Red Wings' trio has net-front success
So after missing weeks of games and being unable to eat difficult solids like steaks to this day, where did Cleary go in the first shift of his first game back? Right to the net-front. Within seconds, a shot was deflected up and whizzed by Cleary's head.
"All the pucks end up in front of the net, so you're always getting cross-checked in the back and any shot has a chance of hitting you," said Cleary. "But the results are rewarding."
The results are goals. Careers are made when players learn how to stand in front of the opposition goalie and face the shots in order to both screen the netminder and have a chance at deflecting the puck.
When the Nashville Predators begin their best-of-seven Western Conference quarterfinal series against the Red Wings tonight (7 p.m., FSN), they'll have to deal with a Detroit team that has three quality net-front forwards -- Cleary, Tomas Holmstrom and Johan Franzen.
"Sometimes I wonder why everybody doesn't play down there when they see the success that these guys have," said Detroit coach Mike Babcock. "It's obvious that's where you've got to go to score."
Each of the three became forces in the NHL by going to the danger zone right in front of the goalie.
Holmstrom has been doing it the longest, starting in the Swedish Elite League and then carrying that style across the Atlantic Ocean to the NHL. He is regarded by most opponents as the best forward in the world at screening goalies and deflecting shots. He
"Homer, he practices for 15 minutes every day at that," said goalie Dominik Hasek. "That's his bread and butter. Every season the goalies prepare for him and he still scores his 25, 30 goals."
Cleary and Franzen never played net-front before coming to the Red Wings.
Cleary got his foot in the door on the power play by going net-front. That was the beginning of his transition from role player two seasons ago to top-six forward.
"The way I look at it is it took me a while to figure out my game anyways," said Cleary who was a scoring star in junior hockey. "It was a role that allowed me to play the power play. I just accepted it. I enjoy it as does Tommy and Mule (Franzen). We like going to the front of the net. It's a fun spot to play."
Franzen was a defensive forward who excelled on the penalty-kill when he came to Detroit two seasons ago. He has been used at the net-front because he is one of the team's biggest bodies. When Holmstrom went down with an abdominal strain, Franzen's stock skyrocketed when he assumed Holmstrom's role on the top power-play unit. Franzen finished this season with 27 goals (third on the Red Wings) with 14 coming with the man-advantage.
"You've got to get there and try to stay when they try to push you away," said Franzen. "I don't know if you can copy anyone. You've just got to go there and stay there."
Franzen's net-front play in the first round of last spring's playoffs so frustrated the Calgary Flames that back-up goalie Jamie McLennan slashed the big Swede across the midsection with his goalie stick, getting suspended for the act.
"Maybe he thought I was Homer," said Franzen with a smile.
There is an unusual relationship between net-front forwards and goalies. The two work within inches of each other, but have opposite desires.
"Definitely they make a big impact; They are special players," said Hasek. "You know before the game that you are going to see them in your face all the time. … You have to prepare for them and know that there are going to be a few shots during the game that you won't see. You hope those shots are going to hit you or your defensemen will block it for you."