Faster, Younger, Cheaper A high-speed postseason (ding-dong, the trap is dead!) has rewritten the NHL stylebook. Should be a thrilling final--but are you watching?

May 23, 2004

The fashion trend in the 2004 Stanley Cup playoffs: Forechecking
is the new black. The neutral-zone trap is so five minutes ago.

Now maybe there isn't much big-city buzz about the conference
finals. (Quick, name three San Jose Sharks.) But in its absence,
hockey fans are being rewarded with the unmistakable crunching
sound of aggressive checking. You want juice, try the
refrigerator. You want 200 feet of skating and hitting and the
occasional dollop of creativity, try the pound-you-to-a-pulp
Philadelphia Flyers or the slick Tampa Bay Lightning meeting the
speedy Sharks or Calgary Flames in the Cup finals.

While the NHL is struggling to lure a TV audience (the league has
been drawing about one quarter of the NBA's viewership this
post-season) and seemingly poised to disappear into a work
stoppage when its labor agreement expires Sept. 15, hockey may
also be on the cusp of its most exciting style change in decades.
High-priced designer teams like the Detroit Red Wings are out.
Off-the-rack teams that have ditched the trap as a cornerstone of
their schemes, such as the Flames and the Sharks, are in. After
beating San Jose 3-0 on Monday, Calgary led the Western
Conference finals 3-2, but both clubs provide plenty of bangs for
the buck.

Even the $65 million Flyers, who beat the Lightning 3-2 last
Saturday to knot their series at two games each, are
forechecking, their fat wallets apparently not slowing them as
they've adjusted their game to Tampa Bay's. Still, name-brand
Philadelphia, with the league's fourth-highest payroll and six
core players over age 30, is the anomaly. The other
semifinalists, who began the season ranked 19th (Flames), 20th
(Sharks) and 21st (Lightning) in payroll, are a template for the
new NHL: fast, young and cheap.

"You're seeing a trend develop, one that's good for hockey," says
New York Islanders coach Steve Stirling, who has been sent by
general manager Mike Milbury to study--translation: steal--the
systems of teams like the Lightning and the Sharks. "A team like
Tampa Bay comes at you pretty hard all the way. When you see them
do it and have success with it, opening up the game and creating
scoring chances all over the ice, you have to give thought to
doing it yourself."

Speed is still principally in evidence on the forecheck and not
on the attack, except when Tampa Bay is playing. The Lightning,
whose artistry moved overheated Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock to
compare Tampa Bay with the Wayne Gretzky-era Edmonton Oilers,
runs its firewagon system thanks to goaltender Nikolai
Khabibulin. Coach John Tortorella can green-light his skaters
because Khabibulin, who had a league-best .946 playoff save
percentage through Sunday, generally keeps the red light off even
in the face of the odd-man rushes the Lightning's style can
allow. The only time Tortorella makes reference to a trap is when
he urges Hitchcock to shut his. "One time we were trying to
simulate the trap in practice so we could work on our breakout
against it," says 24-year-old Lightning center Brad Richards.
"Finally [Tortorella] just blows the whistle and tells us to
stop. He says, 'Forget it. I'm not going to teach you guys the
trap. I don't want you to know how to do it.'" The Lightning is
bold not only in transition--"They fly [out of the defensive]
zone and cherry pick and aren't afraid to send someone into the
neutral zone even if it's not 100 percent sure they'll get the
puck out," says Keith Primeau, leader of the Philly
forecheck--but also in the attacking zone, routinely sending two
skaters in deep. Tampa Bay keeps one forward high and encourages
both defensemen to pinch at the blue line to create, in essence,
a five-man forecheck.

"Players like it," says Lightning associate coach Craig Ramsay.
"They look at [the system] and say, This is pretty good. The main
word here is go."

The commitment to playing an attacking style in the pursuit of a
35-pound silver chalice--putting pedal to the metal, as it
were--demands intensity, team speed and conditioning. It does
not, however, demand gobs of money. The most undervalued asset in
hockey has been young, fresh legs, a market inefficiency that
allowed Flames general manager and coach Darryl Sutter to create
a dynamic line that has a combined annual salary of $2.45 million
--less than half of what the Colorado Avalanche, San Jose's
second-round victim, piddled away on Teemu Selanne after the
Sharks did not re-sign him last summer.

Shean Donovan ($753,000), Ville Nieminen ($600,000) and Marcus
Nilson ($1.1 million) are all 29 or younger and zoom around the
ice as if controlled by joysticks. Donovan is playing for his
fifth organization because he was unfairly tagged as having a low
hockey IQ. He blossomed into an 18-goal scorer and a sturdy
checker under Sutter, a role that was enhanced after Calgary
acquired Nieminen and Nilson before the trading deadline.
Nieminen's accented argot might occasionally need subtitles--"On
the road we play hospital hockey: more patients," the Footnote
Finn said after the Flames lost Game 3, 3-0, at home--but he is
eloquent in his hard work. Nieminen has combined well with
Nilson, who had never lived up to expectations as the Florida
Panthers' 1996 top draft choice. With a market correction and the
economic folly of some of the traditional powers exposed (the six
Flames defensemen in this series, none older than 28, make $5.315
million, about as much as the Red Wings, beaten by Calgary in the
second round, pay 31-year-old Derian Hatcher), Donovan's line is
the NHL's paradigm. "The workers have speed now," says Hitchcock,
who turned the Flyers loose in their 6-2 Game 2 win. "Before they
were more positional players. Now they're more forechecking,
puck-pursuit hounds."

The Sharks were trapping dogs for the first 15 games of the
season, but after winning only three times during that stretch,
Ron Wilson blew up the schemes and reinvented San Jose. The
catalyst was not captain Patrick Marleau, but two players the
coach barely knew: speedy Swedish winger Nils Ekman, previously a
minor leaguer in the New York Rangers organization, and forward
Alexander Korolyuk, who played the 2002-03 season in Russia. "To
be honest, I didn't have any plans for Korolyuk when I saw how he
wanted to play like a freelancer," says Wilson. "But once Korky
started buying in and we saw he could be a speed guy who could
make an impact, we changed everything to become a strong
forechecking and puck-pursuit team." San Jose attacks with speed
but also resorts to sly dump-ins--low shots that rim the boards
or soft cross-ice chips--that keep pucks away from goalies and
allow the Sharks to initiate a forecheck. With the NHL proposal
to limit goalies' handling of the puck next year, the future,
whenever that might be, will favor the forecheck. With a payroll
around $35 million and owners apparently set on a salary cap in
that vicinity, San Jose is ahead of the economic curve, too.

Like wing-tipped brogues, the trap will always have its place. It
can be a useful tool in some situations, including late in the
game to protect leads, but hockey fashionistas know that styles
change. Only a year after the neutral-zone trap reached its
apogee in a seven-game slog between Cup winner New Jersey and
Anaheim, forechecking is all the rage. The games have gone from
full bores to full bore.

For more NHL playoff coverage, including breakdowns of every
series, go to si.com/hockey/nhl/specials/playoffs/2004.

COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SI IMAGING; JEFF VINNICK/GETTY IMAGES (BROWN); ICON SMI (NIEMINEN); LOU CAPOZZOLA (ST. LOUIS) ALL OVER THE ICE Speedy San Jose checker Curtis Brown (far left), pot-stirring Calgary winger Ville Nieminen (center) and star Tampa Bay sniper Martin St. Louis are evidence of a trend toward more wide-open play. COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA STICKING IT Aggressive forechecking, like this hit by Philadelphia's Branko Radivojevic on Tampa Bay's Nolan Pratt, has replaced the passive resistance of the trap.

"Players like our system," says Lightning associate coach Craig
Ramsay. "The main word here is go."

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)