By Michael Farber, SI.com
DETROIT -- Niklas Kronwall comes equipped with a booming shot, extraordinary hockey sense and nimble feet, but if the Detroit Red Wings defenseman were completely tricked out, he would come with license plates.
Kronwall cranked Antti Miettinen so hard in the Red Wings' 4-1 victory in Game 1 of the Western Conference final Thursday, the stunned Stars winger lost two consonants and a vowel. The Stars' best chance of defeating Detroit involved throwing their weight around, getting in on the forecheck against the Red Wings defensemen like Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski and Kronwall, bottling them up in their own zone.
And while Dallas coach Dave Tippett was underwhelmed by his team's effort, the Stars essentially did match the Red Wings in hits. Of course when measured on a seismic scale, of course, Kronwall tipped the balance in favor of Detroit. Kaboom. Kronwall hunts bodychecks all over the ice -- an impressive approach for a 6-foot, 190-pounder -- but only occasionally does he get as clean a kill as he did midway through the second period. With Miettinen cruising around in open ice, Kronwall stepped into forward and leveled him with a clean body shot, a hit that looked an awful lot like an old Scott Stevens check -- minus the concussion. "That one was hard to judge right off the bat," Kronwall said later. "Not one of the best ones, I think. Maybe it looked worse than the way I felt it. It felt like a good hit, but not that good."
The wonder is not that Kronwall is a cruiserweight who hits like a heavyweight, but that he is a big open-ice hitter at all. While there have been exceptions - notably former Red Wings defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov -- most European defenseman play positional rather than bulldozing hockey. On the larger international ice surfaces, 15 feet wider than NHL rinks, the geometry of the game changes radically. If a defenseman hunts the body, he does so at his peril because he winds up taking himself out of the play as often as he takes out his prey. But Kronwall, of the Stockholm Kronvalls, was raised on Stevens rock-em videos, training film for hard men.
While Dallas Drake is the best Detroit hitter along the boards, Kronwall is the undisputed master of open spaces. "His timing is unbelievable," Detroit checking center Kris Draper said. "[Those hits] really build some momentum for you. That's one of the things that we missed last year [when Kronwall was injured by a check by Dallas forward Joel Lundqvist late in the season]. He can turn on a dime, he's got small feet, and I really believe that makes him more agile, able to turn in the neutral zone and catch guys." "He's kinda a short guy who maybe sneaks up on you," said Johan Franzen, who scored his nightly goal for Detroit from his comfort zone, which means a three-foot tip-in. "He's got really good timing. He sneaks up on people right outside their vision and [is] delivering some highlight hits every night." Coach Mike Babcock credits Kronwall's intelligence, his ability to see the ice and read the play, which means Kronwall isn't giving up two-on-ones by taking himself out of position. "It's important for us that him and [defense partner Brad] Stuart are on the hunt because it makes [opponents] nervous," Babcock said. "You got to be aware of where they are."
On a night when so much occurred -- Franzen scoring his playoff-high 12th goal, the Red Wings throwing the puck around on the power play like the Harlem Globetrotters, Dallas goalie Marty Turco failing to win at Joe Louis Arena as a pro -- it is Detroit's eagerness to engage in battles that stood out. In the playoffs last year, the dandy Wings were the punching bag, surviving the second-round series against San Jose before being mauled by Anaheim. If the Red Wings are going to thrive, they can't be bystanders.
Kronwall -- who had a pair of assists, starting the play on the Red Wings' only even-strength goal by with a surgical pass to Mikael Samuelsson from his own zone -- is part of the solution. He is the big game hunter. After all, in the Stanley Cup playoffs, it's the law of the jungle.