Breaking down Connor McDavid’s brilliant goal against Stars

Published Jun 14, 20246 minute read

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By Kevin Mitchell

Long before Connor McDavid and long before video replay and Internet connections, Fred ‘Cyclone’ Taylor scored a goal while skating backwards down the ice.

That’s how the story went, anyways. Taylor denied he ever scored that way, but there were no moving-picture cameras that night in Ottawa, in 1910 — no on-demand evidence for fans following along at home with their phones and laptops.

Thus, a legend flourished.

Today, a McDavid goal is seen instantly around the world and permanently embedded into the public storehouse. Any tale, tall or not, must first pass a visual inspection, even as it tests the laws of physics.

“Those young hockey players out there, (they) watch (McDavid’s) skating and get inspired,” said Alan Noble, who has been program director at Laura Stamm Power Skating for 25 years.

That kind of inspiration used to be hard to come by. Jim Neilson, who played in the NHL and WHA from 1962 to 1979, once said he didn’t watch a single NHL game while growing up in a Prince Albert, Sask., orphanage. He’d listen to contests on the radio, but never saw his heroes — such as Max Bentley — score a goal: “I couldn’t emulate anyone.”

But now the magic that is McDavid can be dissected by us all.

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For example: A brilliant little piece of toe-drag goal-scoring he concocted on June 2, during Game 6 of the Western Conference final against the Dallas Stars. His movement leading up to the goal can be broken into its component parts — weight transfer, skating edge, center of gravity, puck, stick, celebration.

“I’ve always been a fan of the Penn and Teller show, ‘Fool Us,’” Noble said. “What they say is that magicians always have several different ways the magic trick could go and the end result isn’t always the one they were planning.

“McDavid probably had several different ways he could have maneuvered there, with his balance, stability, strong edges, and upper body being level.”

On the goal, McDavid received a short pass from near the right point, shifted to his left, moved around Stars forward Sam Steel in the faceoff circle, encountered defenseman Miro Heiskanen and cut sharply towards the goal. He suctioned the puck to his blade as he slid it between the fast-closing feet of both opponents, and snapped a quick, biting backhand into the top right corner of the net.

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There’s no lost speed or momentum as he shifts direction. It’s like he was on a hairpin track specifically designed for that purpose.

The play itself took just four seconds; from the time it touched McDavid’s stick to his snapping it home.

“A lot of guys in the NHL, more and more, are fast skaters and can skate at his level,” Noble said. “But he uses his skating in ways no one else does. He uses it as the weapon that it is. I’ve seen so many clips of him splitting the D, like how I used to do when I played squirt hockey. But he does it to NHL defensemen.

“I talk a lot about him in my hockey camps. I talk about his crossovers, in particular — how he has arguably the best crossover in the NHL. He’s very stable. In fact, I think the crossovers are why he keeps winning the NHL’s fastest skater.”

There’s also a literal science to what McDavid does, which is why we placed a call to University of Pittsburgh physics professor Eric Swanson. He’s a beer-league player who has extended some thought to how the game intersects with the laws of movement.

Swanson said there is one small way in which McDavid might defy physics — the “scaling law,” which tells us that squat and powerful people should be able to accelerate better than their peers.

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Wayne Gretzky also challenged this law, he said, as did sprinter Usain Bolt. McDavid is 6-foot-1, 194 pounds.

“It’s not like his physique is getting him anything special,” Swanson said. “Generally, for acceleration — and this is where a physics law comes in — smaller, more powerful people can accelerate better than larger, lankier people. That law isn’t working to give him some advantages. It’s just his raw skill.”

Swanson guessed that McDavid has “super fast-twitch” muscles, which would allow him to explode on the ice.

“He strikes me as a guy with a choppy stride, and that gives him an advantage both for accelerating and for shifting left and right,” he said. “You don’t need speed in hockey — you need acceleration. It’s only 200 feet end-to-end, and you need to accelerate for 50 of those feet. It’s all about acceleration, and he’s very good at that.”

At its simplest, McDavid has mastered the mechanics of the flesh-and-blood, arm-leg-torso structure he hauls around the ice.

Swanson said, as an example, that the optimal angle to throw a javelin at is 45 degrees, but nobody flings it at that angle because of shoulder limitations. They work out their own angle that fits best with their bodies, just like a skater does.

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And then you mix in several other elements — everything from stride length to stick choice to the rocker radius of the skate blade.

“Everything becomes personalized,” Swanson said. “You’ve got to figure it out yourself. He’s optimized well, obviously.”

And that optimization happens at high speed, thin blades on slick ice, an act Noble notes is both “non-intuitive” and “non-natural”.

Swanson said water is complicated, but that the thin top layer on which McDavid glides has its own unique form. He said it is somewhere between water and ice: “Solid, but not completely solid.

“And it’s that which allows the skate to slide. If it weren’t for that layer, which doesn’t exist for other materials … you imagine gliding a skate on wood, or something like that.”

It’s on this unique, very scientific surface that McDavid draws approving eyes from skating coaches around the world.

“On ice,” Noble said, “there’s so many nuances in how he goes over, how he lands on a strong inside edge, and how he uses that strong inside edge to cut back in the other direction.

“When you walk, you go heel/middle of the foot/toe. But he puts his weight on the ball of the foot, so he’s able to cut back very quickly. There’s a lot of technique in that.

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“(Pioneering power-skating coach) Laura Stamm used to always say that when a skater looks very natural, that’s the result of thousands of hours of training behind the scenes that you don’t see. And that training gives you the appearance of ‘they made that look easy; they made that look natural.’”

And it’s all there for close inspection, now and forever.

Howie Morenz and Cy Denneny occasionally committed their own four-second acts of brilliance 100 years ago, magical moments seen once, by those in attendance, and never witnessed again.

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It would be impossible to compile a real, true video tribute to hockey’s 100 greatest goals, because many of them no longer exist in any sort of archival format.

But McDavid’s goals are out there, every single one of them, a tool both for teaching and introspection. In 2015, teammate Ryan Nugent-Hopkins told Ben Kuzma of the Vancouver Sun that then-rookie McDavid “just floats out there and goes from zero to 100 and maintains that glide.”

You don’t have to take his word for it — just watch the replays.

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