Rough play fades in front of goalies

Antelope Valley Press - - SPORTS - By LARRY LAGE

It’s still no man’s land in front of NHL goal­tenders, a for­bid­den place for of­fen­sive play­ers who risk hard shoves, cross-checks — or worse — when they set­tle in.

But it isn’t nearly as rough and tum­ble as it used to be.

The league has cracked down on the over-the-top phys­i­cal play in gen­eral and that in­cludes go­ing af­ter play­ers who park them­selves in front of the net in hopes of block­ing a goalie’s view, tip­ping in a shot or slid­ing in a re­bound­ing puck for a greasy goal.

The sav­age blows once seen on a nightly ba­sis are now far more rare, cer­tainly in the reg­u­lar sea­son.

“It has changed dras­ti­cally,” San Jose Sharks de­fense­man Brent Burns said. “I think they’re try­ing to cre­ate more goals and that’s one way to try to do it. It’s a great place for for­wards to go to make a big dif­fer­ence.”

James Neal is one of those play­ers.

The Ed­mon­ton winger has scored 19 times this sea­son, putting him on pace to ap­proach his ca­reer high of 40 goals. Neal honed his puck-tip­ping craft a lot last sum­mer and it helps that he is sur­rounded by a lot of tal­ent that opens up space on the ice.

“It’s def­i­nitely some­thing I’ve worked on, and it’s re­ally helped,” Neal said. “I’ve scored a lot more goals in front this year.”

Net-front play is crit­i­cal in ev­ery NHL game sim­ply be­cause goalies tend to stop shots they can see. In­ter­fere with their view, their con­cen­tra­tion, and the pucks start go­ing in. Tip­ping a fast-mov­ing puck with a stick to change the tra­jec­tory of a shot is an­other way to score, and be­ing in front of the net is the best place to em­ploy that mix of skill and luck.

It’s up to de­fense­men to move op­po­nents out of the way without draw­ing a penalty that could give the other team a power play.

This game within the game has evolved over the years.

For­mer Detroit for­ward To­mas Holm­strom, who is widely re­garded as one of the game’s great net-front play­ers, paid the price for his No. 1 role from 1996 to 2012. Holm­strom was hit with fists and sticks, some­times both, as teams tried to get him off his spot in front of the crease.

“He got abused pretty good back in the day,” Red Wings goal­tender Jimmy Howard re­called.

That didn’t stop him as he did the dirty work to help the fran­chise win four Stan­ley Cup cham­pi­onships.

“I grew up in Detroit and watched him for a long time,” Colorado de­fense­man Ian Cole said. “Not only was he so good at es­tab­lish­ing that po­si­tion, and hold­ing that po­si­tion, he was un­be­liev­able at tip­ping the pucks. He was also re­ally good at know­ing when to let pucks go.”

Florida Pan­thers for­ward Alek­sander Barkov is an­other player who makes a liv­ing in front of the net.

“He seems to get his stick on ev­ery­thing and he takes your eyes away,” Howard said.

In to­day’s game, it is dif­fi­cult to de­fend the front of the net be­cause phys­i­cal play against some­one without the puck of­ten draws a penalty. Cole said the key is to try to pre­vent op­po­nents from get­ting where they want to be.

“It’s re­ally tough to move guys when they’re al­ready there,” Cole said. “There are things you can do, but you’re prob­a­bly go­ing to 100% take a penalty. Just the way your skates are, you’re not go­ing to be able to push guys side­ways. They’re go­ing to dig their edges in and not go­ing to move. Then you start to push them for­ward and they ro­tate their foot and you can’t push them for­ward.”

Goalies, while the puck trav­els from stick to stick, stay on the move ever so slightly so that they can see what they’re try­ing to stop.

“As a goalie, our eyes are our ev­ery­thing,” Howard said. “If you see the puck, nine times out of 10 guys are go­ing to stop it.”

And that’s eas­ier said than done.

GAME OF THE WEEK

Ed­mon­ton at Cal­gary on Satur­day night.

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