So, we have to do this. Perhaps it is my compulsion to set the record straight or dissect popular dogma, especially when the perception gets it so vociferously wrong. During initial analysis on Saturday night, Pittsburgh Hockey Now laid the blame for the first Montreal Canadiens goal at the feet of both Penguins defenseman Jack Johnson and forward Zach Aston-Reese.
We were half right, half wrong.
The howling group on Twitter got it wrong. For those who want to further their hockey acumen, Twitter isn’t usually the place to hang out, but at first blush, Johnson did not look good.
However, as Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan brusquely pushed back against a question her perceived to lay the fault on the defenseman, the Penguins coach cleared up the confusion.
The Pittsburgh Penguins fourth line set up the cycle game, but Montreal intercepted and quickly transitioned out of the zone. Montreal transitioned FOUR wide. Pretty impressive.
You’ll note the Penguins fourth line, which is now behind the play. Defenseman Jack Johnson and Justin Schultz are backing up as fast as possible.
In the neutral zone, Brett Kulak (circled below) ran interference on the skater behind him to create a clean Montreal three-on-two.
One more set up of the play before the breakdown occurs. Montreal abandoned the three-on-two rush for a change but kept possession with a cycle.
Johnson (circled) has his man. Justin Schultz (top of the screen) bodied up one forward and appropriately followed the cycle. Zach Aston-Reese has eyes on his man at the blue line.
Got it so far?
And below is the moment decisions are made and things begin to go wrong. Johnson is the top circle. He takes Joel Armia on the wall, which was proper. Armia saw Johnson coming and poked the puck into the corner. He also sidestepped Johnson who went for the hit.
We’ve put two arrows on Aston-Reese. The black arrow is what he did. The dotted red arrow is what he should have done. Aston-Reese sagged into the low zone, below the dot.
“Both goals were scored as a result of over-backchecking. And what happened was the puck ended up going to the second wave,” head coach Mike Sullivan said.
In other words, Aston-Reese over-committed low, when he should have held his position and moved to the top of the zone to cover Kulak.
And here’s the result of the forwards over-committing low. As Johnson goes towards the net, there is traffic. The black dotted line is both where Aston-Reese realized he should be, and where he was headed when he and Johnson collided.
The point was wide open. There was no one to disrupt the pass, block the shot, or disrupt the play. Kulak had a clear lane to blast away, which he did. In fact, you’ll notice, both forward wingers crashed low.
The puck was deflected near the net and fluttered above Penguins goalie Matt Murray.
And this is why head coach Mike Sullivan grimaced, then chided his forwards for “over-committing.” We don’t expect many fans will let Jack Johnson off the hook, but for those who want to know, the above should shed some light on the play. In the fog of war, when a team plays with speed, these plays sometimes happen.
Aston-Reese has been a reliable, steady contributor, especially defensively for the Pittsburgh Penguins. In this case, he made a mistake. So too did Brandon Tanev.
That damned Jack Johnson.