The evening rush hour in Montreal stretched until 10 p.m. last
Thursday as it appeared that traffic on the Decarie Expressway
had been rerouted a few miles east, to the front of goaltender
Jose Theodore's net. A late-model SUV with North Carolina license
plates reading ERIK COLE eased next to Theodore and put it in
park. Another Carolina tourist, Bates Battaglia, spent much of
his evening idling in Theodore's blue-painted alcove. The traffic
cops on the Canadiens' defense grew so exasperated with the
gridlock that early in the third period, nursing a 3-0 lead with
victory and a 3-1 series advantage all but assured, blueliner
Stephane Quintal cross-checked hard-charging Martin Gelinas. When
Montreal coach Michel Therrien brayed and waved his arms to
protest the penalty, referee Kerry Fraser whistled Therrien for
abuse of officials.
The infractions touched off a Rube Goldberg chain reaction: 1)
the Hurricanes' resulting power-play score kicked off a
three-goal comeback that 2) led to an overtime win that 3)
shattered Theodore's mystique and 4) gave second life to a
Carolina team that had seemed on the brink of elimination. But
for all the criticism that would later be aimed at Therrien for
his untimely rant, the sudden stumble of the Canadiens could be
more accurately traced to that staple of playoff hockey: crease
The Stanley Cup playoffs are like drive-time radio--constant
traffic updates. The Ottawa Senators scored what proved to be
the winning goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 3 last
week on a play that Leafs goalie Curtis Joseph insisted was
interference. In the St. Louis Blues-Detroit Red Wings series,
Blues netminder Brent Johnson needed a trainer's attention at
least twice after being crushed by Red Wings crease crashers.
Wings goalie Dominik Hasek, meanwhile, was dropped by the Blues'
Keith Tkachuk in Game 1, even though the force and location of
the hit were as mysterious as the Muhammad Ali punch that
knocked out Sonny Liston. Carolina blitzed Theodore, but even
the small, slippery Canadiens forwards were hustling to the net
to see if goalies Kevin Weekes and Arturs Irbe were leaving any
of their signature rebounds. The big San Jose Sharks forwards
were so aggressive in swooping down on Colorado Avalanche goalie
Patrick Roy in their series that Avalanche defensemen such as
Adam Foote concentrated on gaining inside body position to keep
the slot relatively open instead of engaging in the more
physically draining hand-to-hand crease-crashing combat.
"The play intensifies around the net 100 percent in the
playoffs," Red Wings associate coach Barry Smith said before
Detroit bubble-wrapped Hasek last Saturday in a 4-0 victory in
Game 5 that eliminated the Blues. "The battles are there.
Everybody's trying to get there. The puck's trying to get there.
We might not be as good as some other teams going to the net, but
we're trying to get better."
May 19, 2002
Going hard to the net is as much a hockey truism as paying the
price, but the cost became more reasonable 12 years ago. In 1990
the NHL introduced the hockey equivalent of air bags by removing
the dangerous metal stanchions that firmly held the nets in place
and by putting the goals on magnets (and now plastic pegs). Those
changes allowed the nets to become dislodged from their moorings
much more easily. The reduced chance of injury from smashing into
a rigid net emboldened forwards to do more crease crashing. The
NHL viewed the subsequent running of goalies a significant enough
problem that in '91 the league changed the rule governing players
entering the crease. Under the new rule (which was designed to
protect the goalies and was strictly enforced during the '98-99
season), no player could score while his skate was in the blue
crease paint unless the puck preceded him. That rule led to one
of the NHL's embarrassing moments: In the '99 Stanley Cup finals
between the Buffalo Sabres and the Dallas Stars, Brett Hull
scored the disputed series-winning goal for the Stars despite his
skate's being in the crease. The league tweaked the rule the
following season, allowing a goal to be scored with a player in
the crease as long as he wasn't interfering with the goaltender.
Clearly goalies have been more vulnerable since (Tkachuk crashed
the net for a rebound in the first round last year and knocked
out San Jose goalie Evgeni Nabokov for two games with a back
injury), but they are hardly an endangered species. "The new
crease rule just gives us [forwards] a little more leniency,
that's all," says Toronto's Gary Roberts, a veteran crease
crasher. "A good change."
NHL coaches figure that a goalie will stop everything he sees and
perhaps 80% of what he doesn't. The fender-bending
forwards--Roberts, who looks as if he were born with a black eye;
St. Louis's Scott Mellanby; and Detroit's Tomas Holmstrom--boldly
go to the high-density spots, screening the goalie and looking
for the rebounds or deflections that make up the so-called ugly
goals. Battaglia, a pot stirrer, likes to think of himself as a
sort of lunar eclipse. "My job," he explains, "is to get my big
ass in front of Theodore's face and make sure he can't see the
There is a smattering of technique involved (a player who
creates a traffic jam needs to be strong on his skates), but
mostly what's required is the will to get to the front of the
net and then loiter despite persistent cross-checks, slashes and
stick-holding. With the traditional latitude of playoff
officiating, referees often give cross-checking defensemen a
mulligan. "In the playoffs you can probably get away with two
cross-checks on a guy near the crease before the refs start
[cracking down on] you," Maple Leafs defenseman Wade Belak says,
"so then you start whacking at the backs of their legs until the
refs start yelling at you for that. By then, hopefully, the
puck's out of the zone."
There is a distinction between traffic in front of the goalie and
the more sinister crease crashing, even if that distinction is
often blurred depending on who is being violated. When Carolina's
Ron Francis and Jaroslav Svoboda got tangled up with Theodore in
a goalmouth menage a trois in Game 2 on May 5, the Hurricanes
contended that they were simply driving to the net, while
Montreal began a chorus of complaints about crease crashing that
would crescendo four days later with Therrien's penalty.
Theodore, for his part, was mute about the heavy breathing the
Hurricanes were doing in his face; he dismissed the traffic with
a shrug. The Blues' Johnson, similarly, seemed unfazed whenever
the Red Wings jostled him, an occupational hazard that younger
goalies--both are 25--seem more willing to accept than some of the
NHL's veteran netminders.
"No goalie likes the traffic, but the ones who seem to object the
most are the big-name guys like Joseph, Hasek and [Patrick] Roy,"
says Montreal fourth-line agitator Bill Lindsay. "Like Wayne
Gretzky when he played, these are the guys with clout. They're
the ones you hear from all the time."
Ottawa forward Benoit Brunet kept Joseph from squaring to the
shooter on the third Senators goal in an eventual 3-2 win in Game
3 on May 6. That touched off a mild tantrum by Joseph. Hasek saw
replays of the disputed Ottawa goal and concurred with his fellow
netminder that it was a clear-cut case of interference. Of
course, Hasek has been known to swoon on cue better than Scarlett
O'Hara if an opposing forward gets in his zip code, never mind
his kitchen. (You may recall that Vancouver Canucks general
manager Brian Burke, during his team's first-round series against
Hasek and Detroit, drolly referred to his own goalie, Dan
Cloutier, as the one who "doesn't dive when he gets brushed.")
In the last minute of a 2-0 win in Game 1 against St. Louis on
May 2, Hasek came out of his crease to play the puck behind his
net. Tkachuk barged in. The next instant, Hasek was on the ice,
holding his head. Although replays seemed to show that Tkachuk
hit Hasek's stick, Hasek insisted he was struck by Tkachuk's
shoulder, a cheap shot given the immunity goalies are granted
even when they wander from their net. Whether Hasek performed a
2 1/2 in the pike position or was felled by a deliberate hit,
Hasek professes (philosophically, at least) to accept the idea of
bottlenecks in front of his crease. "This is something you know
going in [to the playoffs]--even more crashing, more traffic in
front," Hasek says. "I don't feel that's a problem."
The ferocious fight for position around the crease is now a
springtime ritual of the game. The forwards skate hard to the
net, the defensemen fend them off, and the goalies peer through
the cracks like a VW Beetle driver stuck behind a semi. In the
tangle of the playoff crease the message is clear: If you want to
win, go play in traffic.
"The play intensifies around the net 100 percent in the
playoffs," says Smith. "Everybody's trying to get there."
At least twice against the Red Wings, Johnson needed assistance
from a trainer after a net-mouth collision.