When It Comes To The Wings Power Play Tomas Holmstrom Stands Strong
With the Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks set to drop the puck on Friday night at HP Pavilion, familiar plots have already begun to emerge. From the presence of the greatest defenseman of our generation in Nicklas Lidstrom to the excellent puck moving talents of Dan Boyle, from the magic that is Pavel Datsyuk when he hits the red line and finds that second gear to the stellar puck control and eagle eyed vision of Joe Thornton, there is no shortage of storylines to be found in the thralls of waiting for game one. It is every hockey fan's dream to be blessed with such compelling material for consumption, an overwhelming flood of riches.
And once game one begins, the product will undoubtedly deliver on the promise.
However, throughout the course of an NHL playoff series, certain intricacies begin to capture the imagination. You won't find them racing through center ice, nor will you find them on highlight reels across the country. Instead you find them in the corners and along the boards, in the trenches where men are said to be made. With so many talented players on the ice for both teams, these are the types of battles that shift the tides of the war.
We're talking about defensive zone draws. Line matching that plays out like a chess match. Backchecks, low cycles, puck battles, and clean breakouts. The engine in the Escalade if you will, the factors that drive teams to postseason success.
Over the course of San Jose's upcoming series with Detroit, one of those battles will center around a player whose primarily role is to endure as many sticks to the groin and crosschecks to the back of the head as possible. A player who has begun to wear extra sets of pads in order to protect himself from the physical punishment he endures.
That player is Tomas Holmstrom. And rest assured, Tomas Holmstrom will become very well acquainted with Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi over the course of the next two weeks. In fact, if you didn't know any better, you'd probably start to think they were old pals by the way they'll seem to find each other every time they're out on the ice.
"His greatest asset is his ability to be tenacious in front of the net," Detroit winger Dan Cleary told the Montreal Gazzette earlier this year. "No one does a better job than him at standing in front of the net."
While a player like Pavel Datsyuk will pick your pocket and sneak out the front door, Holmstrom is a guy who will kick in your windows and proceed to take a bite out of the steak you have sitting on the kitchen table. The man's role is to cause a goaltender as much discomfort as possible in his own crease, to violate that sanctuary of safety. No player throughout the League toes that figurative and literal line between legality and infraction better than Holmstrom.
And sometimes you just have to let him go.
"You kind of want to leave him alone. You don't want to get tangled up with him too much because that's when he gets you out of play to clear rebounds," Sharks defenseman Niclas Wallin said. "We have to let the goalie see the first shot. I think a lot of guys get frustrated with him and start wrestling with him in front of the net, and that's when you get out of position."
Not allowing Holmstrom to dictate play in front of the net is something that Chris Pronger made into an art form during the course of the Anaheim Ducks' numerous postseason battles with the Red Wings over the years. Pronger would throw different looks at Holmstrom nearly every shift he was on the ice-- a stick blade pushed downward on the achilles heel to throw him off balance was one, which allowed Pronger to utilize his strength to push an off-balance Holmstrom out of the crease. On other shifts Pronger would actually play in front of Holmstrom, using his wide frame and shot blocking ability to keep shots from getting through. And on others, Pronger would play off his man and rely on his goaltender to make the first save before bulling his way into the sea of traffic to clear the puck.
San Jose practiced exactly that during practice yesterday afternoon. Brandon Mashinter and Frazer McLaren, clad in orange practice jerseys, took turns screening Antti Niemi while a Sharks defenseman stood to the side delivering occasional stick checks. Once the puck was put on net however, the real work began-- stick lifts, vicious checks, and body position were used to tie up the players camped out in front, with a focus on eliminating the man from getting to any second opportunities.
"(Our success) depends on how well we can do what we're trying to do with him," Niemi said. "It will obviously be tough to move him. If we play off him, that solution will allow more room for me to see."
It will be essential that San Jose's centers provide support in these situations, taking a page out of the Los Angeles' Kings playbook and aggressively collapsing towards the net during every single rebound opportunity. Even though one defenseman may be doing his job to take care of Holmstrom, there still remains a slew of other talented forwards on Detroit who have the ability to find the puck in traffic and capitalize on Niemi's rebound control that began to give him issues in the series against LA.
But as Sharks defenseman Douglas Murray explained, the Sharks can attempt to keep Holmstrom a non-factor by executing their gameplan before he gets to the crease.
"With a player like him you just need to try and cut him off before he gets to the net," Murray said. "He's a tough guy, when he gets there he's hard to move out, so keeping him outside for as much time as possible and taking him into the boards will be important."
While Holmstrom will be the most imposing player camped out in front of the Sharks net this series, Detroit also boasts a nice crop of players who are willing to pay the price for those goals as well. Johan Franzen and Dan Cleary have been excellent for the Wings in this area throughout the years, giving Babcock numerous options to play with on a power play that converted at a 22.3% rate this season. Traffic will be an issue for Niemi, and coupled with a Detroit defensive unit that can put shots on net from the point, a San Jose shorthanded unit that finished the year a disappointing 79.2% will have its work cut out for them.
Which is where San Jose's greatest opportunity lies-- their ability to stay out of the box and force Detroit into it. During last years playoff series San Jose had 26 power plays to Detroit's 15, an advantage that netted them a series victory considering the tightness of the play at even strength. Doing so again this year will be the biggest key for the Sharks, especially if the one goal games from last year continue to be the norm.
And if they can't stay out of the box? Well that just means more Holmstrom.
The best player at frustrating goaltenders throughout the entire League.