(Editor’s note: Yes, Systems Analyst is a Tuesday feature, but the holidays pushed it back to Wednesday this week. Hope you enjoy.)

It would’ve made for a long title, but “Systems Analyst: a baffling line change and poor pivot puts the Caps behind the Sabres 1-0 51 seconds into the game” was the real title I wanted to go with. The Sabres do so many things right and the Capitals do so many things wrong, that had it not resulted in a goal it would’ve been a crime.

Let’s talk line changes, transitioning, net drives, pivoting and more during a play that takes about seven seconds to unfold.

First, give it a watch.

Let’s take a look at our first frame:

As you can see there, Drew Stafford has solid possession of the puck. The puck was just in the Capitals zone, so he has some teammates that are hustling out to the blueline to stay onside, where they’ll immediately be ready to transition back on another rush.

Brooks Laich is tired, I guess?

I can’t explain his decision to change here - it’s 43 seconds into the game when this breakdown starts. 43 seconds is a full shift, yes, but it’s not like going a minute-plus is that rare, expecially when you consider that the puck is still in Caps territory, and the other team has it. There’s no way he should be changing here.

What’s even more incredible, is that after Drew Stafford moves this puck to Jordan Leopold on the wall (again, solid possession and attacking), this is the decision Jeff Halpern makes:

He says “Peace. Out.” That’s him peeling off his guy and calling for a change while Buffalo winds it up. At least Laich gave his guy hope of getting into the play. Identifying who to defend will be hard enough for that guy, but Halpern’s change won’t have to worry about it – he’ll never be relevant to this rush anyway. All five Sabres are ready to attack.

In the next screenshot, you can see Stafford start to drive through the middle, while Leopold gets the puck across the blue and keeps the play onside…but that’s not what I want you to look at.

Check out Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner, and the way he pivots:

(Let Leopold be represented by the “integrys” logo.)

A d-man facing a re-group needs to get up the ice fast and close the gap (maybe he could’ve forced the Sabres offside by making Leopold make a move), then pivot from outside to inside. Coaches want their d-men between the (face-off) dots. If you pivot from inside to outside as he does here, you end up here….

….allowing a three-lane highway down the center of the ice, out way too far wide. This plus the big gap leaves him helpless.

Leopold makes the smart, simple pass to the driving Stafford, and thanks to the poor decision to change by a few Washington Capitals, the Sabres have what’s essentially a 2-on-1, as Vanek wisely occupies his time with “picking” Alzner (Vanek had that ice first, so it isn’t an illegal play).

From there, it’s down to making the skill plays to cash in (and if you re-watch the video at the bottom, you’ll see that Dennis Wideman – who also just jumped on the ice - barely has time to get his stick blade-side-down before the Stafford pass, so that helps). Every team sees a few breakdowns a night, and the Sabres make this one count.

Nice pass from Stafford to captain Jason Pominville who’s wisely opened up for the one-t….

…and makes no mistake on the finish.

The Caps forwards never had a realistic chance to influence the play, so they’re left to wince, eat their minus, and go line-up at center for their first shift of the game.

Comments (15)

  1. “The Caps forwards never had a realistic chance to influence the play, so they’re left to wince, eat their minus, and go line-up at center for their first shift of the game.”

    Well, it’s a Sabres’ powerplay, so nobody eats a minus. They just have to deal with the shame of being down one goal.

    Otherwise, this is a brilliant breakdown of a breakdown.

  2. Ah, right, good call on that. My bad.

  3. great breakdown. Caps are the worst team in professional sports when it comes to coming out of the gate ready to play and this is a prime example.

  4. everytime you guys do a breakdown like this, do you not realize that half the time the names you guys put it in the little black font are impossible to see because of either the boards or fans lol

  5. Interestingly, the official Play by Play report has Brooks Laich still on the ice for the goal when it’s clearly Backstrom.


    Apparently the official scorer was just as confused by this and thought to himself that Brooks Laich couldn’t possibly have made that line change. Or he felt it would be unfair to credit the goal against Backstrom.

    • Interesting: Pro hockey players who make a bad change and cost a teammate will often jump on the ice (and pull back guy going out, if they can) so they don’t screw a teammate’s stats over. As much as +/- can be misleading, you don’t want to throw a buddy under the bus.

  6. Good breakdown.

    You mentioned Wideman’s stick blade hardly on the ice, but to me that’s a silly error as well. You don’t hop on the ice carrying your stick like an umbrella under your arm. Second shift of the game, no excuse not to be ready as a Dman coming off the bench.

    • Oh man, this brings up something I keep meaning to ask Bourne to explain. Throughout my entire life as an amateur hockey player, I’m always taught to keep my stick on the ice so that I can catch passes etc, etc. However, when I watch NHL hockey, these guys are carrying their sticks like torches. What gives?

      • They’re pros… so, it doesn’t matter. =P

        Kidding aside though, and if i’m not mistaken Bourne made a post about this very thing, at this level guys are expected to receive a pass pretty much anywhere. If that means picking it out of the air, then so be it. I think when players are young, it’s easy to lose track of your stick. The “always keep your stick on the ice” is more about creating fundamentals and being aware than it is a credo to live by. Despite carrying the stick like a torch, when was the last time you saw a guy miss a pass (at the NHL level) because his blade wasn’t down?

  7. Great analysis. I love Pominville and Vanek in the second frame: they’ve recognized what’s about to come and are already leaning in to quickly cut back in after clearing the zone. Better resolution and we’d see them drooling…..

  8. Always appreciate your breakdowns of the breakdowns, Bourne.

    One note is that it’s a power play, so no plus/minus for the guys.

    • haha… and I queued that up about 2 hours ago, but never posted until now. And it turns out I used the same points and the same wording as Bradford. Well played, sir!

  9. Love the lead in photo from later in that game. It’s after Brayden McNabb’s (in the background) first ever NHL goal, and you can see the puck being tossed from someone on the ice to an equip. manager for safe keeping. Nice shot.

  10. Very curious why this line change happens at all. It wasn’t like one guy made a bad decision to change. They all got in line and headed to the bench.

    Maybe they’re Lemmings?

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