With the score tied at 2 and the seconds ticking away in the third period on Friday, the Capitals needed someone to step up and sneak one past Henrik Lundqvist. With less than four minutes left to go, someone finally delivered.
A long-range shot from Alex Ovechkin was stopped by Lundqvist, but Tom Wilson was able to tip the puck to a teammate sitting on the goal line for the tip-in and the go-ahead goal. That player was…a defenseman?
Yes, the player who was in position to tip the puck past Lundqvist was defenseman Matt Niskanen.
“It’s pretty unusual for me to be there,” Niskanen told reporters after the game.
While Niskanen is certainly capable of putting up offensive numbers, he is not a Mike Green type of player who frequently jumps into the offense. So that begs the question, just what the heck was he doing so far up?
The play began with a drive to the net by Wilson.
You can see in the picture that Wilson is behind the net, Backstrom is in the faceoff circle and Alex Ovechkin is near the goal post. Three forwards, all in deep.
The Rangers try to clear the puck, but can’t and it trickles to Christian Djoos who is at the top of the faceoff circle.
Again, you see three forwards low, the defensemen high. Niskanen, who is not on the screen at this point, is on the right side near the blue line.
Rather than kicking the puck back to the offense for the normal cycle we see below the net so frequently from the Caps, Djoos instead glides to his right and passes to Backstrom who is coming up high in the zone as well.
This is what ultimately triggers the scoring play. With Djoos coming to his position and Backstrom covering where Djoos was, Niskanen decides to push forward into the attack.
Backstrom goes the same route Djoos just went moving to the right and Ovechkin continues the cycle as he goes high to the blue line and takes the pass from Backstrom. This is where Ovechkin decides to shoot and Lundqvist, who is dealing with both Wilson and Niskanen in his face, can’t hold onto the shot.
“Backstrom and Ovechkin were coming high so I was running out of space to stand,” Niskanen said. “It's a little rotation play that a lot of teams run now and we've been doing for a couple years now. First time it's worked out for me.”
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Why don’t we see this more often? Because there is an inherent risk to having your forwards rotate with your defensemen at the blue line over the course of a game. If the Rangers had forced a turnover in that instance and forced a rush up ice, Backstrom and Ovechkin would have found themselves in a position in which they would have to serve as defensemen until Djoos and Niskanen were able to recover.
Notice here, however, the Rangers are not being too aggressive in attacking the puck or pressuring the puck carrier. With uncontested possession, it’s less likely the Caps will give up a turnover that could catch them out of position. Once they do contest the puck, Ovechkin fires the shot on net where Wilson and Niskanen are waiting.
The Caps ran the cycle to perfection and Niskanen was able to sneak into the play and get the goal.
“Obviously, it was a big shift and he was sniffing back door and the puck came to him,” Barry Trotz said. “That was fantastic."