Every inch of the ice is a danger zone, but those who regularly are assigned net-front duty in the NHL know they’re especially at high risk for some hurt. Those big slappers off the point, some traveling upward of 100 miles an hour, can leave a mark that lasts a day or two, or maybe even well into retirement.
“Yeah, there’s a price to pay by being there,” said Nick Foligno, whose top-of-the-paint presence Friday afternoon played a vital role in David Krejci firing in the tying goal for the Bruins against the Hurricanes. “But it’s a place that a lot of guys are willing to go because you get a lot of success there.
“There’s a lot of good opportunities for pucks to be batted in, or make plays, so I enjoy that, I relish it.”
Foligno needed a few stitches in Tampa last Monday, the price of practicing his net-front skills, during the club’s morning workout. Just part of the job, he said, after requiring a trip to the trainer’s room for a roadside patch to stem the leaking.
On Saturday, Foligno was left unscathed for his good work cutting left to right in front of the Canes net and obscuring goalie Pyotr Kochetkov’s line of sight as Krejci unloaded from the slot. The only mark he sustained was left on the scoresheet, where he was credited with the secondary assist, expanding his season total to 4-8—12. His next point will equal his production of all last season.
The officiating crew initially felt Foligno was guilty of goalie interference, waved the goal off, only to rule it a good goal when a lengthy review by the NHL war room in Toronto proved that defenseman Brett Pesce pushed the veteran Bruins winger into Kochetkov. Score tied, 2-2, and the stage was set for David Pastrnak’s thunderbolt Wonderboy winner at 3:19 of OT.
“I knew where I was when I first came up to the crease — I knew I was above it,” noted Foligno, now with 1,042 games worth of spatial awareness acumen. “So I was shocked he [first] called it a no goal, to be honest with you.”
The art of playing the net front, an institutional power-play tactic for the club working at man-up, has long been an essential part of the NHL. Some of the role’s nuances have changed.
Foligno recalled such offensive stars as Tomas Vanek and Dino Ciccarelli mastering the craft in their day. Long ago, big bodies such as Tim Kerr, Dave Andreychuk, and Phil Esposito (a combined 1,727 goals) were experts at working the doorstep, though they varied in their approaches to tipping and screening. Esposito, in particular, thrived more on depositing loose pucks in front that were the product of scrambles or rebounds (sometimes his own).
Today’s net-front impresarios, Foligno among them, are working with a template largely put in place by Tomas Holmstrom during his lengthy career (1996-2012) with the Red Wings. The grizzled, solid Swedish winger was nicknamed “The Mule” because of his ornery play at the top of the opposition’s net, where he used every inch of his body, stick, skate boot and whatever else happened to be handy to help get pucks over the goal line.
By coach Jim Montgomery’s eye, players such as Kerr, Andreychuk, and Esposito often “were set up well” and more often finished plays into the slot to the crease. The job now more often is one based more on distraction, puck-tipping and general nuisance making.
More often today, someone else does the shooting and it’s left to the net-front attacker to tip, chop, hack or bunt it home.
“Holmstrom, I think, is the guy who kind of changed everything,” noted Montgomery. “That’s where the net-front guy became a screener first, a selfless player that was going to screen and tip and get the odd rebound goal and stuff.”
Brad Marchand, one of the game’s premier left wingers, needed years to find regular work on the power play. Bruce Cassidy installed him as a regular, frequently using the 5-foot-9-inch forward to wire his way through defensemen who often were 5-8 inches taller and some 30 pounds heavier.
“Fliggy’s really good at it,” said Marchand,” crediting Foligno for his work in front. “He’s spent a lot of time at it; you know, a bigger body provides a good screen and that wasn’t necessarily my strong point.”
In the current man-up configuration, the highly-effective Marchand is usually found on the right elbow, working symbiotically with Patrice Bergeron at the bumper spot. Pastrnak often sets up around the dot in the left wing circle, and it’s often an eager Foligno who moves to the top of the paint, both stick and jaw locked for action.
To be successful at that spot, noted Montgomery, it takes more than a willingness to be sacrificed to the vulcanized gods.
“I think it’s his understanding of how a power play works to have success,” said Montgomery, whose club with Friday’s win established a league record of 12 wins at home to open the season. “Like when to be at the net front, when to drop off, and the other part is recovering pucks. He’s really heavy on pucks. He gets the body on the guy trying to clear it, which buys us time to get a guy in there and maintain O-zone possession time.”
Foligno’s dad, Mike, had a similar big, solid build and finished with 355 career goals. Some of what his son does today was handed down from dad , who was also Nick’s junior coach for three years at OHL Sudbury.
“A little bit, yeah,” said Nick, asked if his dad wired in some top-of-the-crease nuances. “He was more a shooter, though, so I should have taken his job and do more what of he he did — a little easier on the body.”
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.