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November 7, 2002 - Penalty killers carry Wings to Stanley Cup
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Illustration by David Guralnick, Jaunita Little, Tim Summers, Jason Karas and Eric Millikin / The Detroit News

As the goalie, Curtis Joseph (top center) is the most important penalty killer. Tough veteran Chris Chelios (top left) is a reliable penalty killer. Nicklas Lidstrom (top right) gets a lot of ice time when the Wings are shorthanded. Kirk Maltby (bottom right) has three shorthanded goals this season. Kris Draper's (bottom left) speed makes him effective on the penalty kill.

Penalty killers carry Wings to Stanley Cup
Both role-players and stars do dirty work in Detroit's shorthanded situations

By John Niyo / The Detroit News

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   DETROIT--With the Wings' Stanley Cup quest half fulfilled this past spring, the fans at Joe Louis Arena did something they'd never done before: They chanted Kirk Maltby's name.
   Finally.
   It was the second period of the fifth and, as it turned out, final game of the Western Conference semifinal series against St. Louis. And there was Maltby, the unassuming checking-line forward, in a rather desperate situation, trapped in his own zone on the penalty kill without a stick.
   He made do without, holding his ground and waving his gloved hands in an attempt to knock down shots with the Wings clinging to a 1-0 lead. Maltby took one off his wrist and another off his ankle before eventually limping to the bench. The Blues' power play was negated and the Wings' Tomas Holmstrom scored less than two minutes later for a commanding 2-0 lead.
   In between, a loud chorus of "Malt-by! Malt-by!" from the fans acknowledged something the Wings' players had long ago realized: It's the dirty work that deserves the highest praise.
   Asked about the ovation he received, Maltby admitted it was, well, "flattering."
   But then with a shrug he added: "I was just trying to do my job."
   That, of course, is the attitude that has helped carry the Wings to three championships the last six seasons.
   In last year's Stanley Cup playoffs, the Wings allowed only two goals in the last 41 shorthanded situations they faced. They killed off 20 consecutive power plays during one stretch as they won four straight games to close out Carolina in the Finals.
   The Wings also scored seven shorthanded goals in the playoffs, while the other 15 teams in the postseason combined to score six. Among the highlights: a pair of shorthanded goals -- Nicklas Lidstrom and Brett Hull scored 30 seconds apart -- that sparked the Wings in a Game 6 clincher against Vancouver in the Western Conference quarterfinals.
   Maltby got things started in similar fashion this fall, netting a pair of shorthanded goals in the first period of the season-opening, 6-3 victory at San Jose. The Wings have added three more shorthanded tallies since, and lead the league in that statistic.
   But while the Wings' power play ranks second in the NHL -- scoring at least once in each of the first 12 games -- the penalty-killing unit is struggling of late, allowing seven power-play goals in the last six games. It's no coincidence the Wings are 2-2-2 in those six games.
   "We're leaking a little bit, (allowing) a goal here and a goal there," admitted Barry Smith, the associate coach who handles the special teams. "Every year, we're in the top 10 or top five in the league -- the guys take pride in it. We want to go on one of those five- or six-game streaks where nothing goes in."
   Particularly this season, with the league's crackdown on obstruction, special teams play is where games will be won and lost. Through the first month of the 2002-03 season, power plays were up over last year (10.0 to 11.6 per game).
   So even more than usual, the Wings' unique approach to killing penalties figures to pay dividends.
   Like most teams, the Wings' use a basic moving box or diamond alignment when faced with 5-on-4 shorthanded situations.
   But unlike some teams, the Wings aren't single-minded about the task: Simply getting the puck out of the defensive zone isn't good enough anymore.
   "We allow the guys a little more creativity because we've got an experienced group," Smith said. "We'll show them the opposition's power play -- what their tendencies are -- and then these guys are real good about figuring it out for themselves.
   "Basically, our idea is to take away time and space as best we can. Rotate when you have a chance, but if you can't, just take away the shot lanes and the passing lanes. And then you just react to whatever happens."
   At the center of it all is the goaltender, whose reactions matter most.
   Said Coach Dave Lewis: "It's a cliche, but it's true: Your goalie is the most important part of your penalty kill."
   And certainly Curtis Joseph -- replacing Dominik Hasek this season -- is one of the better penalty killers around.
   Likewise, the rest of the Wings' All-Star cast plays a role.
   "A lot of teams, they use all their defensive players, checking-type players," Hull said. "This team uses all their skill guys."
   That was true last year when Hull first arrived, and it's still true now with Lewis in charge. In addition to defensive stalwarts Lidstrom and Chris Chelios, the Wings primarily use three forward tandems to kill penalties, and each of the three poses a unique threat.
   First off the bench are Maltby and Kris Draper, a pair whose speed and aggressive forechecking create havoc and often keep teams from setting up the power play in the Wings' zone.
   Next comes Sergei Fedorov and Brendan Shanahan. Fedorov's puck-possession game and Shanahan's goal-scoring knack also create headaches for opposing teams.
   The last duo features Hull and Steve Yzerman, although Lewis has used Darren McCarty, among others, in Yzerman's injury absence this season.
   "All three tandems can go," Draper said. "That's the philosophy that we have. Be smart defensively, but attack when the opportunity is there. If you get a chance to go, you go."

You can reach John Niyo at (313) 223-4646 or jniyo@aol.com.
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