ST. PAUL -- One of the most difficult plays in hockey to execute is one that coaches talk about almost daily with the players they lead.
It's called a "P.O.P.," or pass off the pads. The Wild executed it perfectly in its most recent preseason game in Dallas.
A "P.O.P." play is not an easy one to practice, mostly because the play itself has to develop organically. A textbook "P.O.P." may only happen a few times every season, but when it does, it's a thing of beauty.
On Thursday in Dallas, the stars (no pun intended) aligned for the Wild.
Wild defenseman Louie Belpedio hit forward Ryan Hartman in stride, and he entered the offensive zone with Jason Zucker 2-on-1.
The positioning of both Zucker and Stars defenseman Miro Heiskanen was key. Heiskanen, the back-checking Dallas blue liner, recognized the right-handed Hartman was on his off side and he played the rush aggressively, taking away time and space from Hartman as he came down the left side.
"When I crossed the blue line, I was thinking about passing, but I didn't have a lane," Hartman said.
With a stick and a body in his way, preventing Hartman from flipping a difficult backhand pass to a wide open Zucker, Hartman had only one choice: shoot.
But off of that shot, Hartman had a couple of options.
Video: MIN@DAL: Zucker buries rebound in front
Stars goaltender Anton Khudobin was also playing aggressively out of his crease. A butterfly style goalie, Hartman knew that Khudobin would drop to the ice as soon as he shot. So instead of firing at the nearside post, Hartman shot low and towards the goaltender's far-side pad.
Barring a complete disaster in goal, Hartman knew this shot wouldn't go in, and that wasn't his intent anyway. But if what he thought would happen actually did, the result would be even better.
Indeed, Hartman could not have visualized it in his head any better. Khudobin kicked the puck right back into the slot and on to the waiting tape of a crashing Zucker, who had the entire net to shoot at.
"I've tried it before. That goalie is pretty aggressive, so I knew that if you just lay one off on the far pad, that his momentum is carrying him towards me," Hartman said. "There are only a handful of goalies that I would have tried it on and he's one of them."
Zucker said he only had one thing on his mind on the play and that was getting open.
"Make it an easy pass for Harts," he said. "That's it. And it depends on who you're playing with. When I was playing with [Mikael Granlund], and he was on his off-side, he would go to his backhand every time, so I would drive the net."
Zucker and Granlund scored oodles of goals off virtually the same play in recent years, as Granlund would work the puck forward and loft a backhand pass around a defenseman to Zucker waiting on the back door.
Video: EDM@MIN: Zucker pots feed from Granlund early in 3rd
Video: MIN@CGY: Zucker buries Granlund's slick feed
Video: NSH@MIN: Zucker slides home Granlund's nifty dish
The two were good at it because they played together for several seasons. They each knew the play before it happened.
But Zucker had never played with Hartman, so what he was unaware of what the play would be. Without that knowledge and experience, he did all he could: he tried to get open and find a lane.
Hartman laid a perfect pass on Zucker's tape, only it came via some help from the goaltender's left pad.
"Just an unbelievable play. It's the kind of play not many players think of," Zucker said. "You can't do it any better than that."
Deciding whether to try a "P.O.P." is something that begins as soon as Hartman receives the puck from Belpedio in the neutral zone.
Moments before, Dallas tried to get the puck deep but couldn't. The Stars executed a line change anyway, and as soon as Belpedio intercepted it along the right-wing wall, he knew the Wild would have numbers headed the other way.
Just four seconds elapsed between the time Belpedio intercepted the zone entry and the time Hartman pulled the trigger on his pass off the pads. In those four seconds, Hartman ran through all of his options, decided on it then executed it.
That's how quickly it all came together.
"It's kind of second nature. It's not something you really think about it," Hartman said. "It's just natural."
Preparation also helps. Hartman has played several games against Khudobin and knows his style. He visualized some of the things he might try if put in a situation. One of those was leading a 2-on-1, and the "P.O.P." was an option from the very beginning.
"That's what a lot of guys do coming into the game, just knowing your opponent," Hartman said. "I know before the game the things I would do if given the chance on a particular goalie."
A goalie's style of play is also one of the things Hartman said he takes into account whether to even try a pass off the pads. There aren't many, he said.
How few is not many? A dozen? 10? Eight?
"I don't even think that many," Hartman said. "There's just a handful of goalies that play out a little more on a shot and there's a good chance that trying to beat him with a shot given how far out he is, just isn't very likely. That played right into the pass off the pad there."