The evening rush hour in Montreal stretched until 10 p.m. last Thursday as it appeared that traffic on the Decarie Expressway had been rerouted a few miles east, to the front of goaltender Jos� Th�odore's net. A late-model SUV with North Carolina license plates reading ERIK COLE eased next to Th�odore and put it in park. Another Carolina tourist, Bates Battaglia, spent much of his evening idling in Th�odore's blue-painted alcove. The traffic cops on the Canadiens' defense grew so exasperated with the gridlock that early in the third period, nursing a 3-0 lead with victory and a 3-1 series advantage all but assured, blueliner St�phane Quintal cross-checked hard-charging Martin G�linas. When Montreal coach Michel Therrien brayed and waved his arms to protest the penalty, referee Kerry Fraser whistled Therrien for abuse of officials.
The infractions touched off a Rube Goldberg chain reaction: 1) the Hurricanes' resulting power-play score kicked off a three-goal comeback that 2) led to an overtime win that 3) shattered Th�odore's mystique and 4) gave second life to a Carolina team that had seemed on the brink of elimination. But for all the criticism that would later be aimed at Therrien for his untimely rant, the sudden stumble of the Canadiens could be more accurately traced to that staple of playoff hockey: crease chaos.
The Stanley Cup playoffs are like drive-time radio—constant traffic updates. The Ottawa Senators scored what proved to be the winning goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 3 last week on a play that Leafs goalie Curtis Joseph insisted was interference. In the St. Louis Blues- Detroit Red Wings series, Blues netminder Brent Johnson needed a trainer's attention at least twice after being crushed by Red Wings crease crashers. Wings goalie Dominik Hasek, meanwhile, was dropped by the Blues' Keith Tkachuk in Game 1, even though the force and location of the hit were as mysterious as the Muhammad Ali punch that knocked out Sonny Liston. Carolina blitzed Th�odore, but even the small, slippery Canadiens forwards were hustling to the net to see if goalies Kevin Weekes and Arturs Irbe were leaving any of their signature rebounds. The big San Jose Sharks forwards were sc aggressive in swooping down on Colorado Avalanche goalie Patrick Roy in their series that Avalanche defensemen such as Adam Foote concentrated on gaining inside body position to keep the slot relatively open instead of engaging in the more physically draining hand-to-hand crease-crashing combat.
"The play intensifies around the net 100 percent in the playoffs," Red Wings associate coach Barry Smith said before Detroit bubble-wrapped Hasek last Saturday in a 4-0 victory in Game 5 that eliminated the Blues. "The battles are there. Everybody's trying to get there. The puck's trying to get there. We might not be as good as some other teams going to the net, but we're trying to get better."
Going hard to the net is as much a hockey truism as paying the price, but the cost became more reasonable 12 years ago. In 1990 the NHL introduced the hockey equivalent of air bags by removing the dangerous metal stanchions that firmly held the nets in place and by putting the goals on magnets (and now plastic pegs). Those changes allowed the nets to become dislodged from their moorings much more easily. The reduced chance of injury from smashing into a rigid net emboldened forwards to do more crease crashing. The NHL viewed the subsequent running of goalies a significant enough problem that in '91 the league changed the rule governing players entering the crease. Under the new rule (which was designed to protect the goalies and was strictly enforced during the '98-99 season), no player could score while his skate was in the blue crease paint unless the puck preceded him. That rule led to one of the NHL's embarrassing moments: In the '99 Stanley Cup finals between the Buffalo Sabres and the Dallas Stars, Brett Hull scored the disputed series-winning goal for the Stars despite his skate's being in the crease. The league tweaked the rule the following season, allowing a goal to be scored with a player in the crease as long as he wasn't interfering with the goaltender.
Clearly goalies have been more vulnerable since (Tkachuk crashed the net for a rebound in the first round last year and knocked out San Jose goalie Evgeni Nabokov for two games with a back injury), but they are hardly an endangered species. "The new crease rule just gives us [forwards] a little more leniency, that's all," says Toronto's Gary Roberts, a veteran crease crasher. "A good change."
NHL coaches figure that a goalie will stop everything he sees and perhaps 80% of what he doesn't. The fender-bending forwards—Roberts, who looks as if he were born with a black eye; St. Louis's Scott Mellanby; and Detroit's Tomas Holmstrom—boldly go to the high-density spots, screening the goalie and looking for the rebounds or deflections that make up the so-called ugly goals. Battaglia, a pot stirrer, likes to think of himself as a sort of lunar eclipse. "My job," he explains, "is to get my big ass in front of Theodore's face and make sure he can't see the puck."
There is a smattering of technique involved (a player who creates a traffic jam needs to be strong on his skates), but mostly what's required is the will to get to the front of the net and then loiter despite persistent cross-checks, slashes and stick-holding. With the traditional latitude of playoff officiating, referees often give crosschecking defensemen a mulligan. "In the playoffs you can probably get away with two cross-checks on a guy near the crease before the refs start [cracking down on] you," Maple Leafs defenseman Wade Belak says, "so then you start whacking at the backs of their legs until the refs start yelling at you for that. By then, hopefully, the puck's out of the zone."
There is a distinction between traffic in front of the goalie and the more sinister crease crashing, even if that distinction is often blurred depending on who is being violated. When Carolina's Ron Francis and Jaroslav Svoboda got tangled up with Theodore in a goalmouth m�nage � trois in Game 2 on May 5, the Hurricanes contended that they were simply driving to the net, while Montreal began a chorus of com-plaints about crease crashing that would crescendo four days later with Therrien's penalty. Th�odore, for his part, was mute about the heavy breathing the Hurricanes were doing in his face; he dismissed the traffic with a shrug. The Blues' Johnson, similarly, seemed unfazed whenever the Red Wings jostled him, an occupational hazard that younger goalies—both are 25—seem more willing to accept than some of the NHL's veteran netminders.
"No goalie likes the traffic, but the ones who seem to object the most are the big-name guys like Joseph, Hasek and [Patrick] Roy," says Montreal fourth-line agitator Bill Lindsay. "Like Wayne Gretzky when he played, these are the guys with clout. They're the ones you hear from all the time."