Nikita Kucherov and is it a shot or a pass?
Deception level = 100
There are many, many, many things that Nikita Kucherov excels at when it comes to hockey. Perhaps the most effective is just the way his brain process the action on the ice and his ability to anticipate how a play will evolve. That’s something that the best playmakers inherently seem to possess and can’t really be taught.
Something that can be taught, but has to be refined with hours and hours of practice is his ability to disguise his intentions on the power play. With most players, the question of will he shoot or will he pass is pretty simple to answer. Their body language, the way they hold the stick, their historical tendencies all point to one answer or another - especially if they are setting up for a one-timer.
With Kucherov, especially on the power play, it comes down to a guessing game. Case in point his feed to Brayden Point at the end of the game against the Vegas Golden Knights on March 9th:
Kucherov with a nasty fake shot pass pic.twitter.com/lZykNYFbAp— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) March 10, 2023
Jonathan Quick, and Brayden McNabb (#3) both sell out to block what they believe will be a one-timer from Kucherov. The pass is in his wheelhouse and there is daylight on the shortside of the net. Even Alex Pietrangelo (#7) is reacting as if the danger will come from Anthony Cirelli in front of the net on a rebound or a redirect as he goes to box him out.
One player not anticipating a shot is Brayden Point who once noted, “even if you don’t think he sees you, he sees you”. So Point is ready for it and whips it into the vacated net (kudos to Alex Killorn for not getting hit by the puck).
This isn’t a one-time thing either. He basically pulled off the same play against Philadelphia the game before with Killorn as the beneficiary.
⚡️ Alex Killorn taps it home in the slot on the power play for his 18th goal of the season! Nikita Kucherov and Mikhail Sergachev pick up the assists.— Future Bolts (@LightningProsp1) March 8, 2023
The detractors may say, sure, but with the way his body is contorted there is no way he could actually get a shot on net. Please, allow me to retort with this:
Basically squared up to the netminder (as opposed to Stamkos who is at more of perpendicular angle when he releases his one-timer) he still is able to generate enough torque on the shot to whip it into the back of the net before the goaltender can get across.
An even better example comes from this game against Columbus:
The first pass attempt comes in and he passes it back. Then, three seconds later, from the same exact position he fires it on net. The defense and goaltender are a little bit slower to get over and the puck is in the back of the net. To the screen grabs:
It is the living embodiment of the “It’s the same picture meme”
There are a lot of reasons why the Lightning are so successful on the power play. Having Steven Stamkos and his legendary one-timer just hanging out in the left circle, Victor Hedman or Mikhail Sergachev at the top of their 1-3-1 formation with the option to shoot, set up Stamkos or dish it off to Kucherov are two big reasons. Not to mention Brayden Point occupying at least one defender in the slot and Alex Killorn hanging out in front of the net setting screens.
It is Kucherov, though, that is the key for the success. When he’s on the half-boards he has so many options and it’s tough to defend him. Do you press him and try to take his space away? Cool, that just opens up room in the middle of the ice for Point or down on the goal line for Killorn. Play off him, okay, that gives him time to set up Hedman for a shot or take his own.
Dimitri Filipovic broke down the Lightning power play back in 2017, establishing reasons why it was so hard to defend,
"What’s made the top unit for the Lightning so special this season is their mastery of the geometry of the offensive zone. By spreading out their formation and flinging the puck across the Royal Road in East-West fashion at a dizzying pace, they’ve put the penalty killers in a bind."
Other teams with top-level ability have the same success. It wasn’t that long ago that the Lightning themselves were chasing around the Colorado Avalanche power play unit in the Stanley Cup Final. A unit that posted a 37.5% success rate by creating gaps in the defense with the quick movement of the puck.
The biggest weakness for penalty kills is confusion (well, that and bad goaltending). A shorthanded unit that is overcommitting and allowing space in dangerous areas is one that is going to be digging the puck out of the back of their net more often than not. Confusion’s partner-in-crime, indecision, can also be detrimental to a penalty kill. What Kucherov’s ability to sell the shot or pass is akin to a pitcher with a deceptive change-up - it throws off the opponent’s rhythm and creates that moment of hesitation or indecision.
There is also the element of Kucherov doing one thing early in a game to set up another play later in the game. Looking back at the Columbus goal highlighted earlier, could he have one-timed the initial pass from the point? Of course. The Blue Jackets’ players were in a little bit of a better position to possibly block the shot, but Kucherov’s one-timer is pretty quick and he might have been able to get it on net.
However, because he had passed it earlier from a similar position and stance, they may have thought he would do it again and were a bit slower to slide over in fear he might slide back to the middle of the ice again.
When defenders start moving too much on the power play, it opens up seams in their coverage. Those are the openings that make the Lightning lethal with the extra skater. Fans may bemoan the overpassing from time to time, but that’s what their offense is predicated on and when it works, it works extremely well.
Some have speculated that the one-timer may be dying out in the sport simply because it is a reasonably easy shot for goaltenders to stop, especially if they know it’s coming. The linked article points out that:
“According to Clear Sight Analytics, from the start of the 2020-21 season through Nov. 18, there were 4,288 unscreened one-timers taken in all situations from above the tops of the circles. Only 30 went in. That translates to a .993 save percentage.”
Goaltenders know when a one-timer artist like Stamkos or Alex Ovechkin are going to do when the puck heads their way in the circle, so they can sell out to stop the shot. The same with defenders brave enough to lunge in front of the shot.
They look up and see him with his stick in the air as the puck slides to him. Do they slide out for the block and risk leaving the slot open for Brayden Point? Or do they hang back and cover the pass while hoping the goaltender isn’t a fraction of a second late in covering and can take the shot?