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SPORTS COMMENTARY: Big, young Wild defensemen figuring out how to deal with 'pipsqueaks'

ST. PAUL It must be frustrating for Justin Falk and Clayton Stoner to have to deal with all those pipsqueaks crowding the crease. Falk and Stoner are a couple of economy-sized Minnesota Wild defensemen who are more than willing to use their size....

ST. PAUL

It must be frustrating for Justin Falk and Clayton Stoner to have to deal with all those pipsqueaks crowding the crease.

Falk and Stoner are a couple of economy-sized Minnesota Wild defensemen who are more than willing to use their size. Half a dozen years ago, before the rules changes removed much of the physical play from the game, these two would have been something to see. If an enemy forward got to close to the crease, either one simply could have hammered him into the ice. Nobody cared. It was considered smart hockey.

It's different now. Too much pushing or shoving can lead to a penalty. And for some referees, "too much" equals just looking at a guy funny. Emboldened by the rules changes, little guys -- gnats -- often crowd the goaltender, jabbing away at loose pucks.

There isn't much defensemen can do anymore.

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"I still see a lot of guys battling in front of the net," Stoner said. "You just can't abuse them as much."

It's better than it was right after the rules changed, however. At first, the refs wouldn't even let a defenseman touch a guy. That led to a whole bunch of fronting and trying to deflect a shot or grab a pass before it got through. The problem with that is it creates a double screen for the goalie. And when you're as big as Stoner and Falk, it's like trying to see through a wall."

Both of those guys prefer to punish encroaching forwards, although as subtly as possible so they can stay out of the box.

"Hack and whack," Falk noted. "It wasn't too bad tonight, eh?"

The referees pretty much let them do their thing during Wednesday's 3-2 victory over Nashville.

"You can still get away with a lot of stuff," Stoner said. "It's just how aggressive you are. You can give small cross-checks."

In the first period Wednesday, Predators pest Jordin Tootoo came crashing in for a rebound, jabbing his stick under Josh Harding's glove. Tootoo is 5-9. Stoner is 6-3. A quick two-hander sent Tootoo to his knees. Still, it wasn't an overtly vicious cross-check. Young Stoner is learning to straddle that line.

"If you cross-checked everybody as hard as you could, there would be fights pretty much all the time," he said. "I guess now it's probably cracked down on fighting."

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Falk has a very interesting approach. He tries to develop a rapport with the officials. Not to try to get away with anything, but rather so they will verbally establish their boundaries with him.

"The communication with the referees is pretty good. You talk to them early on about what the limits are," Falk said. "After the first hack and whack, they'll say, 'OK.' They'll start yelling if you're pushing and being too aggressive. If you have two hands on the stick and you start getting up around the waist area, they'll yell, 'Too high, too high!' "

According to Falk, most refs are fine fellows.

"If you're nice to them, respect them, they'll be nice to you," he said.

Yes, hello, Mr. Referee. How's the family?

I'll always remember Derek Boogaard talking about how he used to look in the mirror and practice smiling. He said if he didn't smile when he asked a referee a question, he'd get an extra penalty.

"For the most part, they're pretty good," Falk said. "There's the odd couple of refs that, maybe they're having a bad night, you want to stay away from them."

In the second period Wednesday, Patric Hornqvist was crowding Harding on a power play. You had to be watching closely to see that the reason Hornqvist went skidding was a subtle whack by Falk.

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I think these two youngsters are extremely valuable on the blue line. Even though the game has changed, they do their best to protect goalies Nik Backstrom and Harding. They are willing to mix it up. Both will drop the gloves. They gave out several free face washes against the Preds. That type of toughness is at a premium these days.

Marco Scandella has the size, and sometimes the temperament, to play a similar game, but he's a bit more gifted offensively.

"I think the whole back end, the young guys, are comfortable," Falk said. "The coaches know mistakes will happen. We've all been playing about even minutes, just rolling 'em out there. We're big on being strong and pushing (forwards) to the outside."

They really play a throwback type of game, bumping and shoving anybody who gets too close.

"I don't know," Stoner said. "I think you still have to take abuse if you want to get to the net."

And that's the way it should be.

Distributed by MCT Information Services

Related Topics: HOCKEY
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