Detroit Red Wings
defenseman Nicklas Kronwall preys on hockey players skating with their heads down. He seeks them out and goes in for the kill. When he connects, it’s like a sonic boom going through the building.
“He’s a physical guy,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said of the 27-year-old Swedish defenseman. “He’s like a predator.”
Thursday night Kronwall preyed on Dallas Stars in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. He found his meal twice.
The first attack was on Antti Miettinen roughly 9:30 into the second period, and it served as a hearty dinner. The second was on Loui Eriksson five minutes into the third, and it was Kronwall’s scrumptious dessert in the midst of a 4-1 Game 1 victory.
Odds are Miettinen and Eriksson won’t put their heads down again in the Western Conference Finals, at least not when Kronwall is on the prowl. His hits are so dangerous, veteran play-by-play man Mike Emrick came up with a new adjective to describe them:
“He has that ability to hunt you down,” Babcock added, “and he’s looking for you all the time.”
Descriptions aside, Kronwall, who added two assists Thursday night and now leads all NHL defensemen with 10 playoff points, isn’t just a ferocious hitter.
He’s a smart hitter.
“Lots of guys who make big open-ice hits give up 2-on-1s,” Babcock said. “He just knows the situation and is able to read where he has support. He’s looking for guys. It’s important for us with him and (Brad) Stuart that they’re always on the hunt because it makes you nervous when you’re out there. You have to be aware of where they’re at.”
When Kronwall laid out Miettinen inside Dallas’ blue line it did not come at the expense of an odd-man rush. In fact, the hit caused the Stars to turn the puck over. Kronwall got a standing ovation for the left shoulder blast that sent Miettinen crumbling to the ice.
“You just kind of try to time it and see what’s going on,” Kronwall said. “I had a chance to step up and it worked.”
Kronwall has some other big knocks in the playoffs so far, including his crunching blow of Radek Bonk along the boards inside Nashville’s blue line in Game 5 of the first round. And in Game 1 against Colorado, he sandwiched winger David Jones between himself and the boards by Detroit’s bench late in the second period.
“His timing is so perfect that before the pass is made he knows where the puck is going,” Detroit captain Nicklas Lidstrom said. “He’s been doing it throughout the regular season and the playoffs. It gives the opponents another threat. They have to keep their heads up all the time. It’s a clean hit, too. He comes through with his body and he’s perfect at the timing.”
It’s not surprising Kronwall is making this postseason, and this series in particular, his personal crusade. He missed the playoffs last season with a broken bone (sacrum) in his lower back, an injury he suffered March 30 against the Stars.
“When we lost him,” Babcock told the Detroit News, “I was sick to my stomach.”
Kronwall is doing well in making up for his one lost spring.
His 10 points on 10 assists is tops among the League’s blue-liners – not an easy thing to do when Lidstrom is your teammate and plays more minutes. Kronwall is averaging 22:30 ice time per game, is a plus-4, and has a team-leading 25 hits.
The 25 hits are still 47 less than Brendan Morrow’s League-leading 72, which isn’t a surprise considering how often the Red Wings play with the puck, but Kronwall’s wallops are earning him the distinction as one of the game’s foremost open-ice hitters.
A predator, according to Babcock.
“He just drives into people,” goalie Chris Osgood said. “It’s great to see. People forget how much we missed him last year and how good of a player he is.”
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