The playoffs create legends. For all the grind and work of an 82 game season, immortality awaits the player who scores that one goal, who makes that one save, who participates in that one moment that is emblazoned in to our minds.
Oilers trail 2-0 in the first after being outplayed in game 4, but now they’re pressing on the powerplay. A chance to close the gap. Eberle shoots it on net, Maroon jams away at it. The puck pops out to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins who has an entire wide-open net as he walks in from the face-off circle. He gets it on net, dead centre, and Jones reaches back and gets the faintest piece of it… JUST enough to knock it barely an inch wide. What could have been a magical goal to cut the lead, stem the bleeding and turn the entire momentum of the game instead becomes… nothing. The memory fades away in the blur of the rest of a six game series. The game gets out of hand in the second. The Oilers suffer an embarrassing 7-0 loss.
That’s it. That’s the line between ‘legend’ and ‘other’. Maybe a quarter of an inch on the shot.
We watch in heightened states of anxiety. Some of us pacing, some of us clutching the edge of the chair, some frozen in place, muscles taut. Then when that one big goal happens, we explode in yells, cheers, standing to our feet. The extra rush of adrenaline, sympathetic nervous system firing, the moment permanently imprinting in to our brains. A collective memory that we share for time immemorial.
Merely mention Curtis Joseph’s diving save. Speak the name Fernando Pisani. We all nod. Yes, we know of what you speak. We can never forget those Legends.
This series, we’ll remember the Legend of Zack Kassian. We’ll remember Unlikely Hero David Desharnais. Remember back-to-back breakaways, the first with Larsson springing Draisaitl and the big German holding off a defender as he shovels the puck home for the lead. We’ll remember how low we felt during that 7-0 shellacking. How high we were after that glorious Overtime of Domination.
In all of this, the wild swings of the series, the highs and lows pent up from a decade of disappointment, we might be forgiven if some players are forgotten. Certainly, with a stat line of 6 games, 0 goals, 0 assists, -1, we might be forgiven if we forget Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
But we shouldn’t.
Because Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was a damn hero.
McLellan says the plan never was to get McDavid away from Vlasic. Wanted RNH vs Thornton. 93 was excellent much of series.
— Ryan Rishaug (@TSNRyanRishaug) April 23, 2017
As a hockey player, you don’t control your deployment. Not directly anyways. The coach puts you out there in certain situations and you’ve got to make the best of it.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had his marching orders. He was to shut down Joe Thornton. I’d add to Thornton, he was clearly sent out to shut down Pavelski and Burns.
Using Natural Stat Trick (www.naturalstattrick.com), RNH’s most common opponents were Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns and Paul Martin (Burns’ defensive partner). Nuge spent OVER HALF of his 5×5 time one ice against them (mostly together). Once Thornton was back, he joined that group as well. With due respect to Martin, I’m going to focus on Pavelski, Burns and Thornton. For each of those three, the forward they faced the most was Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
Consider the magnitude of this assignment. Those three were the Sharks’ 1st, 2nd and 4th leading scorers in the regular season (with Couture being the 3rd). All three are All Stars. Joe Thornton is a former Hart Trophy recipient and Brent Burns, let alone being a Norris nominee, might be a Hart nominee this year too. Those three are an enormous part of San Jose’s offence.
So, how did those Sharks do in the series?
Brent Burns: 0 even-strength points in 6 games
Joe Pavelski: 2 even-strength points in 6 games (only 1 of which against RNH)
Joe Thornton: 1 even-strength point in 4 games
If you’re wondering why the Sharks only scored 8 goals 5×5 in the whole series, keeping those three off the score-sheet was a big part of it.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins played a massive role in shutting them down.
Nuge vs. Them
One way to see how those players did against Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is to look at shot attempts.
When any of those three players were on the ice in the regular season, they tended to control the flow of play. Over 53% of the shot attempts were in San Jose’s favour when Burns or Thornton were on the ice. That number was 52% for Pavelski.
In this series…
Every one of those players did substantially worse when facing RNH compared to when he was off the ice. I mean, Joe Pavelski being held to under 40% in shot attempts? That’s absurd!
Okay, so perhaps raw shot attempts aren’t your jam. After all, Nugent-Hopkins can hold them back in shot attempts all he wants, but if they get better quality scoring chances, then what good is it?
So let’s look at scoring chances. These are all shot attempts from the scoring chance area as defined by Natural Stat Trick.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins took on Burns, Thornton and Pavelski and frankly destroyed them in scoring chances. He shut down the Norris Trophy and potential Hart Trophy nominee. He shut down The Joes. RNH shut down a huge portion of San Jose’s offence.
Oh, and by the way, remember all those powerplays the Sharks got? Nugent-Hopkins led all Edmonton forwards in time on the PK.
What About Points?
What ABOUT points? In a winner-take-all series, preventing a goal is just as valuable as scoring one. Zack Kassian gets to be the legend in part BECAUSE Ryan Nugent-Hopkins kept Burns and Pavelski off the scoreboard. Without that, there is no 1-0 game winner.
None-the-less, Nugent-Hopkins and his line WERE creating chances. They were creating more than the big trio they were shutting down. They didn’t cash this time, but they keep that up and they will.
His raw shot attempt totals were impressive (at 54.8%) and were positive relative to his team. More impressive, though, was his xG. Expected Goals (xG) is calculated by weighting all unblocked shot attempts for a variety of factors impacting shot quality (distance, shot type, rebound, rush shot, etc.) Based on this, you can determine a player’s Expected Goals.
RNH’s xG (from corsica.hockey) was a whopping 58.3%, second on the team only to his linemate Jordan Eberle.
Now, I’m focusing on RNH here, but really credit should go to that entire line of him, Eberle and Lucic. However, as the centre, Nuge carries the bulk of the defensive zone responsibilities against the Sharks’ offensive killers.
Not only that, but Nuge wasn’t relying on Ebs and Looch for offence either. Nugent-Hopkins was driving the offence on his line at 5×5. He led the entire team in individual shot attempts (both total and per 60). He led the team in shots on goal (total and per-60). Not only that, he led the team in individual scoring chances (total and per-60). He led the team in Expected Goals (per-60, and 2nd on the team in total to Maroon). (All of that from corsica.hockey) I know he didn’t score, but in a 6 game series where the Oilers only scored seven 5×5 goals, some times you don’t find the twine. Some times the puck grazes Martin Jones’ glove as it heads to the open net. If he keeps playing like this, though, his 0.0% shooting percentage will not stay that way. He WILL score. He’s getting chances. The goals will come. The process was phenomenal and dominant.
What Does That Make Him?
There was no one magical RNH moment that series. No big play that brings us all from our seats. No one moment that will be immortalized in our collective Oiler memory. He won’t get the glory. People may look at the point totals and wonder if he was invisible.
He was not, though. Nuge took on the Sharks’ top offensive weapons and shut them down, keeping them to three even-strength points TOTAL. He out-played them, created more chances in their end than they did against him. He led the TEAM in corsi, shots, scoring chances and expected goals.
Now, he’ll get to do it all again in Round 2. Maybe he’ll get his moment then.
Even if he doesn’t, we won’t forget what he did to bring this team past the Sharks.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins may not yet be a Playoff Legend, but he is a Playoff Hero.