Matthew Tkachuk watched Carolina’s Andrei Svechnikov from 20 feet away and knew something special was about to happen.
Svechnikov picked up the puck behind the net, cradled it on the end of his stick and rammed it past the goaltender from behind the net. Someone in the NHL actually pulled off the lacrosse-style move made famous by Mike Legg in a college game in 1996.
Tkachuk was impressed.
“I had the best seat in the house,” the Calgary Flames’ forward said. “That was a sick, sick goal. You see a lot of guys try it around the league, but nobody’s been able to perfect it yet like him.”
Tkachuk knew what the Hurricanes’ forward was going to do because he has practised the move many times before and tried it in games. And two nights later, he one-upped Svechnikov by scoring an overtime winner through his legs at full speed.
The highlight-reel goals seem to be piling up. Thanks to an infusion of talented young players motivated to raise the bar with GIF-worthy goals, coaches willing to encourage risk-taking in the name of offence and revamped rules designed to light the lamp, there is more freedom than ever for players to express themselves creatively in the NHL. Svechnikov, for example, routinely gathers 10 pucks behind the net to work on his non-traditional move at practice.
“A lot of these kids now, they’re growing up trying these moves, practising these moves,” Vegas forward Cody Eakin said. “Skill work has been such a huge part of kids’ development now that when there is opportunities or time or space, they can get creative. When there’s room and the guys have the skill to make the plays, there’s some fantastic plays being made out there.”
Some players think goals like Svechnikov’s happen once a decade. Maybe not, not with players around the league watching and eager to figure out the next cool way to go viral.
Arizona’s Clayton Keller and Montreal’s Nick Suzuki check out the highlights every day and take those inspirations to the rink.
“I try to watch all of them every morning,” Keller said. “When you see different goals and stuff like that, maybe you try it in practice. It’s something I did as a kid, whether it was watching (Sidney) Crosby or (Patrick) Kane, seeing their breakaway moves, and I would do it the next time in practice.”
Capitals centre Evgeny Kuznetsov is a little bit older but still turns to YouTube to get his fix of beautiful plays across soccer and hockey. When he’s the one making the highlights, the leading scorer from Washington’s 2018 Stanley Cup run appreciates the green light from coaches and very quickly calculates the risk/reward of doing something unusual.
“You actually don’t have time to think about it out there,” Kuznetsov said. “You just do it naturally. I feel like every player is different. I was like that since a kid, and for me, it’s kind of what hockey’s about.”
Mostly gone are the days of a star player getting stapled to the bench for trying and failing on something on offence. Play within the team structure, don’t turn the puck over in the neutral or defensive zones and it’s all good.
“Coaches like when players use their creativity, but you’ve got to pick your spots,” Suzuki said. “You can’t be doing it to cost your team. I think you can be pretty creative down low on the other team’s net and trying to create offence.”
No one is creating offence better right now than Boston’s David Pastrnak, a playmaking wizard who leads the NHL in goals. One game, Pastrnak tried a drop pass on a breakaway and often keeps opponents and even his Bruins teammates guessing.
“He’s so confident, you never know what he’s going to do with the puck,” linemate Brad Marchand said. “Even we don’t know … He feels like he can do anything.”
Confidence is a big reason for some of this new-found offensive creativity. Svechnikov asked his brother Evgeny four years ago for help on a lacrosse-style goal but only tried it after scoring two goals in his previous game.
“When you’re not really confident, you kind of try just to chip the puck or do something,” Svechnikov said. “When you’re confident, you can do anything.”
It helps that the league has taken steps to give skilled players more space and leeway. A generation after cracking down on hooking, holding and other obstruction, there has been a push to eliminate slashing and big hits that can slow down some of the game’s best.
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“From when I came into the league, there’s a lot less of those big defencemen that can grab you and not get penalized,” Capitals forward T.J. Oshie said. “From top to bottom, players can play. It’s not surprising that these days you’re seeing more scoring.”
The best part is it’s not just greasy goals or from scoring from the dirty areas — a time-honoured hockey cliché that becomes more prevalent come playoff time. The skill level in hockey is so high that each game is another chance to see something different, which begs the question: What’s next?
“Ooh, I don’t know,” Tkachuk said. “I’ve seen a couple guys try it — and sometimes I try it — the behind-the-back goal, kind of through the legs. That’s hard. I don’t know. That might be the next one. But that really takes a lot of courage to do.”