PITTSBURGH – The Stanley Cup Final sometimes serves as a coming-out party, especially for unheralded defensemen.
Think back to last spring when Anaheim’s Francoise Beauchemin used a solid all-around game to steal some of the spotlight usually reserved for high-profile teammates Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer.
Now, fast forward to this spring and the intriguing case of Detroit’s Niklas Kronwall
. Usually, the 27-year-old is left in the considerable shadow cast by Nicklas Lidstrom
– the game’s best active defenseman – and Brian Rafalski, a silky-smooth import from New Jersey.
But there was no missing Kronwall after Detroit claimed the Stanley Cup with a 3-2 victory in Game 6 at Mellon Arena. And, Kronwall was notable in this Final for much more than the stunning own goal he scored in Game 5.
“I mean, Kronwall has been a star – in my opinion,” says Mike Babcock, the Detroit coach. “If you like hockey and you like a physical game and you like a predator-type guy and a guy who is offensive and a guy who is a complete player, then you’ve got to like Kronwall.”
You do have to like Kronwall, unless you play for the Pittsburgh Penguins or cheer for that team. If that is the case, you probably are not too fond of the slamming Swede.
And that is because you could conceivably argue that Kronwall has been Detroit’s second-best defenseman in the Stanley Cup Final. Nobody is going to be better than Lidstrom, so second-best is quite the compliment.
Kronwall finished with three points – including two assists in the clincher – in this six-game series; but he impacted the series in so many other ways.
He finished the series with a plus-9 rating and averaged more than 24 minutes per game. And he was one of Detroit’s most-used penalty killers, entrusted with the task of shutting down Pittsburgh’s potent power play.
Most importantly, he set the physical tone of this series from the drop of the puck in Game 1. He had just 11 hits in the series, but most of them have been memorable.
None more memorable, though, than the Game 1 hit on Ryan Malone while Detroit was shorthanded.
On that play, Kronwall swooped across the neutral zone, caught the much-bigger Malone with his head down and put him down to the ice just inside the Pittsburgh blue line. Malone got up from the hit and continued to be a top forward with the Pens, but he did so while dealing with the broken nose caused by Kronwall’s shoulder.
“It’s a skill,” Detroit center Kris Draper said about Kronwall’s ability to lower the boom on opponents. “When you see it on the bench, you just get fired up and you can’t see it too many times. If you watched the game last night, Malone gets the puck and he hammered him and then later in the game, Malone got the puck and he threw it to the middle. So, it has a lasting effect on guys.”
There’s no doubt that Pittsburgh’s skill guys took note of where Kronwall was each time he hopped over the boards.
“He’s a great player and he’s probably the best open-ice hitter in the game right now,” said Darren McCarty, a fourth-line winger for Detroit. “He’s a huge part of our defense with the way he plays. You know, the thing with him is they are all clean, all clean. But, you still have to be aware of him. You have to know when he’s on the ice.”
Sometimes, though, it is hard to find Kronwall on the ice. He is nowhere near as big as he plays. At 6-foot, 195 pounds, he is, at best, an average-size defenseman, yet he hits like a man much bigger.
He has been compared to players like Pronger, Calgary’s Dion Phaneuf, even the legendary Scott Stevens. Those are comparisons that still boggle Kronwall’s mind.
“These other guys, at least for me, I enjoy watching them play,” Kronvall says. “I like that part of the game. Whenever you are watching TV and you see somebody else throwing the body around – I mean Phaneuf throws some huge hits – I really enjoy that part of the game. I think it is part of the game and the way the game should be played.”
But, there is no denying that Kronwall plays the physical game differently than those other big hitters. Players like Phaneuf, Pronger and even Stevens, were none for hitting in their own half of the ice, using the threat of physical punishment to slow players up as they tried to gain the attacking zone.
Kronwall will hit anyone, anywhere.
Part of what made the Malone hit such a memorable moment was that it occurred just inside the Pittsburgh blue line while Detroit was shorthanded. Nobody should expect a penalty-killing defenseman to find his way to that spot on the ice. But there was Kronwall, catching Malone completely unawares.
“Sometimes he takes his gambles and most of the time they pay off,” says Draper. “He’s a very heady guy, very smart and he picks his time to go. Rarely will you see him running and getting out of position.
“With him, it’s all about timing. It doesn’t matter how big you are or how strong you are. He’s such a good skater. Guys will take a look up and see that he’s not coming and they’ll put their head down and the next time they look up, he’s there. When you catch a guy with his head down, it doesn’t matter how big you are because the guy isn’t expecting it. You’re going to get a clean shot on him.”
Kronwall lives for those clean shots. He enjoys them more than points, it seems at times. In fact, Kronwall admits as much because he knows his ability to intimidate is unique on Detroit’s blue line.
Lidstrom and Rafalski can provide the points, but neither will put the head of an opposing player on a swivel in quite the way Kronwall will. He revels in that ability because he knows it makes his team more formidable. The proof was there for the taking in this Stanley Cup Final – just ask the Pittsburgh forwards.
“I mean, the points I don’t think too much about,” Kronwall said. “I just go out there and do whatever I can to help the team win.”
Author: Shawn P. Roarke | NHL.com Managing Editor