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Fluto Shinzawa | Hockey Notes

The puck doesn't stop here

Red Wings' attack is poetry in motion

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / June 1, 2008

As a proud-of-it Neanderthal, it was especially satisfying for this pucks observer to watch the belligerent Ducks bash their way to the Stanley Cup in 2006-07, playing old-time hockey - a checking line! - and clobbering opponents, throwing sharpened elbows, and spewing insults between chipped teeth, to set a blueprint for what the 2007-08 Bruins tried to follow.

But it's been equally refreshing to watch the Red Wings, in position to win their 11th Cup, play a different brand of hockey as they come close to capturing the same prize.

The 2007-08 Wings, like no other club in the league, have sprinted to the verge of yet another title because of their multidimensional style. They can skate. They can put the puck in the net. Contrary to their reputation, they can hit and be tough to play against. They have forwards who are both skilled and rugged. They have a dependable netminder in Chris Osgood. They're well-coached. They have perhaps the best general manager in the NHL in Ken Holland, who has been just as effective in the post-cap NHL as he was when he was the generous steward of owner Mike Ilitch's seemingly bottomless checking account during Detroit's free-spending days.

But first and foremost, Detroit's success starts on its blue line. It doesn't hurt that the Wings have one of the top five defensemen of all time in Nicklas Lidstrom, on track to nose out Zdeno Chara for another Norris Trophy later this month. But surrounding Lidstrom is a complement of defensemen who, for the most part, can all retrieve the puck and shuttle it swiftly out of their zone.

Brian Rafalski is a proven puck mover. No. 3 defenseman Niklas Kronwall, the only Holland-drafted first-round pick on the roster, is developing into a reasonable Lidstrom facsimile. Brad Stuart, despite his Game 3 flub that led to Pittsburgh's first goal, can barrel into corners, fish out pucks, and start the breakout. Even bottom-pairing defenseman Brett Lebda can turn up ice and make crisp outlet passes.

In comparison, Boston's corps seems downright pedestrian.

So how does a stout blue line make Detroit successful? Watch the Wings when they go back in their zone - their forwards are also retreating to help out - and dig out pucks. They don't rim the puck around the boards. They shy away from lugging it out of the zone themselves. And they certainly don't fling the puck with desperation into the stands as the 2006-07 Bruins did far too often, leading to delay-of-game infractions.

Instead, their outlet passes are crisp and accurate, usually on the tape of forwards - often centermen such as Henrik Zetterberg, Valtteri Filppula, and Kris Draper - flying through the neutral zone with speed. As a result, you don't see the Wings flipping the puck and forechecking (in fact, coach Mike Babcock said his forwards aren't big enough to be effective dump-and-chasers).

"You don't see bobbled passes," said Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. "Usually what happens is when you have a bobbled pass, it results in a rim. It all starts from the back end. There's a seamless transition to the forwards. The forwards have got some really good skill and grit, but nonetheless, you don't see many of their forwards who can't handle the puck."

Once the Wings gain the offensive zone, they continue their puck-possession game. Babcock has repeatedly reminded his players that the puck moves quicker than the fleetest skater, so the Wings snap it around, looking for seams as they force their defenders to shift and open up spaces.

They have skilled attackers like Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, who can dangle through defenses. They can feed the puck to the points to Lidstrom and Rafalski, who aren't afraid to shift down low and create mismatches. They have a singular player in Tomas Holmstrom with the ability to gain net-front position and root his skates into the area just outside the paint.

"You try to play to the strengths of your players," Babcock said. "We're real fortunate. We have, I think, an excellent puck-moving defense and we have really good centers. When you have that, you have a chance to have the puck a fair bit."

The regular-season results: 34.4 shots per game, most in the NHL. A mere 23.5 shots allowed, fewest in the league. A winning percentage of .714 when outshooting other clubs - predictably, the NHL's best mark. A total of 252 goals, third most in the NHL. A league-low 2.14 goals-against average.

All this, of course, could be rendered irrelevant if the Penguins, with their talent-stuffed roster, complete a comeback and snatch the Cup away.

But while Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero faces the challenge of keeping his core together, Holland has seemingly come up with a formula whereby the Wings simply reload every year - a situation that Chiarelli hopes to devise for the Bruins.

A sizable acquisition

Going by his place of residence, Matt Marquardt, a native of North Bay, Ontario, should have played his junior hockey in the OHL.

But in 2005, after Marquardt didn't get selected in the OHL bantam draft, he went east to the Quebec Major Junior league - specifically Moncton. With the Wildcats, Marquardt played alongside Martins Karsums and Brad Marchand, now his teammates in the Boston organization.

"It's a pretty good town, from what I've heard," said Marquardt, whose rights were acquired last Tuesday from Columbus for defenseman Jonathan Sigalet. "I've stayed in contact with Marchand. Karsums went up a year earlier, but I've talked to him a couple times. They've said nothing but good things. I know [Andrew] Bodnarchuk from Halifax, so some familiar faces will make the transition a lot easier."

The Blue Jackets selected Marquardt in the seventh round of the 2006 draft. But they were unable to come to terms before today's deadline, after which the 6-foot-2-inch, 222-pound winger would have become a free agent had he not signed a pro deal. So for the second straight offseason, the Bruins obtained the rights to a Columbus prospect (they plucked defenseman Adam McQuaid froms the Jackets for a fifth-round pick), then signed Marquardt to a three-year entry-level deal.

"He's a big kid," said Boston GM Peter Chiarelli. "He can really shoot the puck. By no means is he a finished product. He's really got to work on his conditioning and consistency. But I've said I'd like to get some size and offense, and he fills part of that."

Marquardt, who will turn 21 next month, netted 43 goals and 26 assists in 68 games in 2007-08 for Moncton and Baie-Comeau. He will attend the development camp next month at Ristuccia Arena, then will most likely play in Providence in 2008-09.

"I consider myself a power forward," Marquardt said. "I like to play the physical game as well as the skilled game. I know at the pro level I'll probably have to switch it up a bit for a couple years.

"I was a third- and fourth-line guy my first year. I played a season as a grinder, so I know how to play that role. I had a chance the last couple years to step up and be a productive point guy. So that shows a bit of versatility in my game. I like to take the puck to the net and use my size to create time and space for my teammates."

Crosby a leader - except when it comes to ice time

There's not much evidence against the proclamation that Sidney Crosby is the best all-around player in the NHL, especially considering his inspirational two-goal performance in Pittsburgh's 3-2 victory in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals.

But for a player of that status, you'd think that Crosby would be spending more time on the ice. During the regular season, Crosby was ranked 21st among forwards in ice time per game, averaging a 20:50 workload, behind the likes of Buffalo's Derek Roy and Minnesota's Mikko Koivu. Crosby averaged only 42 seconds per game on the penalty kill.

Surprisingly, Crosby's ice time has decreased in the playoffs. Through 17 games, Crosby had averaged only 19:43, more than a minute off his regular-season time. Crosby ranked 35th among forwards in postseason ice time. That's less than forwards such as San Jose's Joe Pavelski, Nashville's Martin Erat, and Ottawa's Antoine Vermette, hardly players who can be considered the face of the NHL.

Crosby's postseason playing time includes a mere 11 seconds of shorthanded time per match, and only five players among the top 35 (Dallas's Mike Ribeiro, New York's Jaromir Jagr, and Washington's threesome of Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Nicklas Backstrom) are seeing less PK action.

Claude Julien, concerned that Marc Savard would languish on the bench during the PK, came up with a solution, sending the center out for defensive- and neutral-zone draws. Savard averaged 54 seconds of shorthanded time per game. That could be a move Pittsburgh boss Michel Therrien considers next season to keep Crosby engaged in game flow.

Etc.

Gilroy is here
At one point in March, all signs pointed toward Boston University defenseman Matt Gilroy leaving school a season early and signing a one-year pro deal, possibly even seeing NHL action before the close of 2007-08. But Gilroy, a puck-moving defenseman, chose to return for his senior season for several reasons. First, he believes the Terriers are built for a championship run, especially if forward Colin Wilson, projected to go in the top 10 of this month's draft, stays in school for another year. Second, he'll be reunited with younger brother Kevin, an incoming freshman. Third, he won't be hindered by the NHL's entry-level salary structure. Had he turned pro after his junior year, Gilroy would have been forced to sign a one-year contract capped at an annual $875,000. But because he'll be 25 as of Sept. 15, 2009, Gilroy is exempt from the entry-level system. That means Gilroy (who graduated from high school in 2003 and played two years in the Eastern Junior Hockey League) can set his terms, and considering some of the contracts puck-moving defensemen are getting, he could earn at least $1 million annually on his first contract.

Toivonen may be headed home
There is nothing official, but Hannu Toivonen is considering a return to his native Finland instead of re-signing with St. Louis. Toivonen, a restricted free agent who turned 24 last month, hoped to resurrect his career with the Blues in 2007-08 after the Bruins traded him for prospect Carl Soderberg. But Toivonen didn't fare any better as Manny Legace's No. 2 man, going 6-10-5 with a 3.44 goals-against average and an .878 save percentage. Even more disturbing were his minor league numbers in Peoria, the Blues' AHL affiliate: 6-4-0, 3.16 GAA, .883 save percentage. With Legace returning as the No. 1 and former University of Maine netminder Ben Bishop projected as the goalie of the future (Czech youngster Marek Schwarz may also remain in the mix), the Blues couldn't afford to let Toivonen develop. If he signs in Finland, St. Louis would retain his NHL rights. "Not sure what he will do," said Bill Zito, Toivonen's agent. "A lot of things can happen."

Curry chasing Calder Cup
It was negligent last week not to mention in this space the first-year play of former BU netminder John Curry, who is in the Calder Cup finals with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pittsburgh's AHL club. Curry finished out 2006-07, his senior year at BU, with a torn labrum in his hip, scaring off NHL teams. With backup Ty Conklin headed for unrestricted free agency, the Pittsburgh bosses may look at Curry as a No. 2 option behind Marc-Andre Fleury next year. "Throughout his whole life, people have always been, 'We like him, but he has to prove himself,' " said Peter Fish, Curry's agent. "But that's all he does. He wins and he proves himself. He's that rock. That's why I think Pittsburgh really considers him a prospect now. He's going to make it."

Is Sullivan headed south?
One NHL agent said ex-Bruins coach Mike Sullivan, John Tortorella's right-hand man in Tampa Bay, could be in the mix for the Atlanta job. Sullivan has USA Hockey ties to GM Don Waddell. Sullivan coached the Yanks in the 2007 World Championships. Waddell is a member of USA Hockey's National Team Advisory Group. If Sullivan lands with the Thrashers, he could lure Providence coach Scott Gordon, once his assistant with the P-Bruins, to Atlanta as his assistant. During the season, it looked as if ex-Bruin Brad McCrimmon, the Thrashers' associate coach, would get the No. 1 job, but that doesn't appear to be the case anymore.

Loose pucks
The more I think about it, the more I believe Bruins coach Claude Julien erred by scrubbing the morning skate prior to Game 1 at Bell Centre. Julien was correct in saying the Bruins had gone through three productive days of practice and wouldn't have accomplished anything in the skate. But the skate isn't about technical work. It's about getting into a rhythm, breaking a sweat, and maintaining the normalcy of the regular season. "The thing I like about today is that it's more like routine," said Detroit coach Mike Babcock prior to Game 1 of the finals, when all of his players went through a brief morning skate at Joe Louis Arena. "Let's get on doing with what we do. I think you're trying to look for normalcy in today's game, as much as it's exciting." . . . Zdeno Chara has moved base camp to his offseason home in Florida, where he continues to rehab his left shoulder. Chara will travel to Toronto for the NHL Awards Show June 12, make a stop in Boston, then fly to Africa for his visit as an athlete-ambassador for Right to Play . . . Bruins bosses were in Toronto last week, poking and prodding draft-eligible prospects during the annual combine, then holding their amateur meetings. "Lot of quality defensemen in this draft and a shortage of center icemen," Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli said. "It's a very deep draft. When you get into the third and fourth round, we're still seeing guys that we really like." . . . Matt Hunwick closed out his rookie year in Providence on an upswing and will be monitored closely in training camp as a puck-moving option for the big club. "I think Matt felt very good about his season as a whole," said Fish, Hunwick's agent. "Particularly toward the end, he felt everything clicked. When you talk about the new NHL and the transition game, he's that type of guy. I've got to believe the Bruins are looking at him and saying, 'That's exactly what we need.' " . . . The Tradition, the annual bash thrown by the Sports Museum, will feature Cam Neely among its honorees June 24. Tickets at $250 and $150 are available at the TD Banknorth Garden box office, at 617-624-1237, or at sportsmuseum.org or tdbanknorthgarden.com.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com

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