- The game's best players make sure to involve their feet when it comes to handling the puck, giving them a distinct advantage when it comes to receiving—and making—passes.
Midway through the first period of Game 3 in the Stanley Cup Final, a lifetime of athletic training—quite literally—kicked into action for Capitals winger T.J. Oshie. Unguarded on the backdoor while Vegas was busy defending the rest of Washington's vaunted power play, Oshie watched a loose rebound arch across the slot and plummet toward the ice.
Over the next second or so, all in one motion, Oshie swung his left skate, booted the puck to his forehand, scooped a shot past Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, and celebrated a 1-0 lead.
Raised as a multisport athlete, Oshie developed plenty of fine-motor skills that he believes translated into his career on the ice. (Certainly they help Oshie during those pregame H-O-R-S-E competitions that Capitals players would wage on the Wizards' practice court.) But few are more eminently evident than his ability to kick and control pucks with his fancy feet.
"It's something I work on every once in a while," Oshie says. "I'll skate around the neutral zone and have one of our assistants fire pucks into my skates and I'll figure out a way to handle them. I think it's a good skill to have, and something you don't think about that you should work on."
"It's definitely an added weapon for sure," Bruins center Patrice Bergeron says.
"Guys are big, rinks are hot, ice is going to get chipped up," Rangers forward Chris Kreider says. "It's such a huge element."
As the old adage among NHLers goes, it's impossible to make a bad pass to a good player. "I truly believe that," says Predators center Ryan Johansen. "Guys are moving so fast, switching routes and turning and spinning. You get a ton of passes in your feet all the time. You should never look at your teammate for making a bad pass, because you can always pick it up."
On the one hand, the NHL rulebook spills plenty of ink about feet. Rule 49.2 permits kicking "in all zones" but forbids players from using "a distinct kicking motion" to score goals. Similarly, Rule 34.4 (iv) outlaws the kicking of equipment—"stick, glove, helmet, etc."—to knock the puck past the goal line. And yet most players who spoke with SI.com couldn't recall any youth coaches wasting breath on the subject at practice. "I think you just naturally acquire it," says Devils winger Taylor Hall, the reigning NHL MVP. "You just get better and better."
Here, let the Pele of puck-kicking explain. When Sidney Crosby was growing up, his father Troy would always remind him, "Find a way to get them with your feet." They did not perform specific drills like Oshie, but whenever pucks would enter Crosby's triangle—the blind spot connecting his skates and stick blade—the young prodigy from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, would "make a conscious effort to not give up on those."
Today Crosby specifically instructs teammates to chuck bad passes his way to practice. "He'll say, 'Put this in my feet, make sure I accept it properly,'" says Hall, a regular at Crosby's annual late-August skills camp in Vail, Colo. A seven-minute highlight video on YouTube (below), exclusively dedicated to Crosby's footwork, has earned more than 640,000 views.
"It comes down to awareness," Crosby says. "Is your stick tied up? Are you in a weird position? Where do you need to get the puck? Where is the puck? Part is identifying that, part is using your feet to do it. They go hand-in-hand I think."
Indeed, executing the proper foot-pass takes surprising technique. "In soccer you can drag your foot when you kick the ball," Oshie says. "If your skate touches the ice when you kick the puck, you'll dig in and get a high ankle sprain or snap your ankle. You have to put your skate like this far off the ice to kick a puck. It's a lot harder than you'd think."
Which makes it all the more highlight-worthy when it works. Like when Islanders dynamo Mathew Barzal over-stickhandled against Columbus on Feb. 3 and compensated by gently nudging the puck to linemate Jordan Eberle for a game-tying goal. Or when Flyers winger Jakub Voracek executed a perfect back-heel pass against New Jersey last Jan. 13. Or when Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews was jockeying for possession, stepped atop the puck with his skate, and slid it away from traffic for an open shot attempt five days later.
"It's definitely an underrated skill," says Matthews, who reports sprinkling such moves into his offseason program with personal coach Darryl Belfry. "How many times do you get a clean pass right on your tape, right in your wheelhouse? It doesn't happen often."
Ducks defenseman John Manson, meanwhile, admires the way that center Ryan Getzlaf and winger Rickard Rakell angle their skates along the walls to help stop the rumbling, tumbling motion of a rimmed puck. "It's one thing to be able to take the puck in your skates, stop it, so it's around you and then you pick it up," Manson says. "Those guys can go skate to stick to another person's stick. That's impressive."
Of course, it doesn't take much effort to just flail a leg in a scrum and hope for the best, either. "It's something you might not think about as you're battling in the corner, but for me it's a little bit easier for me to get body position and hold a guy off from the puck, so I just do that," Manson says. "It's easier to use your foot than your stick."
Until the thirst for more offense loosened the rules in the mid-1990s, even accidentally kicked goals were disallowed by the NHL. So what about opening them up even further, doing away with nebulous controversies over the definition of "distinct," and permitting soccer-style plays? Might anyone enjoy making that drastic of a change? "Kind of, yeah," Matthews says with a smile. "I could've added a goal or two this year."