THERE ARE 17,000 square feet of ice on an NHL rink, and this spring Washington Capitals defenseman Mike Green figures to cover more of them than anyone. He will be here and there and everywhere, sometimes whisking the puck into the offensive zone and then scooting to try to be the first man back in the defensive end as he indulges his insatiable wanderlust. Green set a record for defensemen with goals in eight consecutive games this season and, despite missing 14 matches with a shoulder injury, he finished with 31—the most by a blueliner in 16 years. Considering that his principal job is helping to ensure that the puck stays out of the Washington net, he spends a remarkable amount of his nearly 26 minutes of ice time a game hovering around the other team's goal line.
On the risk-reward scale, Green, one of only eight defensemen ever to reach the 30-goal mark and one of only two (Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom is the other) in the past 12 seasons to average a point per game, tends to be near the end with the skull and crossbones and the WARNING: DANGER sign. But while no other defenseman plays quite like a man doing doughnuts at the finish line—"He always has a green light; that's a pun," Capitals center Brooks Laich says—all of the serious 2009 Stanley Cup contenders, with the exception of Vancouver, have at least one gung ho defenseman who will resolutely attack from the back, kick-starting a transition with a sharp pass and then trailing the play or jumping into a seam to create a scoring chance.
In a two-month playoff marathon that will test their legs, as well as their convictions about the role of the attacking defenseman, blueliners such as San Jose's Dan Boyle, Chicago's Brian Campbell, Pittsburgh's Sergei Gonchar, Detroit's Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski, Philadelphia's Kimmo Timonen, and even Paul Martin of traditionally conservative New Jersey will probe for opportunities to create a game-changing offensive chance.
Gambles will be taken. Swashes will be buckled.
"It's confusing to the other team and forces them to adjust," Martin says of challenging opponents with onrushing defensemen. "This year we've done a little better job as far as being able to jump up and not just stay back."
"Having one of those [puck-moving defensemen like Green] helps your forwards in a couple of ways," Capitals general manager George McPhee says. "For one thing, your forwards don't have to hesitate. They know that when they take off and hit the hole, they'll be getting the puck on their stick. For another thing, it creates more scoring opportunities because when a guy like Green jumps into the play, the defense can't cover everybody."
In the tight-checking playoffs, with defenses geared to stop high-scoring forwards, a smart (and bold) defenseman will get ample chances to read a play and find some exploitable space. Having someone who can do that has become all but obligatory for a playoff finalist. In 2008 defensemen for the Cup-winning Red Wings contributed 44.4% of the team's postseason points, up from 28.7% during the regular season and almost double the league's average for defensemen in the regular year. In all but one of the past 14 seasons, defensemen accounted for a higher percentage of their team's points in the playoffs than they did in the regular season. (Eighty-nine defensemen had at least one point in the '08 playoffs, the most since '92.) The backbone of the attack is generally a puck-mover like Gonchar or Lidstrom, who has 31 points in 40 playoff games the past two years, but even a less graceful defenseman with an imposing shot—think San Jose's Rob Blake, Boston's Zdeno Chara and Dennis Wideman, and Anaheim's Chris Pronger—can find opportunities to score.
"When the blue lines were moved out [after the 2004--05 lockout] and the neutral zone was shrunk [from 54 to 50 feet], it made a big impact on the role of defensemen," Oilers coach Craig MacTavish says. "The way teams collapse their coverage now, a lot of times your [defense] is handling the puck more in the offensive zone than your forwards are."
"The importance of those kinds of defensemen in the playoffs can't be overstated," says former Tampa Bay general manager Jay Feaster. "The year we won the Stanley Cup [in 2004], the biggest challenge we faced was in the Eastern Conference final against Philadelphia, especially in Game 6 and overtime. Our defense stopped pinching, stopped being aggressive. Even Danny [Boyle, then with the Lightning] stopped doing what he normally did. Our D was backing up more, the last thing we wanted them to do. I told [then Lightning coach John Tortorella] before Game 7 that I hoped we wouldn't try to be somebody else, that we'd keep taking chances.... That's the question: Will you have the courage to do it as the playoffs go on? When you get closer to the Cup, you get nervous. You don't want to make a mistake. But you have to realize that this is how you played in order to get there." Feaster pauses. "You need courage."
GREEN, THE EPITOME of the offensive defenseman, has never been timorous. There was nothing the thrill-seeking boy wouldn't try while growing up in Calgary: leaping off hay bales, zipping around on dirt bikes, racing go-karts, wake boarding and, naturally, riding sheep. On visits to a family farm an hour from his home, Green and his cousins would hop on the back of a sheep, grab a handful of fleece and hang on. The kiddie rodeo ended when Green was eight and a rogue sheep threw him into a corral fence, giving him a nasty knock on the head. Now, at 23, Green's most conspicuous rides are a white 2007 Lamborghini and his size-8¾ Bauer Vapor 40 skates for those peregrinations that take him to the opposing net in search of goals.