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Sheahan eyes net-front battle in series

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
Riley Sheahan has learned that playing the net-front against larger foes such as Boston's Zdeno Chara is harder than it looks. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Detroit Red Wings)

DETROIT – It takes a different type of player to post up in front of the opponent’s crease, battling goalies and defensemen for loose pucks in and around the blue paint.

“For sure, you got to be a little more driven and get to those spots,” center Riley Sheahan said. “They aren’t always the most pleasant spots to be in but you got to take extra hits and make hits and be a little extra conscious what you do with the puck. Everything sort of ramps up a bit.”

It’s the playoffs, and Sheahan understands that the role he has on the Red Wings’ first power play unit will escalate in the first-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Without Johan Franzen and the uncertainty surrounding the availability of Justin Abdelkader (hand) for the series, it will be left to Sheahan who has been elevated been promoted to the first unit with Gustav Nyquist, Henrik Zetterberg and Stephen Weiss in the middle, and Niklas Kronwall stationed along the blue line.

At 6-foot-3 and 222 pounds, there are expectations for Sheahan in this series, especially against Ben Bishop, the Lightning’s 6-foot-7 goaltender, who was a Vezina Trophy finalist when he established a new Tampa Bay record for wins (37) last season.

This season, Bishop trumped his mark, finishing fourth in the league with 40 wins, while leading the Lightning to 32 home wins, the most in the NHL this season. Bishop doesn’t give up much room, and the Wings don’t expect that he’ll start doing so in his first NHL postseason.

“Definitely, with Bishop, he’s a big goalie and he makes the first stop most of the time,” Sheahan said. “We got to get in there and get rebounds, get in his eyes and try to create opportunity.”

Sheahan could play a vital role by making life uncomfortable for the big goalie, especially on the power play.

“He’s gonna have to do a great job of taking away Bishop’s eyes,” Kronwall said of Sheahan. “He’s a big man and always seems to find a way to see the puck. So of course, net-front presence, whether it’s him or (Darren) Helm, or (Tomas) Jurco, or whoever that may be, we need that guy in front of the net to make it hard on their goalie, back him in and make sure he doesn’t see the puck.

“She’s got the ability to really do that. She’s got tools to do everything in the game, whether that’s net-front presence or shooting off the flanker. He’s such a good man, a good player and I think we’re just seeing the beginning of him.”

From time to time throughout the season, the 23-year-old Sheahan has filled the net-front position when others went down with injuries, and he’s taken note of how his predecessors have approached the role.

“Just seeing a lot of these guys, watching Abby, he works so hard down in front,” Sheahan said. “He creates a lot of opportunity. Playing with a lot of good playmakers, they’re getting shots through and they’re making passes so I think just confidence grows and you get more comfortable with the spot you’re in.”

In his first full NHL season, Sheahan has established himself as a durable second- or third-line center while taking on the challenge of agitating opposing goalies on the power play, where he scored five goals and 11 points on the man-advantage.

The majority of Tuesday’s nearly hour-long practice at Joe Louis Arena was devoted to working on the power play that produced a league-high 70 goals during the regular season. The Wings’ second unit – which is where Sheahan has seen most of his power-play minutes this season – featured Helm at the net front, Jurco, Pavel Datsyuk and Tomas Tatar in the middle, and Marek Zidlicky at the point.

Getting into a goal-scoring frenzy isn’t something the Wings want to do with the Lightning, who led the league in 5-on-5 scoring, so the power play can be a deciding factor in this series.

“It’s huge. It almost comes down to the most important thing,” Sheahan said, “so power play and penalty killing will be huge. They obviously have real skilled players. They can capitalize on the power play. We just got to stay out of the (penalty) box.

“It’s extremely important. You got to bear down when you get the man-advantage, and at the same time you got to be extra conscious of staying out the box and be good on the penalty kill.”

While the net front is relatively new territory for him, it’s not all that unfamiliar either as Sheahan dabbled in that role with the Grand Rapids Griffins during their run to the 2013 Calder cup championship against many of the same players the Wings will face-off against in the first round. The Calder Cup series against the Syracuse Crunch, the Lightning’s AHL affiliate, went six games before it was decided. Because 17 players in the Wings-Lightning series faced off in the AHL series two years ago, Sheahan says he expects the intensity to heat up quickly in the Eastern Conference quarterfinal.

“That’s why so many series are one-goal games and go to Game 7 and are so close,” he said. “You get to know the team, you get familiar with them. Even with this team, a lot of us played against Syracuse in the Calder Cup so we already know what a lot of their players are like. There’s definitely a rival there.”

Having been indoctrinated into the Stanley Cup playoff pressure last year is experience gained for Sheahan and some of the other young Wings’ players, who now know what to expect when the series starts Thursday at Amalie Arena.

“Definitely it was a little bit of an eye-opener,” Sheahan said of losing to Boston in a five-game series last April. “Definitely didn’t play the way we wanted to. It’s behind us now. It’s not an excuse anymore that we got low experience. I think we’re coming in there with some excitement.”

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