Experiencing hockey at warp speed
Wednesday, 11.18.2009 / 4:18 PM / Features
By Bob Condor - NHL.com Editor-in-Chief
TORONTO -- Here's the first thing you sense when sitting on the red line, dead square ice level, at the scorer's table of a National Hockey League game: Everything is about to blow.
The starting five skaters for each team align around the center-ice faceoff circle. Defensemen fidgeting, wingers nearest you crossing arms and sticks and legs like, well, dance partners of sorts or, better yet, wrestlers in a re-start hold. The centers are crouching low and lean so far forward they appear ready to tip before, just like that, the puck drops.
Next comes a warp speed of skating that can only be described as unnatural because it is so fast and smooth and practically soundless at times. You find yourself involuntarily holding your own breath the skating is so sudden.
Seven minutes into the first period, Minnesota goalie Niklas Backstrom bursts from his own net about three quick, short strides with the puck on his stick and sends that puck up ice to teammate and Wild captain Mikko Koivu, who is open on the right wing in the Toronto zone. The 120-foot pass is right in front of you, a streak. Koivu gathers it on his stick in the offensive and -- thud! -- he is shooting and it is ricocheting off the leg pad of Maple Leafs goalie Jonas Gustavsson. At ice level, you come to understand the NHL goalie's job is more about being in position --in the way of the puck -- rather than reacting once the shot launches.
About halfway through the first period, referees Greg Kimmerly and Brad Watson are reaching into the home team penalty box for stashed water bottles. They appear to welcome the breather afforded by a television timeout, yet both men are smiling.
Play resumes and Toronto winger Jason Blake gets hit so hard right in front of the scorer's table that here is what you might be thinking: Whoa, deafening noise, just like the time a huge tree limb fell on the back-cargo end of my SUV -- with me in it. That kind of car-crash, rattle-your-teeth-and-brain-pan loud. So loud you are absolutely certain the glass is shattered or the boards are splintering in a million pieces or both.
Truth, Blake absorbs the hit and is gone in a flash, up the ice to chase the puck. The glass and boards? Intact. You are left blinking and wondering just how Blake is in one piece. You wonder that some more throughout the game; Blake is a target this night and is bodychecked to the full car-crash decibel three more times in the next two periods. He is all-systems-go after each hit, up on his skates and moving every time. Funny, though, one time he collides unexpectedly with Koivu and both players look stunned and at least temporarily hurt.
While waiting for a faceoff, you look across to the player benches. This is what you notice: The players look oversized, like a bunch of Shreks sitting on a preschool wall bench, side by side, not a lot of arm space and all towering over the boards, even the players who you know are not tall.
Speaking of tall, Minnesota left wing Derek Boogaard. He looks big at ice level, really big. Same goes for Wild defenseman Brent Burns.
Note to self: No. 12 for Toronto seems like he is faster than most everybody on the ice tonight. When you get a chance to look down at your notes without missing any action -- not as simple as it sounds -- your roster sheet says Lee Stempniak.
You pay attention to Stempniak's next shift. It goes something like this:
Toward the end of the first period, Minnesota defenseman Kim Johnsson makes an astounding no-look pass, right on the tape of Koivu's stick blade. It doesn't lead to a scoring chance, but might just be the best skill display of the first 20 minutes.
Martin Havlat scores the first goal of the game at the 17:42 mark on a wraparound move that is so quick you have to watch the replay to make sure it happened the way you think. The Leafs answer within a minute of play to tie it, 1-1. You are left with one thought: There is no room for mistakes for NHL defensemen. Mistakes end up on the scoreboard. On bad mistakes, the defenseman doesn't seem to want to look his goalie in the eye.
Marek Zidlicky lets loose a low bullet from the left point. From the scorer's table you have the perfect view. Gustavsson makes the save -- thud! -- it caroms off the leg pad. Right place, right time, right leg pad, you are thinking. Minnesota cycles the puck around the zone after the rebound. Zidlicky ends up with the same exact shot. He scores. Wrong place, not this time, where's the leg pad, you are asking. The answer is too many bodies blocking the Toronto goalie's view. It's like asking someone to cook in the dark. Not impossible, but dangerous no matter what.
About halfway into the game, Minnesota defenseman Greg Zanon ends up in the penalty box. Zanon is clearly a yeller, unlike most players from the Leafs and Wild who ended up sitting for two minutes for minor penalties.
"Get up Chucky!" he screams, encouraging new teammate Chuck Kobasew, who was acquired from Boston earlier in the season. Zanon appears to think Kobasew can hear him, something hockey dads and moms throughout North America think is the case too.
Toronto's Phil Kessel hits the post on a power play chance. The puck-on-hard-pipe is more TWANG and BARRRRRIIING at ice level than up in the stands. At the next break, Backstrom occupied his time by practicing his up-and-down leg moves after the near-miss.
The Wild score two goals in the 17th minute of the second period. Koivu shoots from the slot and Zanon the Yeller sends a shot through a crowd and past a frozen Gustavsson in front of the net. Two split-second lapses by the Leafs defense, two goals.
Right before the end of the period, Minnesota center Eric Belanger scoops up the puck after a whistle, takes a quarter-turn right in front of the scorer's table and lofts the puck about 20 yards so that it drops harmlessly and helpfully at a linesman's skate toes. Tiger Woods couldn't have chipped it any closer to the pin.
At the beginning of the third period, this time during play, Havlat lifts a pass that sails about four feet in the air at its highest, then lays right on his teammate's stick blade for a shot on goal. You notice these things at ice level.
As the game fades from the Leafs' grasp, you decipher that Toronto all of sudden seems a bit more sluggish, not as fast on the ice. Except Stempniak. The Wild, in contrast, string together two long touch passes that get the puck in deep on Gustavsson.
The game finishes with a late flurry from Toronto. Kessel scores at 18:02 to make it 4-2, then two Wild players end up in the penalty box to watch six Leafs work against Backstrom and a meager three Minnesota skaters. Backstrom is the equalizer. He and his leg pads are in the right place at several right times. The two Wild players in the penalty box are yelping and standing up and banging the glass with their sticks as the clock runs out. The penalty box attendant unfastens the latch and the players skate off at a leisurely pace toward their teammates. No more warp speed tonight.