Marian Hossa, who is quicker than a Canadian summer, grabbed the puck inside the Philadelphia Flyers' blue line and skated down the left wing, behind the net, back up the right wing, across the ice along the blue line and down the left side again before dishing to an Ottawa Senators teammate in the middle as the dazed Flyers looked on. Hossa, who had lugged the puck for a remarkable 10 seconds, then skated another, tighter loop behind the net and through the crease—he was not merely skating circles around Philadelphia, he was skating concentric circles—before setting up to the right of goalie Roman Cechmanek, in ideal position to backhand a rebound of Bryan Smolinski's shot for the Senators' second goal in a 4-2 home win in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals last Friday. The goal judge didn't know whether to flip on the red light or give Hossa the checkered flag. "Once Hossa gets going," says Ottawa center Radek Bonk, "good luck."
In the NHL there are the quick and the dead. "In the continuing evolution of the game, speed has become the defining element," says Vancouver Canucks center Brendan Morrison, one of his team's fastest players. "Ten, even five years ago, the emphasis was on the big, physical guy. That's changed."
The playoffs have never been a place for the timorous. Now they are no longer the place for the ponderous. If there is a thread in the second round other than the lack of correlation between payroll and success—the sputtering Dallas Stars, who lost twice in overtime at home to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in round 2, are the only remaining team with a top-five payroll, and four of the other seven teams rank in the bottom third of die league—it is the speed of the survivors. Like the fairy-tale Minnesota Wild, whose $21.5 million payroll is the NHL's lowest, these teams are priced to go. The Wild, which tied its series with the Canucks on Sunday with a 3-2 win in Game 2 in Vancouver, might not have pricey talent, but it has the formula: Formula One.
"Everybody that's left now is quick," says Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock, whose team clamped down on the Senators in a 2-0 Game 2 victory in Ottawa on Sunday. " New Jersey. Ottawa. Minnesota and Vancouver. [Speed is] how Minnesota kills you. Everybody talks about the Wild's system, but it's what they do once you turn the puck over. They're gone, like Anaheim. Anaheim boxes you in; you turn it over and they're gone, because they have so much speed."
Like beauty, speed takes different forms. There is the jersey-flapping speed of Stars center Mike Modano and Devils defense-man Scott Niedermayer. There is the water-bug speed of the Tampa Bay lightning's 5'9" Martin St. Louis, who in Game 2 last Saturday stripped New Jersey defenseman Brian Rafalski, who is no slowpoke, and beat him from the blue line to score shorthanded, his sixth playoff goal in eight games. There is supporting speed like that of Canucks defenseman Ed Jovanovski, one of four Vancouver blueliners who can motor, a change from 15 years ago, when teams rarely had more than two defensemen who were excellent skaters. There is the sneaky speed of Canucks monster right wing Todd Bertuzzi, who hurls his 6' 3", 235-pound girth into seams in the attacking zone. There is speed on the forecheck, which makes Devils forwards Jamie Langenbrunner and John Madden almost as dangerous as any No. 1 center-winger combination they cover. There is the Wild's transition speed. And there is puck speed—the ability to counterattack instantly—an attribute of the Senators, Mighty Ducks and Canucks. Minnesota general manager Doug Risebrough calls it five-on-five speed.
The premium on speed is the by-product of systems hockey, the trap that threatened to strangle the game a decade ago. One of the most effective trap-busters is a slick-skating defenseman like Niedermayer, but speed has become the blueprint even for trapping teams such as the Wild, which relies on turnovers as the lifeblood of its offense. "The fact that this is a thinking man's sport won't change," Risebrough says, "but in a tactical game you can alter the flow by using your speed. If you have speed, you can pressure the puck, go after things at the right moments, close when a puck is loose. If you can't skate, you'll keep your position, thinking you can't get there. If you can skate, you'll pressure the guy 10 feet away and force the turnovers."
Minnesota is the most audacious model of the speed team. This group of virtual unknowns (is left wing Antti Laaksonen an antacid? center Wes Walz a Midwestern variation of the Texas two-step?) knows it will do at least one thing well in every game. This was Risebrough's design. When developing a model for his third-year expansion franchise, he weighed the sedan of character and veteran leadership against the mag-wheeled coupe of speed. He loves character—and says he has plenty of it on the Wild—but chose the sporty model. This was a nod to personal history. Risebrough and coach Jacques Lemaire were part of the Montreal Canadiens' Flying Frenchmen of the 1970s, who boasted speedsters Yvan (the Roadrunner) Cournoyer, Guy Lafleur and Murray Wilson. Speed was also a marketing asset in Minnesota, Land of 10,000 Frozen Lakes, where swift skating taps into the local identity. Maybe the expansion boys could Mach 3 the more skilled teams in the league, which were the other 29.
"Speed was going to be the equalizer for us," Risebrough says. "I don't know if it makes us dangerous, but it's given us a lot of confidence. There were going to be nights when things didn't work out, but we could take comfort knowing we had outworked and outskated someone."
In Game 1 against Vancouver last Friday, things did not work out well for the Wild, whose players are small enough to fit on a cracker and give up 12 pounds per man to the Canucks. Minnesota lost on the scoreboard but won the footraces. Early in the third period Walz worked a give-and-go with Marian Gaborik, blowing past Morrison in a race to the front of the net. Morrison, who was leaning toward center, anticipating that the puck would squirt into the neutral zone, took off in pursuit as if Walz were the last helicopter out of Saigon. Morrison never caught Walz, who beat goalie Dan Cloutier for the first of two third-period goals.
This is one Walz who does not move in three-quarter time. He is a soon-to-be 33-year-old center who has played for five NHL teams yet is as anonymous as a 12-step program. He might also be the fastest player in hockey. He is certainly the Wild's fastest, ahead of even Gaborik, who won the fastest-skater competition at the All-Star Game festivities in February but who has lost to Walz in their team's competition the last three years.