DETROIT -- The moral of the story at the Stanley Cup final is that just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean the NHL isn't out to get you.
Consider the curious case of Tomas Holmstrom, the Detroit Red Wings human eclipse who, like an unwelcome in-law, settles in front of the goal crease, millimeters outside the blue paint, and refuses to budge. He has been doing this for a decade or so, screening goalies, deflecting pucks, and making a general nuisance of himself. This is his only hockey parlor trick, but it is a nifty one, something that has kept him in the league far longer than his first NHL coach, Scotty Bowman, originally figured. When Holmstrom left Sweden in 1996 to join the Red Wings, the Swede took jersey No. 96 to celebrate his arrival in the NHL. Bowman suggested to Holmstrom that No. 98 might be more appropriate because, he said, "that's the year you're going to leave."
Anyway Holmstrom has found his place, in the culture of the Red Wings dressing room where he is the butt of much teasing and especially in front of the crease, where he has drawn the attention of the referees' rheumy eyes. Three times in the past seven Red Wings playoff games, the refs have made controversial calls -- or in one case, a non-call -- that have centered around Holmstrom's skates, sticks and, yes, his booty. One call favored the Red Wings, one cost them an obvious goal and the third, in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final Saturday against the Pittsburgh Penguins, was so Miss Grundy-ish in its rules interpretation it is understandable that 16 hours later the Red Wings were still adamant that they had been hosed.
More on that in a minute. Let's review the calls, in order:
* In Game 1 of the Western Conference final against Dallas, Holmstrom, skates clearly in the blue no-go zone in front of Stars goalie Marty Turco, deflects a shot for a goal. Bill McCreary, one of the NHL's most respected refs, allows the goal to stand although it should have been waved off. Notice that McCreary isn't working the final.
* In Game 4 of the Dallas series, Detroit center Pavel Datsyuk loses a goal because referee Kelly Sutherland judges that Holmstrom is in the crease. Although Holmstrom's skates clearly are outside the blue - and his sense of place is usually so accurate, you would swear he has an internal GPS - the ref later explains that his derrière was hanging in the paint. If Holmstrom were J. Lo., then there might have been a legitimate issue on what appeared to be an asinine call. But honestly, Holmstrom's trunk does not have that much junk. Like Allende before him, Sutherland also was disappeared for the finals.
* With about 15 minutes gone in the first period against the Penguins, Detroit captain Nicklas Lidstrom rifles a puck over Pittsburgh goalie Marc-André Fleury's shoulder. Referee Dan O'Halloran, who on Feb. 10 had disallowed another apparent Lidstrom goal for interfering with Anaheim goalie J.S. Giguère, quickly flashes the "safe sign" - no goal. He rules Holmstrom, outside the crease, had interfered with Fleury when his stick touched the goalie, who had come to the outer reaches of the crease - the heels of his skates were still in the blue - to make a save. There indeed might have been contact between Holmstrom's stick and Fleury's right skate, but it appeared to be a graze rather than a jab. In any case, Holmstrom did nothing that would have had an impact on Fleury's ability to stop Lidstrom's screamer.
"I think Fleury was outside the crease this time," Holmstrom said after the game. "I haven't seen it myself, but I heard it was a bad call. Staying outside the paint this time, and still no goal. Sure it's frustrating."
Holmstrom believes he has a big bull's-eye on his back, or more properly, his front because he stands facing the puck, his number in the goaltender's face. And why shouldn't he be awash in paranoia when he keeps being singled out for calls that are either flat wrong (the two in Dallas) or highly debatable. As teammate Darren McCarty said Sunday, "The only explanation is that when you're told to watch out for something, you're oversensitive to it."
"I guess (because) he's the No. 1 guy in the league to go to net, they keep a closer eye on him," defenseman Andreas Lilja said. "Like they're looking to make a call to make sure he's not in the crease. But it's brutal. They got to make the right calls. That could cost us a game right there. They're looking for him. They know he's right on the edge. They just have to read the game better. Not easy for the referees, but they've got to make better calls than that."
"It's just a reputation he has," defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. "If it had been anybody else that goal probably would have been allowed, but just the fact that he was there is going to draw attention, the same thing as somebody who's known for making dirty plays or whatever out there."
The worry in the Detroit dressing room is that the interference penalties will affect Holmstrom's eagerness to decamp in front of goalies, something Lidstrom addressed with his livid countryman after the first period. But like the goalie interference call against Holmstrom in the Stanley Cup final opener, these fears are overblown. Holmstrom is a clumsy skater, a guy perpetually stuck in first gear. He does not possess a laser-like shot. At age 35, asking Holmstrom to change his style would be like having Slash turn into Segovia.
As Holmstrom said on the eve of the final, "I can't change the way I play. It's too late. I can't. Why don't they go upstairs (for video review)? It would take five seconds. They check high sticks all the time and pucks kicked in, why not (goaltender interference)?"
Detroit general manager Ken Holland met with series supervisor Mike Murphy, the NHL hockey operations executive, for about two minutes on Monday night to discuss the apparent Holmstrom witchhunt, but surely they will have a more extended chat before Game 2 Monday. Holland will sing the blues about profiling and Holmstrom will try to stay out of the blue although as the NHL knows, it's not all black and white with the human eclipse.