Gino Cavallini knows precisely what would have happened if Connor Bedard or Trevor Zegras pulled off or even attempted a lacrosse-style shot in his day.
“They would have started a line brawl,” said Cavallini, who played in the NHL in the 1980s and 1990s.
Cavallini isn’t one of those old-school people shaking his fist at Bedard and Zegras. Cavallini has come around with the times. Now the club director of the Chicago Mission, a top AAA junior hockey program, he’s learned to embrace the evolution and creativity of today’s players. After Bedard and Zegras each recently executed the “Michigan” goal on the same night, Cavallini had players lining up to attempt the same in practice the next day.
“It’s pretty cool,” Cavallini said. “They get it. It’s part of the game. You have to be prepared for it. It’s almost like when (Wayne) Gretzky would bank one from below the goal line off the back of the goalie’s pad or something like that. All of a sudden it’s like, holy s—, nobody thought about that.
“This is the new era. Those finer skills that maybe a handful of players could do 30 years ago, that’s common practice now. Think about a player like Bedard. If he breaks into the league and he can’t do that, you’re wondering why can’t he do it? … That’s how I look at it. The guys coming out of the generation I played in, we laugh at it; somebody would have smacked you back then. Now, if you can’t do it, you’re behind.”
There are some who still deem the lacrosse-style shot as a trick shot or even disrespectful. But for many, including Bedard and Zegras, they’re on a different plane of thought. They’re not even trying to showboat. They’re simply looking to score a goal.
“I think just you’re seeing it more and more, too,” Bedard said after a Chicago Blackhawks’ practice Thursday. “That’s the thing, there’s a lot of plays coming around the net whether it’s low to high or whatever, and I think if there’s room, it’s just a scoring chance. Something you’re trying to do to score a goal, not trying to be extra fancy or anything. It obviously looks different. It’s a different type of play, but in the end, you’re just trying to score a goal.
Skills coach Darryl Belfry calls it a problem-solving play. When he works with his NHL clients, they’re constantly searching for different ways to beat goalies, and that approach has evolved over the years as the players have evolved.
“I think that kids are trying to find different solutions and ways to use their puck skills in different ways,” Belfry said. “Where before, it was almost downplayed. Now it’s like, maybe there’s another way to do things. They do practice puck skills differently. Like, they’re looking to try to get the puck on their stick and do different things with it.
“I think it’s the beginning. I think even the way the ‘Michigan’ goal where it started to where it is now to see how fast a player can move and pick the puck up like seemingly out of nowhere and all of a sudden (they score). That Zegras goal is crazy. To do it at that speed. That’s just crazy. I think it’s just the beginning. It’s only a matter of time before they try to find other ways to utilize it. Maybe it’s not behind the net, maybe someone’s going to do it in front of the net. They’re just going to pick it up on the rush or something. I think we’re not long before we start seeing those things, both in youth hockey, but I think also in the NHL.”
Bedard was the first to pull off his “Michigan” on the night of Dec. 23. It was the opening period in St. Louis, and Bedard happened to find himself and the puck all alone behind the Blues’ net. The Blues’ two defenders were content on defending the front of the net and giving Bedard the back of it. They obviously didn’t see Bedard’s wheels spinning.
Bedard saw his opportunity and went for it.
“I think just getting it up quick (is the key),” Bedard said. “The hardest part is just having the space to do it. It’s pretty rare.”
It all came together for Bedard. He picked the puck on his stick, turned the corner and stuffed the puck over Blues goalie Jordan Binnington’s left shoulder into the net.
CONNOR BEDARD MICHIGAN GOAL ‼️ ARE YOU SERIOUS pic.twitter.com/pALY5tVXFo
— Chicago Blackhawks (@NHLBlackhawks) December 24, 2023
Social media lost it. The first video posted of the goal has nearly three million views. Gretzky happened to be in the building and was raving about Bedard and his goal later on TV.
Bedard, as usual, was pretty chill about the whole thing. He said he received “a couple texts” when he checked his phone after the game. He did geek out a bit about Gretzky.
“It’s cool,” Bedard said. “Obviously probably one, if not the best player, to ever play the game. The fact that he knows who I am is pretty cool. To hear him talk about me and have him say some kind words is special.”
Connor Bedard’s lacrosse-style goal leaves Blackhawks, Blues and Wayne Gretzky in awe
While that was all going on, the player who has seemingly mastered the “Michigan” was playing for the Anaheim Ducks at home against the Seattle Kraken. With a crowd at Honda Center watching in the third period, Zegras seized on his opportunity to add to his growing collection.
The Ducks were facing a 3-1 deficit when Zegras took a drop pass off the sideboard from rookie defenseman Pavel Mintyukov in the offensive zone. Kraken forward Alexander Wennberg saw Zegras carry the puck but opted to head in front of the net instead of chase after the center behind it. Like Bedard, Zegras had that rare space he needed. Before any other Kraken player could come close to reacting, Zegras had the puck on the toe of his stick blade and whipped it around the far post over goalie Joey Daccord’s right shoulder. All done without a hint of hesitation in his movements.
YOUR @NHL ALL-TIME LEADER IN LACROSSE-STYLE GOALS:
— Anaheim Ducks (@AnaheimDucks) December 24, 2023
Zegras, whose alley-oop pass to Sonny Milano in a game two years ago drew massive attention to his inventive playmaking, has tried the “Michigan” seven times and been successful on three attempts. The latest one closely resembled the one he scored in Montreal on Jan. 27, 2022.
Bedard favored Zegras’ over his own.
“He picked it up kind of with his toe there, so I think that’s a little harder,” Bedard said.
It is the ease with which Zegras goes from handling the puck on the ice to lifting it and scoring without fumbling it away that may be the most impressive part of that skill.
“You see his hands,” Ducks goalie John Gibson said. “You see what he can do with the puck. For me, I’m not surprised. I think he can do it whenever he wants. He’s that skilled and talented with the puck.”
As Belfry suggested, Zegras has learned to execute it at a higher level over the years.
“The thing that I think I’ve gotten really good at with the move is doing it at full speed,” Zegras said after the Ducks’ practice Friday. “So, it’s like the same as a wraparound. Whereas I feel like the first one that was ever done (by Mike Legg) at Michigan where he kind of stopped and scooped it. But if you can do it full speed, it’s like ‘Why not?’ The goalie’s not going to get there before me.
“In the last one versus Seattle, the way that my body was and the angle I was behind the net, I couldn’t scoop it with the heel. That’s why I went to the toe, because on the toe, you can keep your body more square. Whereas I feel like when I pick it up on the heel, I have to kind of turn my hips a little bit to get some momentum or leverage.
“Going that fast, it’s tough. But it makes the puck easier to pick up on your stick almost. When you just pop it up on the toe and you feel it’s stuck, it’s really not that hard. The finish is pretty easy.”
When Zegras learned later that night that Bedard had pulled off the same goal, he reached out to Bedard with a text.
“Sent him a laughing face emoji,” Zegras said.
Bedard said, “He texted me. It was kind of funny. It’s rare for them to go in. For a couple to happen on the same night, it’s a funny coincidence.”
Zegras has attracted plenty of fans with his successful scores, but he’s also aware of the contingent that scoffs at the play, questions its legality and even considers him a trick-shot artist and little more.
Zegras’ viewpoint is similar to Bedard’s. On that specific play, Zegras was trying to provide an offensive spark and the Ducks not only had numerous other strong scoring chances snuffed out by Daccord but were running out of time to mount a comeback.
“It’s not like it’s an ‘Oh, my god, look at this,’” Zegras said. “But when you score, obviously it’s nice. No complaints.”
Perhaps it’s time for the lacrosse goal to be viewed as just as much a scoring chance generated as a snapshot off the rush or a one-timer inside the faceoff circle. Or as Zegras touched on, a wraparound that’s elevated to take advantage of a goalie focused on locking down the post.
Mikael Granlund knows how that move can take a team by surprise. In 2011, Granlund authored his own lacrosse goal when scored for Finland against Russia at that year’s IIHF world championships.
“I’ve always said it doesn’t matter what way you score,” said Granlund, a 12-year NHL veteran now with the San Jose Sharks. “You only get one goal out of that. Whatever it takes? It’s the same thing as if a puck gets tipped or someone does that. You get one goal and that’s it.
“It’s hockey and you try to find new ways to score. It’s something that’s obviously (great) for the fans. It’s a ‘wow’ thing. But at the same time, you just get one goal out of it. I guess it’s the evolution of the game. You’re trying to find ways to score, and you try to help your team as best as you can.”
With that in mind, what is the best way to stop the play? When it comes to Bedard or Zegras, simply watching either go behind the net without challenging the shot isn’t the answer.
“A lot of people ask the goalies, but I think a lot of it’s more about the (defense),” Gibson said. “Obviously, it’s our job to save it. More times than not, I feel like the goalie’s not going to save it. It’s going to be the defense trying to hit the stick of the forwards to mess it up. Because the way we are, we’re in our crease and we’re just going post to post. Probably (easier) if you’re going to your glove side than your blocker side to get your glove up.
“You see some of them that are tried — and I know ‘Z’ had one or two — where the (defender) just kind of slashed the stick to get the puck off. I think that’s kind of the best way you can defend it. Obviously, there’s luck on both sides of it to be able to get the puck up and everything has to go well to get it in the net. And then there’s luck on the other side if you make the save or if the guy makes a good stick (play). So, I think it’s a two-way street.”
But there is a generation of hockey players around the world who see what Bedard and Zegras can pull off and they’re inspired by them. They’re practicing it and trying it more often than you’d think in competitive action.
“We got an 11-year-old who tries it in games all the time,” Cavallini said. “They mimic what they see, and when they see it and it’s cool, they’re doing it. This is the new wave. This generation of hockey players is technically so much better.”
Perhaps goalies aren’t preoccupied with the idea of someone trying the “Michigan” against them. The thought of players incorporating that into their offensive arsenal and the threat of them scoring could change their thinking.
“Honestly, when I’m out there, I don’t think it’s going through my head,” Gibson said. “I’m just playing the game. Trying to make my reads. Obviously, if a guy has a lot of time behind the net or something like that, then maybe it’s crossing your mind to be aware of it. But I think when I go off to start the game, I’m not worried if somebody’s going to do the ‘Michigan’ or stuff like that.
“It’s a great play and sometimes you got to tip your cap. Hopefully we’re on the right side of it more times than not.”
(Top photos: Jae C. Hong / Associated Press and Alexis R. Knight / Getty Images)