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To foes, he's 'The Nightmare on Helm Street'

by Larry Wigge / Detroit Red Wings

In the last two seasons, the 5-11, 175-pound, 22-year-old forward from St. Andrews, Manitoba, on the outskirts of Winnipeg, has popped into Detroit a few times during the regular season. But when the playoff calendar begins, you can't get Helm out of the Red Wings' lineup.

It's all about the speed and the tenacious attention to detail defensively as Helm goes from quiet off the ice to his I'm-not-going-to-back-away-from-anyone approach on the ice.

"Kris Draper told me to bust my butt every shift like it could be my last," Helm told me before Game 5 against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Finals Wednesday. "He said, 'Empty your tank on every shift.' "

That philosophy for years has helped make Detroit's hard-checking, physical Grind Line of Draper, Kirk Maltby and Darren McCarthy an impact unit that was so successful during the Red Wings Stanley Cup runs in 1997, 1998 and 2002. Now young legs like Helm's are carrying on the tradition of being accountable defensively and making life miserable for opponents with his physical play.

Helm goes into the Stanley Cup finals against Pittsburgh on Saturday in Detroit coming off his best game as an NHLer, in which he became just the fifth Detroit rookie to score an overtime goal in the playoffs -- and first since Shawn Burr in 1987 -- when he scored 3:58 into sudden death for a 2-1 series-clinching victory against Chicago. But his remarkable performance didn't stop there: he played a playoff-high 16 minutes, 48 seconds and led all players with a whopping 12 hits.

In the playoffs, he is tied the for NHL lead in hits with Chicago's Dustin Byfuglien with 78 (the next Red Wing on that list is Dan Cleary with 47). That total includes an eye-opening four games in which Helm has had eight or more hits in a game. In the five games against Chicago, Helm had seven-hit, eight-hit and 12-hit efforts.

And he's done all this in 16 games, which is as many as he played in the regular season in Detroit on three different recalls from Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League.

And get this: Helm is still looking for his first regular-reason goal in 23 games in the NHL over the last two seasons. He now has five in 34 games in the playoffs. That's the most postseason goals scored by any player in NHL history prior to scoring his first regular season goal.

"Everyone loves to score goals, but I'd just as soon stay under the radar, bang some bodies, do a good job checking and win my second Stanley Cup in two years," Helm said in a rare moment of open banter. Actually ..."

Helm paused for a moment to get his next choice of words perfect before he added, "I looked up at the big screen at Joe Louis Arena the other day and I saw my name on it. It was cool. It showed a bunch of my hits in the playoffs and said, 'Welcome to The Nightmare on Helm Street.' I liked that."

Said coach Mike Babcock, "You know, I think he's the kind of player that the people in Michigan can really relate to. He's a blue-collar guy. He goes out there and works hard each shift. He hits the ice and his feet are going full out. He's energized."

Even if Helm had not scored the game-winning goal, his energy caught everyone's attention with the dozen hits. There was one particular shift that had every hockey fan on the edge of their seats, in person or on TV, when, with the score tied at 0-0 and the Blackhawks pushing for the ever-important first goal on a power play, Helm didn't just clear the puck like so many players do. He dashed into the Chicago zone, avoided a few hits and got a point-blank shot on Blackhawks goaltender Cristobal Huet. But he wasn't finished. He got the puck back and went to the corner to eat up more penalty-killing time. While ducking under an elbow directed at his head by Brian Campbell, Helm lost the puck to Patrick Sharp. Seconds later, he stole it back from Sharp and headed for the front of the net for another shot on goal.

"I'm sitting in the penalty box and my jaw dropped," said Red Wings defenseman Brett Lebda. "It was one of the best shifts I've ever seen in the playoffs. He must have held the puck for 30-35 seconds and he wound up with two good scoring chances as well, which was good for me, because I was the one in the penalty box."

The hunger and determination are obviously a part of being a skinny kid who needed to work hard to get where he is today. But it's also a product of his upbringing, where his dad, Gary, is in meat processing and his mom, Corinne, is a hotel cook. Actually, Helm's first real job was as a beer vender at the River Crest hotel where his mom works in St. Andrews.

Responsible. Accountable. Hard-working. And, most of all, speedy.

"Honestly, the first time we called him up, I was scared to play him and he was scared to play," Babcock explained. "Then when we called him up again he played really, really well. He's a player that can play against anybody. He's flat-out fast. He's gritty. Finishes checks. Smart. Good defensively. Good in the faceoff circle. Every time he's on the ice, something happens."

Said Maltby, "You should have seen the goal he scored against Anaheim. I'm not going to say he blew away from Scott Niedermayer in a foot race -- he had a couple of steps on him -- but Niedermayer wasn't going to catch him. To do that means you're a special skater. A special player."

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