NHL games are often won and lost in front of the net.
Players, especially on the power play, park themselves in front of goaltenders to tip pucks past them or to simply obstruct their view by getting in their line of sight.
Defensemen, meanwhile, have the tough task of moving opponents out of the way without drawing a penalty that could give the other team a two-man advantage.
Goalies are constantly on the move, trying to be in a position to see shots and passes, to do their job.
It’s a game within each and every NHL game. And, it 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 Cups.
“I grew up in Detroit and watched him for a long time,” Colorado Avalanche 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.”
The league has cracked down on the over-the-top physical play players used to get standing in front of the net. It has cut back on cross-checking and other rough play that was seen on a nightly basis near goalies.
“It has changed drastically,” San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns said recently. “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 Oilers 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.”
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 in front of goalies.
“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 percent 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.
The battle of Alberta should be intriguing, matching up teams that may be competing the rest of the season for the third and guaranteed playoff spot in the Pacific Division or a wild-card berth. The Flames beat the Oilers 5-1 two weeks ago on the road in their first of five games.
LEADERS (through Tuesday)
Goals: David Pastrnak (Boston), 32; Assists: Connor McDavid (Edmonton), 45; Points: McDavid, 69; Wins: Frederik Andersen (Toronto) 21; Goals-against average: Tristan Jarry (Pittsburgh), 2.04; Save percentage: Jarry, .934.
AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow in Buffalo, N.Y., and AP Sports Writer Pat Graham in Denver contributed to this report.