Nikita Scherbak’s time in professional hockey is marked by high-end skill with highlight-reel goals or assists, but also by some inconsistencies and injuries.
This year showed fans a glimpse of what his top level can be. He played at a point-per-game pace on an awful AHL club, and at the NHL level he showed off his dynamic skills several times.
His skating is smooth, and lets him get up to top speed quickly. His hands are slick, and the combination of those things make him a dangerous player when given any sort of space on the ice.
The Dallas Stars found this out the hard way this past season when Scherbak turned their defence into practice pylons while scoring on Kari Lehtonen. Let’s dig into what went into making such a gorgeous goal happen.
Like most of the Habs’ offence last year it involved Brendan Gallagher. With the Canadiens on the power play, Gallagher has the puck (black arrow) on his backhand along the boards in the defensive zone while a Stars forward attempts to pressure him from his front side. Scherbak (red arrow) is drifting into the open space at the top of the defensive zone.
The puck comes up the boards with no Stars players around to make a play on it, so with the space open to him, Scherbak begins to break toward the puck at the blue line, while both Stephen Johns (#28) and Dan Hamhuis (#2) linger close to the red line.
The puck makes its way to Johns, who is looking to feed the puck back to one of his two available teammates (green arrows) in the neutral zone, while Scherbak pressures the defender. If Johns completes this pass, there are two Dallas players going forward on a side of the ice where there is just one Montreal player (blue arrow) in a position to defend.
Scherbak however is able to force Johns into rushing his pass across the zone to Hamhuis, and he fumbles the release, causing the puck to harmlessly trickle off his stick. With Johns caught flat-footed, Scherbak pounces on the wayward puck, blowing by Johns (now marked with a green arrow). This forces Dan Hamhuis (on the left of the screen) to shift toward the middle of the ice, opening up an outside lane for Scherbak.
With Hamhuis now directly in front of Scherbak, the young Muscovite chips the puck just beyond his defender. As the puck goes to his left, Hamhuis is caught in no man’s land, skating backward while Scherbak can now pursue the puck with speed toward the net.
Scherbak beats Hamhuis around the corner, forcing the Stars defender to scramble to try to take away the path to the net. As Scherbak corrals the puck, he begins to use his edges to angle himself toward the net, and uses his free hand to defend against any incoming stick play from Hamhuis.
Unable to keep up with his speed, Hamhuis falls to the ice, giving Scherbak all the space he needs to cut to the net. That leaves just Kari Lehtonen to try to stop the charging Canadiens forward.
Lehtonen is aggressive in his play, challenging Scherbak on his near post, forcing him to the outside. Unfortunately for Lehtonen, Scherbak maintains his speed and control of the puck, and neatly deposits it past Lehtonen’s right leg for a power-play goal.
This is arguably the most impressive goal of the young forward’s career to this point. He used timely pressure to force a turnover, and then an active stick to chip a puck free past another defender. He then used his long strides to turn that defender inside out, before utilizing his silky smooth hands to dangle around the goalie and finish the play off.
It’s a glimpse into what Scherbak is capable of as he continues to grow as a player, and more plays like this will make him a fan favourite in absolutely no time at all.