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Whoosh! The surviving Stanley Cup playoff teams, including surprises like the Wild, all share the one attribute now needed for success in the postseason--speed to burn

May 05, 2003
May 05, 2003

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May 5, 2003

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Whoosh! The surviving Stanley Cup playoff teams, including surprises like the Wild, all share the one attribute now needed for success in the postseason--speed to burn

Marian Hossa, who is quicker than a Canadian summer, grabbed the
puck inside the Philadelphia Flyers' blue line and skated down
the left wing, behind the net, back up the right wing, across
the ice along the blue line and down the left side again before
dishing to an Ottawa Senators teammate in the middle as the
dazed Flyers looked on. Hossa, who had lugged the puck for a
remarkable 10 seconds, then skated another, tighter loop
behind the net and through the crease--he was not merely skating
circles around Philadelphia, he was skating concentric
circles--before setting up to the right of goalie Roman
Cechmanek, in ideal position to backhand a rebound of Bryan
Smolinski's shot for the Senators' second goal in a 4-2 home win
in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals last Friday. The
goal judge didn't know whether to flip on the red light or give
Hossa the checkered flag. "Once Hossa gets going," says Ottawa
center Radek Bonk, "good luck."

This is an article from the May 5, 2003 issue Original Layout

In the NHL there are the quick and the dead. "In the continuing
evolution of the game, speed has become the defining element,"
says Vancouver Canucks center Brendan Morrison, one of his team's
fastest players. "Ten, even five years ago, the emphasis was on
the big, physical guy. That's changed."

The playoffs have never been a place for the timorous. Now they
are no longer the place for the ponderous. If there is a thread
in the second round other than the lack of correlation between
payroll and success--the sputtering Dallas Stars, who lost twice
in overtime at home to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in round 2,
are the only remaining team with a top-five payroll, and four of
the other seven teams rank in the bottom third of the league--it
is the speed of the survivors. Like the fairy-tale Minnesota
Wild, whose $21.5 million payroll is the NHL's lowest, these
teams are priced to go. The Wild, which tied its series with the
Canucks on Sunday with a 3-2 win in Game 2 in Vancouver, might
not have pricey talent, but it has the formula: Formula One.

"Everybody that's left now is quick," says Flyers coach Ken
Hitchcock, whose team clamped down on the Senators in a 2-0 Game
2 victory in Ottawa on Sunday. "New Jersey. Ottawa. Minnesota and
Vancouver. [Speed is] how Minnesota kills you. Everybody talks
about the Wild's system, but it's what they do once you turn the
puck over. They're gone, like Anaheim. Anaheim boxes you in; you
turn it over and they're gone, because they have so much speed."

Like beauty, speed takes different forms. There is the
jersey-flapping speed of Stars center Mike Modano and Devils
defenseman Scott Niedermayer. There is the water-bug speed of the
Tampa Bay Lightning's 5'9" Martin St. Louis, who in Game 2 last
Saturday stripped New Jersey defenseman Brian Rafalski, who is no
slowpoke, and beat him from the blue line to score shorthanded,
his sixth playoff goal in eight games. There is supporting speed
like that of Canucks defenseman Ed Jovanovski, one of four
Vancouver blueliners who can motor, a change from 15 years ago,
when teams rarely had more than two defensemen who were excellent
skaters. There is the sneaky speed of Canucks monster right wing
Todd Bertuzzi, who hurls his 6'3", 235-pound girth into seams in
the attacking zone. There is speed on the forecheck, which makes
Devils forwards Jamie Langenbrunner and John Madden almost as
dangerous as any No. 1 center-winger combination they cover.
There is the Wild's transition speed. And there is puck
speed--the ability to counterattack instantly--an attribute of
the Senators, Mighty Ducks and Canucks. Minnesota general manager
Doug Risebrough calls it five-on-five speed.

The premium on speed is the by-product of systems hockey, the
trap that threatened to strangle the game a decade ago. One of
the most effective trap-busters is a slick-skating defenseman
like Niedermayer, but speed has become the blueprint even for
trapping teams such as the Wild, which relies on turnovers as the
lifeblood of its offense. "The fact that this is a thinking man's
sport won't change," Risebrough says, "but in a tactical game you
can alter the flow by using your speed. If you have speed, you
can pressure the puck, go after things at the right moments,
close when a puck is loose. If you can't skate, you'll keep your
position, thinking you can't get there. If you can skate, you'll
pressure the guy 10 feet away and force the turnovers."

Minnesota is the most audacious model of the speed team. This
group of virtual unknowns (is left wing Antti Laaksonen an
antacid? center Wes Walz a Midwestern variation of the Texas
two-step?) knows it will do at least one thing well in every
game. This was Risebrough's design. When developing a model for
his third-year expansion franchise, he weighed the sedan of
character and veteran leadership against the mag-wheeled coupe of
speed. He loves character--and says he has plenty of it on the
Wild--but chose the sporty model. This was a nod to personal
history. Risebrough and coach Jacques Lemaire were part of the
Montreal Canadiens' Flying Frenchmen of the 1970s, who boasted
speedsters Yvan (the Roadrunner) Cournoyer, Guy Lafleur and
Murray Wilson. Speed was also a marketing asset in Minnesota,
Land of 10,000 Frozen Lakes, where swift skating taps into the
local identity. Maybe the expansion boys could Mach 3 the more
skilled teams in the league, which were the other 29.

"Speed was going to be the equalizer for us," Risebrough says. "I
don't know if it makes us dangerous, but it's given us a lot of
confidence. There were going to be nights when things didn't work
out, but we could take comfort knowing we had outworked and
outskated someone."

In Game 1 against Vancouver last Friday, things did not work out
well for the Wild, whose players are small enough to fit on a
cracker and give up 12 pounds per man to the Canucks. Minnesota
lost on the scoreboard but won the footraces. Early in the third
period Walz worked a give-and-go with Marian Gaborik, blowing
past Morrison in a race to the front of the net. Morrison, who
was leaning toward center, anticipating that the puck would
squirt into the neutral zone, took off in pursuit as if Walz were
the last helicopter out of Saigon. Morrison never caught Walz,
who beat goalie Dan Cloutier for the first of two third-period
goals.

This is one Walz who does not move in three-quarter time. He is a
soon-to-be 33-year-old center who has played for five NHL teams
yet is as anonymous as a 12-step program. He might also be the
fastest player in hockey. He is certainly the Wild's fastest,
ahead of even Gaborik, who won the fastest-skater competition at
the All-Star Game festivities in February but who has lost to
Walz in their team's competition the last three years.

Walz took power-skating classes as a teen in Calgary but did not
notice the gap between himself and other gifted skaters until his
last year in junior hockey, when he scored 54 goals in 56 games
for the Lethbridge (Alberta) Hurricanes. The Boston Bruins
drafted him in the third round in 1989, but his skating never
took wing in cramped Boston Garden, and he drifted to
Philadelphia, Calgary (where he met Risebrough, then the Flames'
G.M.) and Detroit before going to Switzerland for four seasons.
"Playing on the big [international] ice got my skating back
again," says Walz, a superb checker who signed as a free agent
with Minnesota before its first season. "My skating had
deteriorated, maybe from a lack of confidence, but handling the
puck more over there helped me."

If anything, Walz was too confident in Game 1. With nine minutes
left he gaily carried the puck and collided in the neutral zone
with a curling Gaborik. The puck rolled to Markus Naslund, whose
wrist shot began the three-goal comeback that would give
Vancouver a 4-3 overtime win. "Sometimes," Risebrough says, "Wes
is more effective when he's a little tired."

He certainly is more effective playing with Gaborik. With the
Wild up 2-1 early in the third period of Game 2, Walz screamed,
"Gabby!" and then burst to the net, beating the backchecking
Naslund and taking Gaborik's pass for a virtual tap-in. That
speed goal was Walz's second game-winner in the five Wild playoff
victories. "You get a step on a guy, you give a yelp," Walz says.
"The Europeans don't talk a lot on the ice, maybe because they
already know where [their teammates] are going to be. We
Canadians and Americans don't have that rapport. We've got to
yell."

The Stanley Cup race might not go to the loudest or the swiftest,
but this year the fast teams seem to be making all the noise.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY LOU CAPOZZOLA BLUR Patrick Elias and the Devils use their swiftness to transition from defense to offense and put immediate pressure on the opposition.COLOR PHOTO: JEFF VINNICK/GETTY IMAGES/NHLI GOAL RUSH In Game 2, Walz, Minnesota's fastest player, used his legs to jet to the net and tap in the winner past Cloutier.
The wild might not have the PRICEY TALENT OF OTHER CUP
CONTENDERS, but it has a formula: Formula One.