EDMONTON — Meet Olli Maatta, the new Morgan Rielly.
As the clip of Connor McDavid scoring his amazing goal trended through social media on Tuesday, the way it had after the Edmonton Oilers captain scorched Rielly back in January, hockey fans around the world slowed down the video as McDavid blew past Maatta and fooled goalie Corey Crawford, an incredible display of puck juggling finished by a backhand for the ages.
All at McDavid’s ‘cheat code’ pace, of course.
“I had three different (hockey school) sessions in Medicine Hat today, three different age groups,” said stick handling specialist Pavel Barber on Tuesday. “I asked all three sessions, ‘Who saw McDavid’s goal?’ I think every single kid put up their hand.”
South of the border, Wayne Gretzky “got out of my seat” when McDavid scored, then spent some time with us on Tuesday talking about the rush.
“He’s really unique,” began Gretzky, “because he has the ability for all three factors — his hands, his brain, his feet — to be on the exact same page. A lot of guys can get one or two of the three. I mean, most guys at the NHL level have the hands to keep it on a string. But my gosh, he has the ability to do that at a faster speed than maybe anyone else in the history of the game.
“In our time, it was Bobby Orr who was similar to that. In soccer there was a guy like Pele, who seemed even faster when he had the ball on his foot.”
We asked Gretzky, Barber, former Pittsburgh Penguins sniper Rob Brown, and Oilers head coach Dave Tippett to help us break down a rush that began when McDavid deftly knocked down a chest-high Ryan Nugent-Hopkins pass on his side of centre, and chipped a bounding puck along while blazing past the Blackhawks defenceman Maatta.
The rush closed brilliantly with a forehand shimmy to a backhand flipped high over Crawford’s glove hand, denting the roof of the net.
It all started with…
(Watch as McDavid turns his stick blade upside down, directing the puck towards his skating path.)
Barber: “He’s scooping under the puck to make sure it is going forward, so he can keep his speed. He doesn’t spend time settling the puck down or stopping his feet. He shovels it forward to maintain his stride.”
Brown: “The play at centre ice, that was the hardest part. Most guys just knock it down and chase it. He knocks it down and keeps it in stride with him. How many times do plays die in the neutral zone because a puck starts bouncing and a player has to look down at it? Trying to kick it up with his feet? He slows down, and eventually gets closed off and never gets control of the puck.
“McDavid knocks it out of the air about waist-high, twice he taps it off his stick to keep it going in the right direction, and the whole time he never loses any speed. And, when you’re doing that, your whole focus can’t be on the puck. You’ve got a defenceman who is trying to play you.
“How many plays blow up when a guy is going through the neutral zone at full speed, and a player can’t control a flat pass? Ninety-nine per cent of players, that play would have died. Might have been icing.”
“He’s got a step!”
(Note how McDavid advances the puck but does not handle it, per se. As he bumps it ahead his speed increases, and at the precise moment the puck lays flat, he has reached peak speed and left Maatta in his wake.)
Gretzky: “He doesn’t waste a lot of time stick-handling when he doesn’t need to stick-handle. He knows how far ahead to push it to keep it away from the guy he’s going against, that he can step around him and get to it. He has mastered that to a different level than anyone else in the game today.
“I’m always amazed how he chips it to a place — while he’s going as fast as he’s going — and he knows exactly how far ahead to hit it every time so that he gets to it and no one else does. He doesn’t waste a lot of energy open-ice stick-handling, because he doesn’t need to. He just pushes the puck and goes.”
Brown: “He went around a defenceman who had every advantage in the world. Maatta had the right gap, McDavid is trying to find a bouncing puck… And still that wasn’t good enough to stop him.
“Connor did everything while picking up speed, and that defenceman is thinking, ‘What could I have done better?’ There is nothing he could have done better.”
Tippett: “The thing that amazes me is the speed that he’s going when he’s doing that. Just talking from experience from an old player, you’re trying to find that thing and bat it down and get it flat. Usually you’re working on that and not thinking about how fast you’re going. Connor does those things at high, high speed and that’s what catches players. He must have whacked that thing three or four times but he knew exactly what he was doing every time he was touching it until it finally laid down.”
Shimmy, Short Side, Backhand, Roof
(Check out how McDavid peeks up at Crawford as he gets clear of Maatta, and the quick forehand fake that freezes the goalie, holding the short side open for his eventual shot.)
Barber: “Oh my God.”
Tippett: “To make a shot like that when you’re going that speed, and the puck has been bouncing around… That’s elite talent and that’s what Connor has.”
Barber: “As he eliminates (Maatta) and establishes position, he peeks at the goalie to see what’s open. Seeing that the backhand is what he wants, he makes a forehand stickhandle to pull the puck even wider. That allows him to use the backhand and finish near side. If he hadn’t moved the puck forehand to backhand, he would only have been able to shoot far side. But he makes the subtle adjustment to clear the hands and open up the blade, which allowed him to finish near side.
“If you want to rate the level of difficulty, regardless of the speed at which he was doing it, that is ridiculous. I’ve seen Patrick Kane score from that angle, but not with a guy right on him as he is fending him off with the inside leg, and reaching with the bottom hand at full speed.”
Brown: “The defenceman played it well, the goalie played it well… Sometimes you just have to say, ‘That’s too good a player.’ My hat’s off to him.’”
In the end, Maatta should be receiving a “Get Well Soon” card from Rielly, who is off the hook as the Sportsnet Central editors have a fresh, new McDavid highlight featuring his latest victim.
Gretzky has watched the clip over and over, and even The Great One isn’t sure which section he enjoyed the most.
“Was the best part where he knocked the puck down originally? Or going around the defenceman?” Gretzky asked. “Or the play he made at the end?
“All three were pretty special.”