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Wings crash Final by crashing the net

by Larry Wigge /

"Our goalies are always screaming about not being able to see. With guys like Holmstrom, Franzen and Cleary, you can't just hack and whack them because then you can create a double screen in front of your goaltender."
-- Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook

A big part of the Detroit Red Wings' success is the willingness of forwards like Tomas Holmstrom, Johan Franzen and Dan Cleary to crash the crease. It's a tactic that gets tempers flaring and opponents crying about crowding their goaltender -- but it was largely missing in the Western Conference Finals.

Until Game 5.

On Wednesday night, the Wings put 46 shots on Chicago goaltender Cristobal Huet, blanketed his crease and wound up scoring both goals in a 2-1 overtime victory with the aid of their always reliable get-the-puck-to-the-net strategy. Cleary opened the scoring 6:08 into the third period when he set up in the slot and deflected a shot by Brett Lebda past Huet. Rookie Darren Helm ended the series 3:50 into OT when he tapped in a loose puck in the crease after Holmstrom beat Huet to a rebound after Lebda's shot missed the net and rocketed off the end boards. Holmstrom slid the puck behind Huet to a wide-open Helm, who finished to send Detroit to the Stanley Cup Final for the second year in a row.

"It's not that we hadn't been trying to get to the edge of the goal crease to get into the head of their goalies," said Holmstrom, one of the NHL's most notorious crease crashers -- but who had been offensively quiet in the series. "Give them credit. They did a
great job of playing in front of us and blocking a lot of shots."

Detroit bombarded Huet with 21 shots in the first period -- but though they didn't score, the Wings didn't get discouraged.

"When we got 21 shots against Huet in the first period, we had the feeling that if we continued to shoot and get traffic in front of him ... something was going to get by him," said Cleary, who led the Wings with five goals in the five-game series.

Though the Hawks worked hard to keep Detroit forwards from setting up camp in front of the net, the Wings never changed their approach.

"To me Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are as good a matchup defensive pair as you'll find," coach Mike Babcock said. "We kept reminding our guys to try to have a net presence ... to get the puck to the paint."

It finally worked as Cleary shook off defenseman Matt Walker for his deflection and Holmstrom and Helm were almost untouched behind Walker and Cam Barker on the winning goal.

The game-inside-the-game tactical battle was marvelous to watch.

"Holmstrom? He may not have had any goals in this series, but he's always there," Seabrook said, shaking his head. "He takes a hit and still stands there in the way. I think sometimes he's got eyes in the back of his head. I don't know how he knows when to spin and turn in what always seems to be the right position in front of the net."

Rebound control was the best part of the Chicago game plan.

"The best option is if you can front the guy ... leave the guy in front of the net alone ... and block the shot before it gets to the goal crease," Keith said. "What we have also been trying to do is tap the stick of the guy in front so that he can't get a good chance on the rebound.

"Most of all, you have to be quicker and smarter than them."

The bottom line is to give your goaltender a chance to see the puck.

"Our goalies are always screaming about not being able to see," Seabrook said. "With guys like Holmstrom, Franzen and Cleary, you can't just hack and whack them because then you can create a double screen in front of your goaltender."

That net presence from became paramount with Huet playing in goal for the second straight game in place of injured starter Nikolai Khabibulin.

"All goalies get frustrated when you get guys in front of the net all the time," said Franzen, who added that what looks like havoc in front of the net is more like controlled chaos. "There's an art to what Homer, Clears and I do. Sometimes, you look back a little bit to see where the goalie moves. You get an idea how he moves and what you can
do to take the sight line away from him.

Detroit Red Wings Western Conference Champs Gear"But because we have such good players like Nick Lidstrom and Raffi (Brian Rafalski) and Krons (Niklas Kronwall) -- and tonight Lebs -- doing the shooting from the point, you can bet the shot they take is going to be in a position where you can get a good tip on it. I say it's an art form, because it's tough for goalies if you play that way. That's why we keep trying to get to the front of the net as much as we can."

One person who's glad he only has to face the Crease Crash Patrol in practice is Wings goaltender Chris Osgood.

"It's a 1-2-3 punch that's so hard to deal with for the goaltender. It makes me happy that I'm at my end," Osgood said. "It's tough to stop it if you can't see it. Mule (Franzen) has been tipping pucks great. He's learned a lot from Homer. So has Dan Cleary. Not a lot of teams have that (triple threat)."

That triple threat is something the Pittsburgh Penguins are going to have to face in the Stanley Cup Final, beginning Saturday night in Detroit.

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