Inside the NHL

November 11, 2002

Neutral-Zone Rap
The slick-skating Wild is winning games and fans by defying
the notion that a trapping team has to be dull

To hear players on the Wild tell it, one of the hottest teams in
hockey is misunderstood. Minnesota's reputation as a
bear-hugging, holding, bore-you-to-death trapping bunch is
exaggerated. "People see that we trap, and they think we clutch
and grab," says winger Andrew Brunette. "We're the furthest thing
from that. We play a tight defensive game, we're positionally
smart and our speed surprises teams."

If the Wild's speed surprises, its record shocks. Minnesota,
which was 2635129 last season, had the best record in the Western
Conference (8220) through Sunday. The team's speed has made coach
Jacques Lemaire's neutral-zone trap highly effective. By stocking
its forward lines with shifty, fast (albeit smaller) skaters, the
Wild is playing cagey defense, generating scoring chances off
turnovers and capitalizing on its power play (18.7%, ninth in the
league) to increase the team's scoring by almost a goal per game
(to 3.3) from last year.

Although the hot starts of explosive 20year-old winger Marian
Gaborik (seven goals) and resurgent goalie Manny Fernandez (1.84
goals-against average) are the most obvious factors in
Minnesota's rise, the happy marriage of skaters and system is the
secret of its success. The Wild applies pressure with a 122
forecheck, which requires the forwards to skate smoothly and
change directions rapidly to pressure the puck carrier and steer
him to the perimeter of the neutral zone. But contrary to popular
perception, Minnesota doesn't obstruct through the neutral zone.
Instead, the Wild uses speed and positioning to disrupt the
offensive rhythm.

Skating ability has been a primary consideration in G.M. Doug
Risebrough's assembling of the third-year expansion team, whose
$21 million payroll is the NHL's lowest. Forwards Bill Muckalt,
Cliff Ronning and Sergei Zholtok, all acquired over the past two
off-seasons, are able skaters and responsible two-way players.
They have jelled with Minnesota's young core under the tutelage
of Lemaire, the league's best X's and O's coach. "Jacques made me
into a checker when six years ago I couldn't check my coat," says
journeyman center Wes Walz. "He can teach you so much about
positioning."

Says Red Wings associate coach Barry Smith, "They play so well
collectively. They don't go outside the system."

That success notwithstanding, Lemaire has been almost fatalistic
in stressing the inevitability of a downturn--"Who knows where
we'll end up, maybe in a ditch?" he mused after last Thursday's
2-1 overtime win over the Sharks--the better to tamp mounting
expectations for an inexperienced team with seven regulars 25 or
younger. "When you have young guys who have spent four or five
years with an organization, you get a solid foundation," he says.
"Then, when you start to win, you'll be there every year. We're
still missing that."

The Bruins' Blueliners
Offense from The Defense

Despite 11 stitches in his chin, Boston defenseman Bryan Berard
stood in the home dressing room last Saturday night with a grin
on his face. A nasty first-period high-stick couldn't bring down
Berard, whose wrister from the left point struck the stick of New
York winger Pavel Bure, squirted through traffic and went into
the net with 38.8 seconds remaining to give the Bruins a 3-2
win.

Berard, who had three goals and five points through Sunday, is
the centerpiece of the club's blue line makeover. After losing
41goal winger Bill Guerin to free agency last summer, Boston
attempted to fill the scoring void by getting its defensemen, who
combined for just 18 of the team's 236 goals last season, to
increase their production. Spots belonging to Kyle McLaren (who
is sitting out because of a contract disagreement) and Jamie
Rivers (released) went to Berard, a free-agent signee, and
22year-old Jonathan Girard, promoted from the AHL. Second-year
defenseman Nick Boynton has been given additional ice time, and
all three have been urged to look for opportunities to join the
rush as well as pepper the net with pucks.

"With Bryan, Nick and myself, they've brought in people who play
aggressively," says Girard, "and we've also got others who work
hard on their defense. The six defensemen work together as duos."
Indeed, by placing an offensive-minded blueliner with a
stay-at-home type on each pairing--Girard with Hal Gill, Boynton
with Don Sweeney, Berard with Sean O'Donnell--Bruins coach Robbie
Ftorek has gotten a scoring boost from his defensive corps (eight
of the team's 37 goals), one reason the club was off to an
unexpectedly good start, 7-2-2-0 at week's end.

Blues' Injured Goaltenders
The More the Merrier

After his club's meek second-round playoff loss to the Red Wings
last May, Blues general manager Larry Pleau vowed to improve his
team from within. He was able to do that until last week, when an
unfathomable string of injuries to his goalies forced Pleau to
get outside help.

During the preseason, No. 1 netminder Brent Johnson suffered a
high left ankle sprain that will sideline him another three
weeks. In the season's second week backup Fred Brathwaite and No.
3 Reinhard Divis suffered groin pulls. (Brathwaite returned on
Oct. 26.) Fourth-stringer Curtis Sanford, called up from the
club's AHL affiliate in Worcester, Mass., won his first start on
Oct. 19 but strained his left Achilles tendon in his third game.
That left the job to Cody Rudkowsky, who had been toiling for
Trenton (N.J.) in the ECHL. Last week Pleau, desperate for
someone with NHL experience, signed a sixth netminder, 37year-old
free agent Tom Barrasso, to a one-year, $900,000 contract.

Miraculously, St. Louis had equaled a franchise-best 8110 start
through Sunday and was in first place in the Central Division.
Why? Those goalies had a combined 1.76 goals-against
average--second best in the league. Says Pleau, "We've got no
complaints."

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO (2) Speedy winger Gaborik, an emerging star, leads Minnesota with seven goals. COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO (2) TWO COLOR PHOTOS: COURTESY OF THE NHL (2)

Hall of Famer? Not a Hall of Famer?

C Guy Carbonneau 1980--81 through '99--00
A scoring sensation as a junior, he transformed his game to
become the best defensive forward of his era. His signature
moment came in the '93 Stanley Cup finals when he shut down
Wayne Gretzky to lead Montreal past L.A.

THE VOTE: His numbers are light (260 goals and 663 points), but
his impact wasn't. Put him in the Hall.

Which Team Really Is This Good?

Penguins

Behind playmaking center Mario Lemieux (20 assists) and
blossoming right wing Aleksey Morozov (seven goals), surprising
Pittsburgh, which last season missed the playoffs and had only 69
points, was 7220 through Sunday.

Lightning

Behind playmaking center Vincent Lecavalier (seven assists) and
blossoming right wing Martin St. Louis (nine goals), surprising
Tampa Bay, which last season missed the playoffs and had only 69
points, was 7320 through Sunday.

THE VERDICT: Expect the Lightning, which has benefited from a
soft schedule, to tail off. However, the Penguins have the talent
to remain postseason-bound. --D.G.H.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)