The Penguins have been the clear better team in both Finals games, and they’re up two games to none. But it doesn’t always work that way; the sample size of a series is too small for puck justice to win out every time, and indeed, both games have been decided by one goal. Individual plays carry the day. And Conor Sheary’s overtime winner was one play that went precisely according to plan.
Sheary’s goal, from Kris Letang and Sidney Crosby at 2:35 of the extra frame, was a designed play, drawn up by Crosby in the moments before the faceoff.
“He said he was going to win it to me, that’s it,” Letang said. “He was going to win it to me and I had to find Sheary.”
It was slightly more complicated than that. First, Crosby told Letang to switch places with Brian Dumoulin; he planned to win the puck to his left, to keep it away from the middle of the ice, and wanted Letang to quarterback it from there. Then he told Sheary to line up along the wall, but to drift over into space once play started. “We hadn’t really done that before,” Sheary said.
Crosby won the puck and put it right where he wanted, back to Letang at the left point. Crosby had told him not to shoot, but to wait, to give Sheary time to get open—something that went against Letang’s instincts. He said he thought about shooting anyway, until he noticed Couture.
Couture’s stance reveals his intentions: knock-kneed, body low, hands at his side—he’s trying to take up as much space as possible to block the puck. This is what Crosby had feared, and why he called the play he did.
“We’ve done a lot of one-timers and quick shots from the point, so we knew they’d be coming hard,” Crosby said. “It’s overtime, you don’t necessarily want to have somebody have to make a play with a guy right in his face, especially if he’s the last guy back.”
The Pens had maybe gotten predictable, and if Couture had been able to get his body in front of a Letang shot, who knows what happens? Maybe it bounces out of the zone, or toward the middle of the ice, and maybe the Sharks take it back the other way. Maybe they score and this series is tied heading back to San Jose.
That doesn’t happen because Letang doesn’t shoot. He slides it by the oncoming Couture to Sheary, who has casually skated off the wall, and look how much room he’s got:
Because the play took so long to develop—because Letang held the puck—San Jose’s defense had time to spread out. Three players went down low to deal with Crosby and Patric Hornqvist going to the front of the net, and two ranged out wide and high to try to cut off shots from the point. That left a soft, creamy center for Sheary, and plenty of time to gather and shoot. “I think they kind of lost me when I came off the wall there,” Sheary said.
Screened by Hornqvist and a couple of Sharks defenders in front, Martin Jones looked like he never picked up the puck until it was in the air. NBC’s camera angle was perfect to illustrate the screen—directly in line with the shot, you can’t even see Jones when Sheary let his shot go.
Just that easy.
Crosby downplayed his role in setting up the play, joking that he called 24 plays off faceoffs and 23 of them were wrong, and anyway it’s the guys that executed it who deserve the credit. Whatever. When you draw up a play in overtime of a Stanley Cup Finals game, taking into account your opponents’ tendencies and your own team’s established patterns, and it works perfectly, with every moving part going the way it was planned, we’re damn sure going to praise it. The Pens are two games away now, and they could not feel more in control.
Update: Ah, this is cool. Via commenter BilldaCat10, here’s the ISO cam on Crosby directing traffic before the faceoff.