Crease Crash Course: Sparking Debut for Nilsson

A developing refrain early on this season is Buffalo’s inability to finish games. A squandered lead in Calgary, the inability to finish in Vancouver and now a third period implosion against Philadelphia.

Outside of the game in Calgary, where a weak goal set the OT loss in motion, Buffalo’s goaltending in these contests has been good, if not great. Even prior to Matthew Tkachuk’s tally, Robin Lehner had enjoyed an impressive performance against the Flames. Last night’s collapse had nothing to do with Anders Nilsson’s 38-save effort, of course. Nilsson’s debut was spectacular at times as he held Philly scoreless for over 40 minutes as Buffalo built an impressive lead. It fell apart in the third, however.

Three power play goals erased the Buffalo lead and a pop-gun effort in overtime led Buffalo to a shootout, where they ultimately failed. Philly’s goals were scored on a tip, one timer and goal mouth scramble and none of the three really qualify for the practice that’s growing with these post-game recaps. However, for a goalie who has been accused of playing small in the past, it looks as if Nilsson’s work in Buffalo is already paying dividends. For that reason (and his generally impressive play last night) we’ll look at what I felt was his best save of the evening.

Among the gems he had last night were a pair of right-pad breakaway saves, a cross-crease left-pad robbery and an impressive glove snare. However, his first period save on Travis Konecny may just have been the most impressive. Nilsson came across the crease, kept proper body position and stayed big in making the save on an open one-timer for the rookie. The rebound was clumsily cleared by his teammates, but the save itself was a beauty.

The play all starts with a neutral zone turnover by Marcus Foligno who is trying to force an ill-advised pass to Zach Bogosian. Foligno exits the Buffalo zone with speed and facing a well structured neutral zone forecheck from the Flyers. Sean Couturier is positioned to eliminate a stretch pass and Konecny is in a decent spot trailing Johan Larsson.

As the play develops both Larsson and Gionta continue up ice in the direction their heading, as opposed to finding openings in the forecheck, as illustrated below. Philadelphia’s right defenseman continues to retreat, opening space for Gionta to fill, providing Foligno with a short, easy pass.breakout1

Instead, as Gionta and Larsson continue up ice, Foligno’s options become limited. Gionta’s route leaves him covered by Couturier, who is also in position to intercept a cross-ice pass for Larsson. As illustrated, the left wing remains vacated here, space that could have been filled by Gionta or an area Foligno could have moved into to at least dump the puck into the Flyers end. Instead he tries to force a pass to Bogosian which leads to a loose puck that heads the other direction.

breakout2This can be explained in a few ways. The first is that Gionta simply took a poor route, eliminating Foligno’s options. The second is that Gionta and Larsson are executing Dan Bylsma’s preferred breakout and stretching the neutral zone. If it is the latter, it is countered beautifully by the Flyers, cutting out passing lanes and forcing a mistake. If it is the former, it’s simply a matter of communication and execution that the entire line needs to improve upon.

After Konecny breaks up the pass to Bogosian there’s still a chance for the Sabres to prevent a rush in the opposite direction. It’s difficult to see here but the puck bounces back towards Couturier before heading towards the Sabres goal. At this moment both Sabres defensemen are heading in the wrong direction due to the turnover and Foligno is really the only player able to impact the play defensively. breakout3

Both Larsson and Gionta are behind the puck and the numbers are even as the pass is broken up.

Let’s check in on Foligno just a moment later.3-on-2

Oops. Now all three forwards are behind the play and chasing to recover while the defensemen have retreated to a point where they can defend the odd-man rush.

Kulikov is eventually sucked towards Couturier on the wing and the center drive works to perfection as Bogosian is now defending a two-on-one.

end-zone-1The result is Konecny having an open look in a prime scoring area off the pass. Here’s where Nilsson finally enters the play. As the pass comes to Konecny, Nilsson moves laterally while keeping his chest and arms up. It’s easy to wind up leaning forward on plays like this where the need to build momentum overtakes technique. end-zone-2

Nilsson’s positioning and movement here allow him to stay big on Konecny who does very well to shoot back where Nilsson is coming from. This not only fights the momentum of the goaltender but puts the puck where net is opening up, as opposed to closing down. Nilsson makes a terrific reaction save with his blocker, shutting down what would’ve been a highlight-reel tally for Konecny’s first goal. end-zone-3

This was just one of a number of impressive saves made by Nilsson on the evening and it’s a shame the team in front of him couldn’t close the game in regulation. I expect to see him in net again on Thursday as Lehner’s lingering illness and Nilsson’s impressive debut should combine to give the netminder his KeyBank Center debut.

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