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The science behind Erik Karlsson’s jaw-dropping Game 3 saucer pass

Ottawa's Mike Hoffman opened the scoring against the Bruins in Game 3 on a breakaway, but the setup was even more jaw-dropping than the score. Learn what went in to Erik Karlsson's brilliant 116-foot saucer pass.

Erik Karlsson is a wizard.

This is the conclusion we could have come to after Game 2 of the Senators’ first-round series against the Bruins after Karlsson made jaws drop across the hockey world. You see, in Game 2, Karlsson singlehandedly skated around the Bruins in the offensive zone, winding up near the blueline and cutting back towards the left wing circle before putting a beautiful and brilliant pass onto the tape of Derick Brassard for the game-tying goal. And when you spur on an instant-classic Bob Cole call out of a play, it’s clear you’re doing something right, so it would have been safe to assume a play such as Karlsson’s had all the trappings of a not-soon-to-be-topped moment.

But, boy, that assumption would have been dead wrong. 

In Game 3, Karlsson wowed with creativity and precision on a stretch saucer pass that set up Mike Hoffman’s game-opening goal. According to the Sportsnet broadcast, Karlsson’s dish sailed 116.3 feet — equal to roughly one-third of a football field — and was 10 feet above the ice at its peak. Not only that, the puck landed right on Hoffman’s tape, sending him in on a clear-cut breakaway which he finished in style. If you haven’t seen the play, feast your eyes:

Having seen it for the first time — or in some cases an, ahem, conservatively estimated 50th — here’s the conclusion we can draw: Erik Karlsson is, indeed, a wizard. At least that’s the case for us average fans.

University de Moncton physics professor Alain Haché, however, has another, more analytical way of looking at Karlsson’s pass. For Haché, author of The Physics of Hockey and Slap Shot Science, Karlsson’s pass remains a thing of beauty, but he can also appreciate the scientific factors that went into the feat, starting with the spin.

“The saucer pass is a little bit like a frisbee,” Haché explained. “You have to give it a spin in order for it to be stable in the air, and if it’s not done properly, you’ll see that the puck will wobble and sometimes flip and have a very erratic trajectory. But in this case it was fairly flat and you saw the puck land flat on the ice.”

Putting the english on the puck comes from rolling it from the heel to toe of the blade, allowing it to seemingly roll along stick’s curve as it’s hoisted into the air. Spin is only part of the equation, however. Haché said in addition to the rotation of the puck there were at least three more variables, in a sense, that went into Karlsson’s ability to not only make the pass but complete it. 

“The amount of force he puts on gives it velocity,” Haché said. “The angle at which he sends it, as well, that’s another thing. There’s also the spin, plus the direction, the aim, left or right. There are four degrees of freedom — four things he could have played with or adjusted independently. Also, you have to think that there’s air drag. The trajectory the puck would be different if there were no air, but this is also taken into account, if you will, by the shooter, who has been doing this for years and years in practice.”

And nailing each “degree of freedom,” something Karlsson unconsciously accomplished, played an important part in his pass becoming the arguable play of the playoffs thus far.

The aforementioned spin allowed the puck to stay flat in the air, but when it comes to the muscle Karlsson put behind the feed, five percent more force could have resulted in the puck sailing much farther regardless of how calm the puck stayed during flight. In fact, Haché noted a five percent error in force at launch by Karlsson could have resulted in the puck sailing an additional 12 feet, meaning the breathtaking play could have turned into an icing or a stoppage by Bruins netminder Tuukka Rask. As for the angle, well, Haché said a typical pass — saucer or otherwise — has an angle of zero to five degrees. Karlsson’s hail mary? As far as Haché can tell, it was around 20 degrees and such an angle can come with a greater chance of the puck flipping end over end.

In regard to the dead-eye aim of the pass, though, Haché made sure to point out that Karlsson wasn’t acting alone. Sure, it was Karlsson who spotted Hoffman cutting up the ice and led the Senators’ sniper in alone on Rask, but the recipient of a two-zone aerial plays a major role in the completing the play.

“Hoffman is skating so he has time to adjust himself,” Haché said. “It’s like football. If you throw a long, long pass, the receiver can run faster or slower and make some adjustments before the reception…Certainly, if you look at it, it looks perfect because it just lands right on the stick, but you have to consider that it’s a two-player effort that goes on.”

A two-player effort, no doubt, because were it not for Hoffman’s finish — which crossed the line thanks to some Forsbergian flourish — Karlsson’s pass may have been all for naught.

But Haché shouldn’t be worried that Karlsson or any of the league’s elite who make wondrous plays on a near nightly basis could be gunning for a job in the physics field any time soon. You won’t find many — or any — players breaking down the science behind a highlight-reel pass, nor will you see Karlsson with a pad and a pen next time he’s setting up a breakout from behind the Senators’ net.

“They don’t know why and for sure they don’t calculate it,” Haché said. “It’s just experience and skill that tells them, ‘OK, this is how you do it.’ ”

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