The fashion trend in the 2004 Stanley Cup playoffs: Forechecking is the new black. The neutral-zone trap is so five minutes ago.
Now maybe there isn't much big-city buzz about the conference finals. (Quick, name three San Jose Sharks.) But in its absence, hockey fans are being rewarded with the unmistakable crunching sound of aggressive checking. You want juice, try the refrigerator. You want 200 feet of skating and hitting and the occasional dollop of creativity, try the pound-you-to-a-pulp Philadelphia Flyers or the slick Tampa Bay Lightning meeting the speedy Sharks or Calgary Flames in the Cup finals.
While the NHL is struggling to lure a TV audience (the league has been drawing about one quarter of the NBA's viewership this post-season) and seemingly poised to disappear into a work stoppage when its labor agreement expires Sept. 15, hockey may also be on the cusp of its most exciting style change in decades. High-priced designer teams like the Detroit Red Wings are out. Off-the-rack teams that have ditched the trap as a cornerstone of their schemes, such as the Flames and the Sharks, are in. After beating San Jose 3-0 on Monday, Calgary led the Western Conference finals 3-2, but both clubs provide plenty of bangs for the buck.
Even the $65 million Flyers, who beat the Lightning 3-2 last Saturday to knot their series at two games each, are forechecking, their fat wallets apparently not slowing them as they've adjusted their game to Tampa Bay's. Still, name-brand Philadelphia, with the league's fourth-highest payroll and six core players over age 30, is the anomaly. The other semifinalists, who began the season ranked 19th (Flames), 20th (Sharks) and 21st (Lightning) in payroll, are a template for the new NHL: fast, young and cheap.
"You're seeing a trend develop, one that's good for hockey," says New York Islanders coach Steve Stirling, who has been sent by general manager Mike Milbury to study-translation: steal—the systems of teams like the Lightning and the Sharks. "A team like Tampa Bay comes at you pretty hard all the way. When you see them do it and have success with it, opening up the game and creating scoring chances all over the ice, you have to give thought to doing it yourself."
Speed is still principally in evidence on the forecheck and not on the attack, except when Tampa Bay is playing. The Lightning, whose artistry moved overheated Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock to compare Tampa Bay with the Wayne Gretzky-era Edmonton Oilers, runs its firewagon system thanks to goal-tender Nikolai Khabibulin. Coach John Tortorella can green-light his skaters because Khabibulin, who had a league-best .946 playoff save percentage through Sunday, generally keeps the red light off even in the face of the odd-man rushes the Lightning's style can allow. The only time Tortorella makes reference to a trap is when he urges Hitchcock to shut his. "One time we were trying to simulate the trap in practice so we could work on our breakout against it," says 24-year-old Lightning center Brad Richards. "Finally [Tortorella] just blows the whistle and tells us to stop. He says, 'Forget it. I'm not going to teach you guys the trap. I don't want you to know how to do it.' " The Lightning is bold not only in transition—"They fly [out of the defensive] zone and cherry pick and aren't afraid to send someone into the neutral zone even if it's not 100 percent sure they'll get the puck out," says Keith Primeau, leader of the Philly forecheck—but also in the attacking zone, routinely sending two skaters in deep. Tampa Bay keeps one forward high and encourages both defensemen to pinch at the blue line to create, in essence, a five-man forecheck.
"Players like it," says Lightning associate coach Craig Ramsay. "They look at [the system] and say, This is pretty good. The main word here is go"
The commitment to playing an attacking style in the pursuit of a 35-pound silver chalice—putting pedal to the metal, as it were—demands intensity, team speed and conditioning. It does not, however, demand gobs of money. The most undervalued asset in hockey has been young, fresh legs, a market inefficiency that allowed Flames general manager and coach Darryl Sutter to create a dynamic line that has a combined annual salary of $2.45 million—less than half of what the Colorado Avalanche, San Jose's second-round victim, piddled away on Teemu Selanne after the Sharks did not re-sign him last summer.
Shean Donovan ($753,000), Ville Nieminen ($600,000) and Marcus Nilson ($1.1 million) are all 29 or younger and zoom around the ice as if controlled by joysticks. Donovan is playing for his fifth organization because he was unfairly tagged as having a low hockey IQ. He blossomed into an 18-goal scorer and a sturdy checker under Sutter, a role that was enhanced after Calgary acquired Nieminen and Nilson before the trading deadline. Nieminen's accented argot might occasionally need subtitles—"On the road we play hospital hockey: more patients," the Footnote Finn said after the Flames lost Game 3, 3-0, at home—but he is eloquent in his hard work. Nieminen has combined well with Nilson, who had never lived up to expectations as the Florida Panthers' 1996 top draft choice. With a market correction and the economic folly of some of the traditional powers exposed (the six Flames defensemen in this series, none older than 28, make $5.315 million, about as much as the Red Wings, beaten by Calgary in the second round, pay 31-year-old Derian Hatcher), Donovan's line is the NHL's paradigm. "The workers have speed now," says Hitchcock, who turned the Flyers loose in their 6-2 Game 2 win. "Before they were more positional players. Now they're more forechecking, puck-pursuit hounds."
The Sharks were trapping dogs for the first 15 games of the season, but after winning only three times during that stretch, Ron Wilson blew up the schemes and reinvented San Jose. The catalyst was not captain Patrick Marleau, but two players the coach barely knew: speedy Swedish winger Nils Ekman, previously a minor leaguer in the New York Rangers organization, and forward Alexander Korolyuk, who played the 2002-03 season in Russia. "To be honest, I didn't have any plans for Korolyuk when I saw how he wanted to play like a freelancer," says Wilson. "But once Korky started buying in and we saw he could be a speed guy who could make an impact, we changed everything to become a strong forechecking and puck-pursuit team." San Jose attacks with speed but also resorts to sly dump-ins—low shots that rim the boards or soft cross-ice chips—that keep pucks away from goalies and allow the Sharks to initiate a forecheck. With the NHL proposal to limit goalies' handling of the puck next year, the future, whenever that might be, will favor the forecheck. With a payroll around $35 million and owners apparently set on a salary cap in that vicinity, San Jose is ahead of the economic curve, too.