Chaos in the Crease

May 21, 2007
May 21, 2007

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May 21, 2007

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Chaos in the Crease

With long-range goals rare in today's game, the conference finals may be decided by the work of fearless net pests like Detroit's Tomas Holmstrom

Tomas Holmstrompositioned himself in front of the Anaheim net last Friday on a third-periodDetroit Red Wings power play. NHL coaches like to call this an example of"traffic," but when the double-parked player is Holmstrom, he createssomething more insidious than mere gridlock. He plants his skates millimetersoutside the blue-tinted 44-square-foot area that delineates the crease andrefuses to budge, raising hockey hell, obstructing the goaltender's view, tyingup defensemen, tipping pucks and generally being a miserable cuss.

This is an article from the May 21, 2007 issue Original Layout

On a team withelegant Swedes such as Holmstrom's linemate Henrik Zetterberg and defensemanNicklas Lidstrom, Holmstrom is a Norse of a different color. "He can'tskate," general manager Ken Holland says. "If you have him race mostNHL players over 30 feet, he'd lose. But put a puck four feet away, tell him toget there first, and Homer"--Holmstrom's nickname--"will win that race.And when he sets up shop at the front of the net, they can't twist him or turnhim."

Not that Ducksgoaltender Jean-Sébastien Gigu√®re and defensemen Scott Niedermayer and Fran√ßoisBeauchemin weren't trying in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. Holmstromjostled with all three as Lidstrom wound up for a slap shot from the point. Agoalie, much like a hitter in baseball who picks up a pitch at its releasepoint, can usually tell where a puck is headed if he can read the shot off thestick. Although Holmstrom is only 5'11", 202 pounds, he has a way offilling a goaltender's field of vision. Sometimes Holmstrom will take an armoff his stick and wave it, or he'll raise his stick and rotate it like thecoupling rod on a locomotive's wheel. This time, as Lidstrom shot, Holmstrompivoted and flapped his arms like a wind-blown scarecrow. The puck was lost inthe thicket of Holmstrom and the three Ducks ("Three versus one, Homerloves those odds," said Detroit center Kris Draper) before somehowreappearing in the net. The workingman's goal with five minutes left, initiallycredited to Lidstrom but later awarded to Holmstrom (the puck appeared toglance off his upper body), gave the Red Wings a 2--1 victory. Holland calledit "classic Homer," a fitting observation given the puck's odyssey.

These, of course,are the kinds of goals that win Stanley Cups. Deflections. Rebounds. Screens.Goals so ugly only a tough mother like Holmstrom could love them. Teams thatcontrol the front of the net control the conference finals, and the irony ofthe more "open" postlockout NHL is that the game has essentially beenshrunk to a mere 30 feet, 15 in front of each crease. With referees makingobstruction calls more frequently, and defenses often being forced to collapsedeep into their own zone to guard against long, now legal two-line passes, thepath to the front of the net is simpler and swifter. This comes in an era whengoalies are larger and more adroit than ever, far less likely than theirprogenitors to let in a wicked shot from the wing. As Wings coach Mike Babcockputs it, "If you don't get on the inside every trip down the ice, they'rethe ones running the rink."

Lay the 24 goalsthe Ducks, Wings, Sabres and Senators scored in the four conference finalsgames through Sunday end to end, and--if you toss out Joe Corvo's long-rangebouncer that gave Ottawa a double-overtime win in Game 2 of the EasternConference finals--they wouldn't even surpass a baseball slugger's tape-measurehome run. In the opener of the Ottawa-Buffalo series, after Senatorsfourth-liner Oleg Saprykin used a Sabres defenseman as a screen and scored frominside 15 feet, he said he was thinking, "Just go to the net hard. That'sthe way to get on the score sheet. That's where goals are going to be."Saprykin's goal proved to be the winner in Ottawa's 5--2 victory.

"You're notgoing to get open looks [as a forward], so you've got to cause havoc andconfusion," said Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller. "Their fourth goal [inGame 1] was a great example. The shooter [defenseman Wade Redden] didn't knowwhere [the puck] was [after he shot it]. I didn't know where it was. The onlyguy who knew where it was was the guy coming off the play [in front of the net,Jason] Spezza," the center who nudged it home from just outside the bluepaint.

The dangerous,crowded space bordering the crease remains the province of forwards who havesome stick skills, good hockey sense and a lot of courage--determined men suchas Holmstrom, who returned from an eye injury in Game 4 of the second round tokick-start a winning streak of four playoff games before Detroit lost 4--3 tothe Ducks on Sunday night to tie the conference finals after two games.Holmstrom's mastery is especially pronounced on the power play, which is arobust 8 for 26 since Game 4 of the second-round San Jose series. In that gamehe used a Bjorn Borg ground stroke on a rebound to produce a point-blank goalin the waning seconds of the second period, keying an unlikely comeback. DustinPenner, the hulking Ducks leftwinger charged with executing similarfront-of-the-net responsibilities, was impressed. "The first game back, andwhat he did with one eye or one-and-a-half eyes, it's a credit to him,"Penner said.

Penner has facedhis own challenges this year. Because he hasn't always commanded the front ofthe net with sufficient presence, coach Randy Carlyle has made the 29-goalsophomore his whipping boy. "It takes more focus and concentration than youthink," says Penner, who practices tipping pucks daily. "All the goalsthat net-front guys score are a matter of a split second or less. That's allthe time you get to capitalize on a loose puck before a [defenseman] or goalietosses it away or covers it. Some guys have a higher learning curve or startoff higher on the tipping scale. Some guys just have the timing. Some guys havethe ability to get better at it. I hope I'm one of those."

He might takeheart from the fact that Holmstrom routinely ran afoul of his coach early inhis NHL career. The 257th pick of the 1994 draft arrived in Detroit from Swedenwith the nickname Demolition Man because of how he pinballed his way to thecrease with his choppy stride, crashing and bumping, playing a very non-Swedishbrand of hockey. Scotty Bowman, the Red Wings coach, would point to the creaseand order Holmstrom to stay there. "I'd say, 'But when the puck goes intothe corner...,' and he'd say, 'No, I don't want you to leave,'" Holmstromrecalls. "It was a little too much."

Although he setsup with his back to the net, facing the puck, the GPS in Holmstrom's brainknows precisely where the crease is so that he doesn't impede illegally--he hasno goalie-interference penalties in this year's playoffs. He also has a feelfor the geometry of the shot, the only net-front player in the NHL whocontinually alters his angle, trying to mirror what he anticipates is thegoalie's movement. Says Red Wings backup goalie Chris Osgood, who playedagainst Holmstrom when Osgood was with St. Louis, "Some guys are happy tostay in one place.... You can kinda look around them. But Homer comes into yoursight line late, just as the puck's shot."

For Holmstrom, 10years in the line of NHL fire have resulted in countless stitches, nine lostteeth and a major concussion when his noggin intercepted a shot by teammateSteve Yzerman in 2000. Holmstrom still wears extra foam and plastic pads thatequipment manager Paul Boyer pieces together to provide ramped-up protectionfor his back (cross-checks), calves (slashes) and shins (pucks). When asked onthe eve of the conference finals how he planned to deal with Holmstrom, starDucks defenseman Chris Pronger said, "You try to box him out, not allow himeasy access to the front. Once he's there, just leave him. Kinda play aroundhim. It's a lot easier for a goaltender to look around him than to look aroundtwo guys." Obviously, Pronger changed his mind. The next night hecross-checked Holmstrom near the net four times in 10 seconds during athird-period power play. Holmstrom shrugged it off as "a little hack andwhack." As long as he can stay at the fiesta, he doesn't mind being thepiñata.

On Ice
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The irony of the more "open" NHL is that thegame has essentially been SHRUNK TO THE 15 FEET IN FRONT OF EACH CREASE.
TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by David E. KluthoTANGLEDUP IN BLUE
After backing into the crease area, Holmstrom will do whatever he can to get inGiguère's way.
With forwards like Dany Heatley (front) charging hard at the Sabres' Miller,Ottawa took a 3--0 series lead.