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Helene Elliott

Wings can't afford false front

May 31, 2008|Helene Elliott

PITTSBURGH -- Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury felt so energized after he won Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals Wednesday that he would have been happy to play again with only a Zamboni break in between.

"When you get that win it's always fun to get back in net. You have the momentum going," he said.

"At the same time, it's good to have rest for your body."

No body needed a respite more than that of Detroit forward Tomas Holmstrom, who felt a pull in his hamstring after he was checked by defenseman Hal Gill and fell hard to the ice late in Pittsburgh's 3-2 victory at Mellon Arena.

Holmstrom is almost an immovable object in front of the net. He sets up just outside the crease, where he uses his size and strength to screen goaltenders, tip in shots and battle for loose pucks.

Steady on his skates and fearless, he absorbs a painful assortment of crosschecks, slashes and jabs in the name of scoring goals.

He usually pops up quickly and resumes torturing goalies without missing a beat, which is why the Red Wings grew anxious when he skated off in obvious pain and, after a brief turn on the ice during a commercial break, decided he couldn't return.

By the time the puck is dropped for Game 4 tonight at Mellon Arena, it will be nearly 72 hours since he was injured -- and since the Penguins, inspired by a passionate crowd, applied the final bruising hit in a victory that cut Detroit's series lead to 2-1.

The effect of the extra day between games will be the overriding theme tonight when the Penguins pursue their 18th consecutive win on home ice and Fleury pursues his 20th.

If Fleury can pick up where he left off, the young Penguins can pack a boost of confidence for Game 5 Monday in Detroit, where they were shut out in the first two games.

Fleury hasn't lost at home since Nov. 21, but that includes a stretch in which he sprained an ankle Dec. 6 and sat out more than two months. The Penguins' last home loss was on Feb. 24.

"I think it's just really a combination of things, maybe," Fleury said of the team's home-ice success.

"Guys feel more comfortable, confident. We always have our fans behind us. They've been great all year long. That's why it's great to play here."

Not having Holmstrom in his face would make it even better for Fleury.

"It's always tougher as a goalie when you have somebody in front," said Fleury, who was the first pick in the 2003 entry draft. "At the same time, every playoff, every series, every team, they put that guy in there. We always did a good job with him, and we always came out on top."

Holmstrom isn't just any guy. He has four goals and 12 points in the playoffs and is a perfect complement to linemates Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.

The Red Wings have no shortage of talent -- Johan Franzen has a playoff-high 13 goals, Zetterberg has 12 and Datsyuk nine -- but they have no one as effective at going to the net and refusing to budge come high stick or high water.

Without him, the Red Wings would miss "that presence in front of their net," teammate Niklas Kronwall said. "He's done a great job. He's probably the best guy in the league at what he's doing in front of the net, always making sure their goalie can't see the puck."

Holmstrom didn't practice Friday but said he felt better after getting rest and treatment and riding a stationary bike. Asked whether he had responded well to the treatment, he smirked.

"Yes, especially at 35 you respond really good," he said.

He said he looked forward to testing himself at the game-day skate and playing tonight, but not half as much as Coach Mike Babcock looks forward to seeing him play.

"I think he's got great passion and great courage, and I think he's an unbelievable teammate," Babcock said.

"I like him a lot. I like having him in practice. He's good to yell at in practice. The guys like when he messes up the odd drills so everyone can have some fun with that."

The Red Wings would rather have him provide scoring relief than comic relief.

They were more rueful than upset over their loss Wednesday, focusing on their ability to keep the game close despite a superb effort by Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.

"We've definitely got to get pucks to the net, and we've got to stand in front of the net," forward Kris Draper said. "The goalies at this time of the year, if they see the shots they're going to make the saves. That's one thing we're certainly aware of.

"We have to make a better effort of shooting pucks at the net, getting to the net, staying at the net and trying to get those ugly goals at this time of year."

Fleury has been a formidable opponent. In 17 games he has a 1.93 goals-against average, .933 save percentage and three shutouts.

"He loves playing goal and he loves the competition. He thrives on it, I think," Gill said. "Off the ice he's lighthearted and enjoys life. I think that shows when he plays. He really enjoys going out there and making the acrobatic save."

His ability to make in-your-face saves on Holmstrom might determine how long the Penguins keep this series going.

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Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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