THERE ARE 17,000square feet of ice on an NHL rink, and this spring Washington Capitalsdefenseman Mike Green figures to cover more of them than anyone. He will behere and there and everywhere, sometimes whisking the puck into the offensivezone and then scooting to try to be the first man back in the defensive end ashe indulges his insatiable wanderlust. Green set a record for defensemen withgoals in eight consecutive games this season and, despite missing 14 matcheswith a shoulder injury, he finished with 31—the most by a blueliner in 16years. Considering that his principal job is helping to ensure that the puckstays out of the Washington net, he spends a remarkable amount of his nearly 26minutes of ice time a game hovering around the other team's goal line.
On therisk-reward scale, Green, one of only eight defensemen ever to reach the30-goal mark and one of only two (Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom is the other) inthe past 12 seasons to average a point per game, tends to be near the end withthe skull and crossbones and the WARNING: DANGER sign. But while no otherdefenseman plays quite like a man doing doughnuts at the finish line—"Healways has a green light; that's a pun," Capitals center Brooks Laichsays—all of the serious 2009 Stanley Cup contenders, with the exception ofVancouver, have at least one gung ho defenseman who will resolutely attack fromthe back, kick-starting a transition with a sharp pass and then trailing theplay or jumping into a seam to create a scoring chance.
In a two-monthplayoff marathon that will test their legs, as well as their convictions aboutthe role of the attacking defenseman, blueliners such as San Jose's Dan Boyle,Chicago's Brian Campbell, Pittsburgh's Sergei Gonchar, Detroit's Lidstrom andBrian Rafalski, Philadelphia's Kimmo Timonen, and even Paul Martin oftraditionally conservative New Jersey will probe for opportunities to create agame-changing offensive chance.
Gambles will betaken. Swashes will be buckled.
April 19, 2009
"It'sconfusing to the other team and forces them to adjust," Martin says ofchallenging opponents with onrushing defensemen. "This year we've done alittle better job as far as being able to jump up and not just stayback."
"Having oneof those [puck-moving defensemen like Green] helps your forwards in a couple ofways," Capitals general manager George McPhee says. "For one thing,your forwards don't have to hesitate. They know that when they take off and hitthe hole, they'll be getting the puck on their stick. For another thing, itcreates more scoring opportunities because when a guy like Green jumps into theplay, the defense can't cover everybody."
In thetight-checking playoffs, with defenses geared to stop high-scoring forwards, asmart (and bold) defenseman will get ample chances to read a play and find someexploitable space. Having someone who can do that has become all but obligatoryfor a playoff finalist. In 2008 defensemen for the Cup-winning Red Wingscontributed 44.4% of the team's postseason points, up from 28.7% during theregular season and almost double the league's average for defensemen in theregular year. In all but one of the past 14 seasons, defensemen accounted for ahigher percentage of their team's points in the playoffs than they did in theregular season. (Eighty-nine defensemen had at least one point in the '08playoffs, the most since '92.) The backbone of the attack is generally apuck-mover like Gonchar or Lidstrom, who has 31 points in 40 playoff games thepast two years, but even a less graceful defenseman with an imposing shot—thinkSan Jose's Rob Blake, Boston's Zdeno Chara and Dennis Wideman, and Anaheim'sChris Pronger—can find opportunities to score.
"When theblue lines were moved out [after the 2004--05 lockout] and the neutral zone wasshrunk [from 54 to 50 feet], it made a big impact on the role ofdefensemen," Oilers coach Craig MacTavish says. "The way teams collapsetheir coverage now, a lot of times your [defense] is handling the puck more inthe offensive zone than your forwards are."
"Theimportance of those kinds of defensemen in the playoffs can't beoverstated," says former Tampa Bay general manager Jay Feaster. "Theyear we won the Stanley Cup [in 2004], the biggest challenge we faced was inthe Eastern Conference final against Philadelphia, especially in Game 6 andovertime. Our defense stopped pinching, stopped being aggressive. Even Danny[Boyle, then with the Lightning] stopped doing what he normally did. Our D wasbacking up more, the last thing we wanted them to do. I told [then Lightningcoach John Tortorella] before Game 7 that I hoped we wouldn't try to besomebody else, that we'd keep taking chances.... That's the question: Will youhave the courage to do it as the playoffs go on? When you get closer to theCup, you get nervous. You don't want to make a mistake. But you have to realizethat this is how you played in order to get there." Feaster pauses."You need courage."
GREEN, THEEPITOME of the offensive defenseman, has never been timorous. There was nothingthe thrill-seeking boy wouldn't try while growing up in Calgary: leaping offhay bales, zipping around on dirt bikes, racing go-karts, wake boarding and,naturally, riding sheep. On visits to a family farm an hour from his home,Green and his cousins would hop on the back of a sheep, grab a handful offleece and hang on. The kiddie rodeo ended when Green was eight and a roguesheep threw him into a corral fence, giving him a nasty knock on the head. Now,at 23, Green's most conspicuous rides are a white 2007 Lamborghini and hissize-8¾ Bauer Vapor 40 skates for those peregrinations that take him to theopposing net in search of goals.
"He's such acarefree player, sometimes his coach is going to be a little nervous abouthaving him out there," says Doug Armstrong, the Blues' vice president ofplayer personnel, who filled a similar role for Team Canada and had Green inthe 2008 world championships. "But I guarantee you, the opposing coach iseven more nervous."
Green, in histhird full season, is a defenseman who on his worst nights gives both teams achance to win. He eschews simple. He detests safe. Green guesses that duringthe 2008--09 regular season, he chipped the puck off the glass and out of theCapitals' zone maybe twice all year—or as many times as a plodding,conservative defensemen might do in a period. He loathes the standard page fromthe defenseman's primer because it is devoid of creativity, especially when hisalternative is to follow his muse and slip a three-foot pass through aforechecker's legs to a teammate.
"A defensemanlike me sees the game coming toward me," marvels Washington's John Erskine,a safety-first type who was Green's partner earlier this season. "Greeniesees it going in the other direction."
Green can affordthe all-in approach because he outskates mistakes. He is not Lamborghini-slicklike Anaheim's Scott Niedermayer nor able to cover three zones in three strideslike Hall of Fame defenseman Paul Coffey once seemingly could—"My dadcalled me a couple of years ago and said, 'You've got to watch this Green kidin Washington,'" Coffey recounts—but like a comic-book superhero, Greensimply materializes. In the Feb. 11 game in which he tied Mike O'Connell's25-year-old record with at least one goal in seven straight matches, Green wasskating behind the Rangers' net when New York forward Blair Betts corralled thepuck at the halfboards and let loose an outlet pass toward winger FredrikSjostrom. Green burst forth and intercepted the pass at the near blue line.Then in overtime Green, who had scored twice in the game, had his pocket pickedby Rangers left wing Lauri Korpikoski while dangling the puck as he came out ofhis own zone. Only Green's desperate poke check kept Korpikoski from abreakaway. "Just trying to make a play," Green says of his waywardstickhandling. "It's OT. You don't want to sit back. You're going to makemistakes, but as long as you recover, and I guess I did, it's O.K."
Capitals coachBruce Boudreau might have been tearing his few remaining hairs out that night,but he understands that he helped create this monster. In Green's first 113 NHLgames under coach Glen Hanlon, he had six goals and 16 assists and was -26. Onthe bus to Philadelphia for Boudreau's first game, on Nov. 23, 2007, the newcoach officially took off the training wheels. Recalls Green, who had playedfor Boudreau when both were with Hershey of the American Hockey League, "Hetold me to go score some goals." Two minutes and 27 seconds into the gamethat night, Green did precisely that. In 129 NHL regular-season games underBoudreau, the liberated Green has 46 goals, 76 assists and is +38. "Theonly problems occur when he starts leading the rushes all the time,"Boudreau says. "I do get a little antsy with that."
In his NHLplayoff debut last spring, Green had three goals and four assists in theCapitals' seven-game, first-round loss to Philadelphia. If Washington'suncertain goaltending can hold up this postseason (starter José Théodore willbe on a short leash), Green should have at least a few rounds to expand thosestatistics and satisfy his desire to roam. ("Cautious?" McPhee muses."That's not Mike.") Just as the Presidents' Trophy--winning Sharks willdepend on Boyle (box, page 49) to smooth their perennially disappointingplayoff path—SI still likes Detroit, its preseason pick, rather than San Joseto win the Cup—the Capitals will lean heavily on their wild child. Greencontributes not as a handmaiden to star wingers Alex Ovechkin and AlexanderSemin but as an equal. Says Théodore, "Greenie's skill level is up therewith Ovechkin and all those top guys."
In the past yearGreen has added some bulk to his 6'1" and now 212-pound frame, playedbetter one-on-one and positional defense, thrown more crunchinghits—"Especially when he's in a grumpy mood," Boudreau says—and takento sometimes lingering in front of the Capitals' net to clear pucks. He doesall of that, however, without abandoning any of his core principles."Greenie's doing so many good things out there," says Laich."Making a move around two guys and finding open ice, driving wide ordrawing defenders to him. He almost tilts the ice in our favor."
"When a guy like Green jumps into a play itcreates opportunity, says McPhee. "The defense CAN'T COVEREVERYBODY."
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