As the Minnesota Wild have learned this season, having defenseman jump into the rush is a great way to create offense. Not only does the defenseman usually add a numbers advantage to the rush, but often times it creates confusion for players trying to identify their man in defensive coverage. It was confusion and some world class puck watching that led to Joe Pavelski's game winning goal on Thursday night.
The play starts with newly acquired Sharks defenseman Brendan Dillon recognizing a chance for an odd-man rush and jumping into the play. Dillon carries the puck up the ice, makes a great play through the neutral zone avoiding Ryan Suter's pressure and manages to carry the puck into the zone. The Wild actually do a good job defending the 3-on-2, as the Sharks only manage to get off a harmless shot from the wall. The shot misses the net and this is where the problems begin to unfold for the Wild.
After the missed shot, the Wild transition from their "rush defense" to their "in-zone defense". This means everybody finding their man in their "home" position and doing so very quickly. Home position generally meaning wingers to their point men, defensemen and center down low. In this case, the puck has rung around the boards to Thornton who was the 4th man into the zone. Zach Parise is nearest to Thornton, but by design, Thornton would be Suter's responsibility. Suter, having just released from the rushing Dillon, has some skating to do to close in on Thornton. Parise should help on Thornton until Suter arrives by taking away passing lanes through the middle and force the puck to be moved down low where there is help, or to the point where there is less danger.
Jared Spurgeon and Thomas Vanek, who had both initially challenged the Pavelski shot, release from the Sharks star winger leaving him with a chasm of space. Spurgeon is heading to the front of the net where he would usually be positioned, but with all of the Sharks, save for Hertl, on the outside of the ice, he should have stayed near Pavelski. Spurgeon makes a quick shoulder check here, and I think he assumes Vanek is going to pick up Pavelski coming off the wall.
Vanek is in no-man's-land at the blue line with Dillon down deep after the rush. With nobody to cover and the Sharks with firm possession, Vanek should be helping Spurgeon. The key word there is "help", because Pavelski is primarily Spurgeon's responsibility. Upon seeing Spurgeon go back to the net though, Vanek absolutely needs to bust his ass to cover Pavelski, no excuse for him to stand and watch. Wingers need to have that panic button so that when they see a breakdown in defensive coverage there is no hesitation before collapsing down low to help. Vanek doesn't seem to possess a single ounce of panic in the defensive end which is why his coverage on this play looked so egregious.
Every Wild player is left staring at one of hockey's all time greatest passers, and would you look at the space he has to operate. Thornton rips a pass down the wide open seam and Pavelski hammers the puck past a fairly helpless Darcy Kuemper. Pretty simple stuff, give a world class passer and an elite shooter this much time and space, and you'll be digging the puck out of the back of the net more often than not.
Here is the entire clip of the goal including the Sharks breakout from NHL.com: