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Anatomy of a Play: Watch the Sweetest Assist You’ll Ever See

Last night, the powerhouse that is the Florida Panthers — did I just write that? — defeated a rock solid Carolina Hurricanes team in overtime. The Canes have skill to burn so you knew the game was going to be tight. The knock on the Panthers up to this point in a truncated season has been that yes, their record is great, but “they haven’t played anyone good.” Enter the Jordan Staal led-Hurricanes, a team that doesn’t lay down for anyone and has at least three legit lines that can hurt you.

It was back and forth for most of the first period, but with time winding down, the Canes lit the lamp with 1:34 left on a feather-light Staal glove side dinger that caught not one but two pieces of metal. 1-0 Canes.

Like 30 seconds later Sebastian Aho sails a pill through traffic and pings it off the blocker side post for a 2-0 lead.

The Canes came to play. Damn!

2-0 isn’t the daunting lead it is in a sport like soccer, but as a player, you’re not thinking about two goals. You’re thinking, okay let’s get one back boys!

Enter Jonathan Huberdeau, who clearly ate his Wheaties and his neighbor’s Wheaties and everyone on the block’s Wheaties because he dominated in this game. Huberdeau is sort of the quintessential Canadian born hockey player. 6’1. 190-ish. Soft hands, and a great head for the game. Super mild mannered. Just that magical, soft-spoken type of personality that makes for some of the best teammates. Huberdeau recently became the all time Panthers points leader and he did it on an assist, which felt right. There’s zero ego with Huberdeau. Zero me-first energy. He’s a pro’s pro and an awesome person. Just read about his famous “lying incident” and try not to fall in love with the guy.

So we’re in the second period and the Canes are up 2-0 when Huberdeau takes a pee-wee level bank shot, somehow gets position on Canes defender Brett Pesce and shelfs the puck into the exact same place Staal scored the period before. Two pipes. Pinpoint accuracy. 2-1.

Now you’re in spitting distance, so you want to keep it going. Here’s what happened. Just watch this play take shape. It’s gorgeous.

Beautiful. Just look at that finish. My god.

Wow.

Let’s look at how this play takes shape, because the pieces of it don’t happen automatically. It’s decisive choices made by three players that earn this goal.

To begin, Hurricanes left wing Andrei Svechnikov has the puck in the Panthers zone. He’s got his head up and looking to the slot to make a play but nothing is immediately available. He knows Jordan Stall will get there in a second, he just has to buy a little time.

Meanwhile, Panthers right wing Patric Hornqvist is playing scrappy. He stays aggressive and comes at Svechnikov from his blind side. Svechnikov feels it and pulls the puck backhand at the last second. Hornqvist misses the puck with his stick but gets a piece of it with his skate and now we have a turnover.

Svechnikov has all his momentum moving the wrong way, not expecting that Hornqvist would have picked his pocket…with his feet. Stall, too, is deeper in the zone than he’d like to be without clear possession.

The second — and I mean the very split second — that Hornqvist gets wood on the puck, Huberdeau has already done a chop step to build up speed and he’s flying out of the zone. Wennbeg too, is already digging in to get some explosion. Look at the angle of Huberdeau and Wennberg’s bodies. It’s like some of these guys can react to stimuli faster. As an example, look at Canes captain Staal, who is hitting the brakes in a big way and already trying to head back the other direction. What you’re not able to see is the mind of hurricanes defenseman Brady Skjei who is going “shit shit shit!” right now because he’s pinched in too far and Huberdeau already has a head of steam. Basically, already, Skjei is boned and he knows it. Meanwhile, the Panthers can taste a sweet odd man rush coming on.

This is some hockey 101 here, but it still always matters, even in the pros. Hornqvist headmans the puck over to Wennberg, who has more of a head of steam and also is alone with no defender close to him. Hornqviust also knows he got a little lucky with the steal on Svechnikov, and the Russian is probably hauling ass behind him to make him pay (he was).

Notice how Huberdeau has positioned himself right next to the hip of Skjei, who is doing his best power skating reverse half moons into the ice to try to build up enough speed to skate backwards and still keep up with the play, which is moving faster than he is. But it’s no use. By parking himself on Skjei’s hip, Huberdeau not only takes the reach of Skjei’s stick out of the equation, but he also gives Wennberg a huge open plot of ice to pass to him where Brett Pesce couldn’t intercept it even if he dove (which he wouldn’t do in the neutral zone).

Right now: Skjei knows he’s in trouble big time. The Panthers can smell a scoring chance and they haven’t even crossed the red line yet.

Now we’re in a free skate. Pesce knows Huberdeau is his man and Skjei’s job is to hustle and take the right angle to cover Wennberg. Huberdeau is striding. Hornqvist is trailing the play looking for a drop pass or scraps, but he’s Huberdeau’s outlet if the lanes in front of the goal close up.

Okay now we’re at the decision making phase. Believe it or not, everyone here is doing their job really well. The Canes have mostly recovered. Goalie Alex Nedeljkovic is set up square to the puck. He’s cheating to his right to bait Huberdeau into trying to beat him glove side, leaving the area with the blue circle open. Pesce is matched up perfectly to Huberdeau, the blade of his righty stick mirroring the blade of Hubderdeau’s lefty stick. He has his skate blades turned to try to serve as mini blockers in case Huberdeau tries to pass under him. Skjei is turned, torso facing Huberdeau so he can better anticipate the cross pass WHICH IS COMING. This whole thing is based on Huberdeau getting to slide the puck across to Wennberg. That sets up the highest percentage play.

So right now, in a split second, Huberdeau is doing the math. Can he get the puck into the yellow area in the high slot with enough velocity to get it past the sticks of both Pesce and Skjei, but not too fast so that Wennberg can’t get enough wood on it for a decent shot.

What’s he gonna do?

Huberdeau circles instead. Now he’s missed that window. This is no different than in football when a receiver runs a drag across the field and the quarterback has to wait for him to get two steps past the outside linebacker before the next window opens up.

Huberdeau looks back at Hornqvist but he’s getting absolutely mugged by a great backcheck from a pissed off Svechnikov. In some cases, a seam will open up where Huberdeau can throw the puck between Skjei and Svechnikov and hit a far side defenseman jumping up into the play but that’s not going to happen here.

Huberdeau has basically, to the eyes of the Canes, given up on the 3-on-2. He’s going to cycle it around the zone, wait for guys to set up and try to see what happens. Skjei relaxes ever so slightly now that most of the danger has passed. Nedeljkovic in goal is laser focused on Huberdeau and the puck.

But Huberdeau hasn’t given up on the odd man rush. He’s just buying that extra second like Svechnikov tried to do when Staal was crashing the slot on the other side. Huberdeau is focused – even while not looking – at the next window opening behind Pesce and in front of Nedeljkovic.

Huberdeau has to get some oomph on it to get it to the yellow circle and hope that Skjei doesn’t see it coming. Wennberg is crashing the far post, knowing that’s where Huberdeau will go with the puck. There’s no call out. These guys have just played together long enough to know what the other one is going to do.

The puck is in green. Pesce is out of the play. Hornqvist charges the crease looking for rebounds while wearing Svechnikov like a cheap overcoat. Now it’s Nedeljkovic’s turn to be like shit shit shit. He drives the blade of his left scate into the ice and throws his right leg out in like a full split to the far post to try to cover the naked far side of the net.

Skjei is a second late with his stick. That’s all it takes.

Wennberg is too good to miss and buries it to tie the game.

Just look at that again. Huberdeau completely fools everyone except his own teammate and serves up one of the prettiest assists you’ll ever see.

The game went to overtime, and who do you think came through for the win in free hockey? Yep, you guessed it.

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Written By

Thor is the Editor-in-Chief of The Gist and a father of four. He's a lover of ancient history, Greek food and sports. He misses traveling and thinks that if libraries were the center of American society, many things would improve overnight. You can hit him up at [email protected]

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