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Holmstrom an X-factor for Wings

by Larry Wigge

When facing the Detroit Red Wings, a goaltender should be prepared to get up close and personal with Tomas Holmstrom's backside.   WATCH Game 1 highlights
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DETROIT – So how long do you think it will take for you to become Public Enemy No. 1 in Pittsburgh? I thought the question was appropriate for Tomas Holmstrom, Detroit's crease-crashing, get-in-the-way-of-the-goaltender, butt-in-the-crease protagonist before he faced the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final.

A big smile crossed the face of the scraggly-looking, bearded Red Wings' winger before Game 1 of what figures to be a hotly-contested series.

"I can't give you a timetable, but ..."

Holmstrom paused, then said, "It doesn't take long for me to get under the other team's skin. I don't know why. I'm a pretty nice guy."

Another big smile.

Let the record show that four times in the first 20 minutes, the 35-year-old Pitea, Sweden, native, got the attention of the Penguins. Six minutes, 30 seconds into the game, he provided a good screen in front of the net on a scoring chance by Pavel Datsyuk that quickly prompted some pushing and shoving after the play. Three minutes later, he was in another shoving match in front of Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury with defenseman Brooks Orpik. Then it was Holmstrom's stick on Fleury's pads that caused a disallowed goal by Nicklas Lidstrom at 15:20. And finally, a high-sticking penalty by Hall Gill on Holmstrom that gave the Red Wings a power play with just one minute left in the first period.

Leave it to this prickly-looking power forward to be right in the middle of the action all the time. He made an impact early in the game with his around-the-crease activity and then recorded a nifty, quick-passing assist to set up Henrik Zetterberg to finish off the scoring in a 4-0 victory over Pittsburgh.

And, hey, don't forget about the goal by Lidstrom that didn't count. That had an impact on the game.

When asked about his many duels with Holmstrom in the NHL and in international competition, Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar, whose job is to be on the ice with Orpik against Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Holmstrom most of the time, simply said of Homer, "Enemy? I'd say the other 29 teams in the League learn to hate playing against him pretty quickly, wouldn't you?"

"I thought our guys in front did a good job on him. He didn't bother me too much," Fleury explained, before adding, "but I'm sure I'll be seeing more of him as this series goes on."

In other words, Homer hit a homer in Game 1. He's got the opposing goalie thinking about him already.

When last we left Holmstrom, a goal by Datsyuk in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals in Dallas that would have given Detroit a 1-0 lead in that game and a potential four-game sweep was disallowed because the referee ruled he was crowding goaltender Marty Turco. More important, because his butt was in the goal crease.

"I have to lose some weight," Holmstrom said. "Just Campbell's Soup for me from now on."

But you won't discourage Holmstrom from doing his job.

"I think it's a compliment to Homer," Lidstrom said. "He's so good at going to the net that I think (the referees) look at him more closely now. But that's not going to stop him from doing his job."

When Holmstrom puts on his equipment and gets ready to play, it looks more like the ritual of a gladiator from years of yore or like an X-Games player. Everything is very carefully put on in order.

The hockey pants have been reinforced in the back from the seat on up and include about eight inches of padding for more protection. There's also protection in the back of the shin pads – made of strong plastics or Kevlar. He wears extra padding almost everywhere, behind his knees and over his calves and ankles.

Whether Tomas is playing for the Detroit Red Wings or the Swedish Olympic Team, he has gone from what some refer to as "Demolition Man" – or a target for abuse or distraction in front of the opponent's net – to an X-factor to his team's success. And this should be Holmstrom's kind of stage. Taking nothing away from the 29 and 30 goals he had in the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons, he had seven and eight goals in the 1998 and 2002 Stanley Cup wins by the Red Wings – and he has three more goals this playoff season.

The way Holmstrom plays may be considered X-rated by most of the teams he faces, but he's come a long way from being simply a distraction or a space eater in front of the net. He has a definite impact in today's NHL.

"If I had to do it over again, I'd be more like Pav or Hank," he said with a devilish smile. "You know: speed, skills ... and a $5- or $6-million contract like they have. Yeah. That would be good, right?"

The happy-go-lucky Swede grew up skating when he was about three.

"My dad built a hockey rink for us across the street," Holmstrom said.

I asked him about obstacles he faced to get to this level and ...

"It was always the same thing," he said of being Detroit's 10th-round pick, 257th overall, in the 1994 Entry Draft. "The scouts always said I couldn't skate well enough."

When asked how that could happen when his dad, Henrik, who knows something about ice since he works for the Pitea Sports Arena, he laughed and said, "That's amazing, isn't it?"

But that's the story on this "Demolition Man," this pain in the butt to play against.

Holmstrom reacts with a somebody's-got-to-do-it approach, while calling it a skill ... which it has become for Tomas.

"The most difficult part is to make a good screen," he added. "It's really important to be in sync with your point man – and fortunately I've been playing so long with Nick Lidstrom, I pretty much know what is going to happen ahead of time."

And don't think for a moment that Holmstrom isn't better at his trade than he was a few years ago, when defensemen could hook and hold crease-crashers.

"Before I'd have to fight through three crosschecks before I could get to the net," he said. "Now, it's totally different. I'm not going to say it's easy, but it's different."

In what some might consider a contradiction in terms, Holmstrom always seems to be surrounded by an array of talented scorers. But there's no contradiction. Tomas distracts, causes enough havoc in front of the net to open things up from one of his sharp-shooting teammates to score.

It's an interesting job. And no one does it better.

I'd say Tomas Holmstrom already has a leg up on having Pittsburgh players and fans calling him Public Enemy No. 1 after just one game, wouldn't you?


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