheeler to his right, so all is well and good.
Wait a second. Turns out Byfuglien doesn't have support from Blake Wheeler, as Wheeler heads off for a line change.
Now, here's where the first problem arises: without Wheeler's outside help, Byfuglien allows Kreider to move inside a little bit. There is presumably still Pardy on the left side though, as Pardy and Kreider are at more or less the same depth.
But much like how a clever wide receiver positions himself - behind the cornerbacks and linebackers, in front of the safeties - to find the soft spot in a zone defense, Chris Kreider recognizes that there is a ton of open ice in behind Adam Pardy and kicks it into high gear.
Note how much lateral ice Kreider covers in the next image compared to the previous one, then compare it to how much lateral ice Byfuglien covers. Then take note of how Kreider's feet are moving, whereas Byfuglien is gliding with him.
Getting to the blue line, Miller sends the pass Kreider's way.
Now here's where the second problem arises: This whole time, Adam Pardy seems clueless as to how this play is developing. Kreider collects the puck a half-step across the red line, and Pardy is at the red line as well.
But as Kreider gets to the blue line - 25 feet up the ice from the red line - Kreider is in the process of beating Byfuglien. Byfuglien, now on the left side of centre ice, begins to turn, realizing that there's no way he can cut Kreider off while skating backwards.
Adam Pardy? He's so close that he almost clips Kreider accidentally.
Unfortunately, you'll have to try to reach Mr. Pardy later, as he's out to lunch. Had Pardy read this play better, he could have taken a swipe at the puck or given Kreider a shove as he passed by. Instead, in the amount of time that Kreider covered nearly 25 feet of ice, not only has Adam Pardy managed to fall behind, he's so lost that he's still not even facing the right direction
Kreider squeaks through, clean as a whistle.
A second later, Chris Kreider has now covered about 45 feet of ice since receiving Miller's pass and has almost completely gotten around Byfuglien.
Byfuglien has long since turned around completely and is giving chase.
Adam Pardy, back from lunch break, trails by practically a furlong and is just now turning around to figure out what the hell is happening on the play.
You know how it ends after this. Kreider beats Byfuglien. Byfuglien, in chase, makes the Jets' third potentially fatal mistake. Ondrej Pavelec is tracking Kreider on the forehand; hard to tell, but he seems to be doing an okay job. Byfuglien stick-checks Kreider forehand-side, which allows Kreider to cut back to the backhand.
And that was all she wrote for the Jets.
The Rangers break out of the zone with tons of time and space and Dustin Byfuglien's gap control - the distance between the puck carrying forward and the defender - leaves us wanting more. I have some sympathy for Byfuglien though, because I think we need to bear in mind when watching the play that Byfuglien plays right defense, and Kreider beat him outside to Byfuglien's left. As in, the place where Byfuglien's defense partner usually is.
But the real problem here is one of recognition and communication.
First, Byfuglien, perhaps fearing that Kreider sneaks in behind him while Wheeler heads off for a change, gives up the inside position to Kreider. He probably didn't need to. Despite that, all of it - Byfuglien's gap control, his giving up inside position to Kreider - would actually be okay had Adam Pardy recognized the play that was developing.
Unfortunately, Pardy doesn't recognize what's about to happen and/or the Jets don't do a good enough job of communicating it to him. So like a cornerback playing a shallow zone, he allows the attacking player to sneak in behind him instead of backing up another stride or two to take away that space. And when Kreider does pass by, Pardy seems to be so lost that despite almost accidentally bumping into each other, he lets Kreider go untouched. No push, no shove, not even a swipe at the puck.
Yes, Dustin Byfuglien misplayed the angle and gap. But I don’t think it’s quite as cut-and-dry as a guy simply misplaying things. I suspect that Dustin Byfuglien probably misplayed the angle and gap in large part because he failed to recognize that Pardy was going to stay up ice for so long. I suspect that Byfuglien thought he had help to his left, but failed to recognize that he didn’t actually have the help he was expecting. And I suspect that Pardy didn't recognize Kreider was going to cut across the ice, so he thought Byfuglien had the situation covered to his right.
It looks to me like Byfuglien thought his defense partner was going to be somewhere he wasn’t, and Pardy thought the same.
As it turns out, they both thought wrong.