CHICAGO – The NHL's hottest real estate in May is about 30 square feet in front of each goal. You have to fight to get there, and it is quite difficult to stay in place after you arrive.
Anaheim got another scoring tip in a 2-1 victory over Chicago in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals on Thursday night, helping the Ducks to a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. While the Eastern Conference finals has been a more free-wheeling showdown, traffic in front of goaltenders Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers and Ben Bishop of the Lightning has contributed to several goals.
Making the most of that small area right in front of the net could go a long way to determining which teams get to compete for the Stanley Cup.
"If you want to score a goal, I'm going to the front of the net," Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau said. "I've read stats that 75 percent of all goals are scored within 5 feet of the blue paint. If I want to be a goal scorer and I want to win games, by hook or by crook, I'm going to get to the front of the net, stand there, see where the puck ends up."
The evolution of the goaltending position and scouting reports have made what players and coaches often call the "dirty" areas more important than ever. Big goalies like the 6-foot-7 Bishop take up more of the net than their smaller counterparts of the past, and advance scouts provide detailed information on the tendencies of opponents and what they like to do in every offensive situation.
"You got to go to the hard areas in this league," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "From the outside, you're not going to score."
Patrick Maroon was right outside of the goalmouth on Thursday night when he tipped Hampus Lindholm's shot past Corey Crawford for a 1-0 Anaheim lead at 12:55 of the first period. Each of the five goals in the Blackhawks' triple-overtime win in Game 2 was scored from right in front of the net, including impressive tips for Chicago's Andrew Shaw and Anaheim star Corey Perry.
"You've got to battle," Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf said. "I mean, there are certain guys that have an art form in the league of doing it and know how to be around the net. We saw two examples (in Game 2), that Shaw is really good around the net, and we saw Perry in ours.
"That's just the way the games are now. You got to find a way to get inside and be willing to take those extra shots to stay around the net."
With his 6-3 frame, athleticism and a nasty streak, Perry is one of the NHL's most dangerous players around the goal. The winger is among the league leaders with eight goals and eight assists in the playoffs. The 6-2, 231-pound Maroon, who scored three of his playoff goals in the second round against Calgary, also can cause problems inside.
"We're probably playing as good a team as there is in the league at getting in front of the net, staying in front of the net, having the abilities to get their hands on some loose pucks and finish the goal to go along with that," Quenneville said. "That's an ongoing battle. At the end of the series is where it will get sorted out."
The importance of traffic in front and screening the goaltenders has prompted increased emphasis on defending and protecting that valuable part of the ice.
Anaheim has blocked 84 shots heading into Game 4 on Saturday night, compared with 47 for Chicago. Tampa Bay carried a 2-1 series lead and a 47-39 advantage in blocked shots into Game 4 on Friday night.
When those rugged forwards get to the front of the net — with or without the puck — it becomes a tricky little situation for defensemen. The objective is to stay out of the way of their goaltenders while moving opposing players out of potential scoring positions, and then they also have to be mindful of potential penalties that could put their team in a more difficult spot.
"It's a constant battle about getting in position in front of them," Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman said. "As a defenseman, you have to make sure you front their guy. It's a big battle. You have to find a way to get there. It's a big difference."
The forwards who get to the front take a constant stream of hits designed to make it too painful to stay near the goal. It takes a tenacious disposition to stand up to the abuse, especially for smaller players like the 5-11 Shaw, but he said he also dishes out his share of punishment.
"It's give and take," Shaw said. "You know you're going to get a few shots. You can give a few shots, but it's more of just having a wide base, standing your ground and you know pushing back every time he pushes into you."
AP freelancer Mark Didtler contributed to this report.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap