The front of the net is a dangerous “neighborhood” to hang around, as Carolina Hurricanes forward Nathan Gerbe can attest.
“I love being in front of the net. That’s where you score goals,” Gerbe said Monday. “But being in front of the net is tough. You take sticks to the back and cross-checks in the neck. It’s not fun, but I like that dirty area. Just look for pucks and try to get ’em in.”
Coach Bill Peters has talked often of the need to make opposing goalies more uncomfortable. Have a strong net presence, be an irritant, crowd the goalie around the crease and “get in his eyes,” he likes to say.
At 5-foot-5, Gerbe isn’t a vision-robber. Neither is the Canes’ Jeff Skinner, who is generously listed at 5-11.
Both can make opposing goalies uneasy, though. Gerbe has scored just three goals but is the persistent pest around the net, and Skinner patrols in and around the cage, looking to snipe and score.
“Any small guy in the league, if you look at them, they play hard,” Gerbe said. “They have the will to do it. Obviously getting this far they’ve accomplished a lot. There’s no soft or not-strong guys in this league. I don’t think you’d be able to survive in this league too long like that.”
Gerbe has had back problems in the past and Skinner has dealt with concussions. Both wade in, though, looking to find the openings, not backing down.
During practice Monday, Skinner was involved in a two-on-two drill. He was bumped by defenseman Michal Jordan, had his stick knocked out of his hands, kicked the puck to maintain possession, picked up his stick, was knocked down, got back to his feet and eventually ripped in a rebound.
For Skinner, it was as much will as skill.
“Most of the goals in the NHL are scored around the net,” he said. “There are obviously a lot of big, strong D-men in front of the net and it’s tough to find time and space, and you have to pick your spots. You have to be smart.
“As a small guy, you have to take a little different approach. Obviously, ‘Gerbs’ getting the crowd into it and getting the guys into it last game was pretty good for us.”
Gerbe didn’t do it with a goal Saturday against the Pittsburgh Penguins, but he did do it in the offensive zone.
Skating toward the corner pursuing the puck, he knocked Penguins forward defenseman Simon Despres to the ice. Pittsburgh’s Steve Downie took a run at Gerbe along the boards, then Jayson Megna jumped in spoiling for a fight.
Gerbe grabbed Megna and spun him to the ice like a WWE wrestler scoring a quick take-down. Gerbe landed on top as Canes fans at PNC Arena roared.
Another Peters expression is that players don’t have to be big to “play big.” Gerbe proved it in that sequence against Megna, who is 6-1 and 195 pounds.
“He’s very competitive,” Peters said of Gerbe, who has had six or more shots in five games this season. “You look around. Sidney Crosby (of Pittsburgh) is under 6 feet. Steve Downie plays hard. They’re solid players and hockey strong and so is Nathan Gerbe. It’s all about an attitude and coming to the rink with an attitude.
“(Skinner) is in behind guys, he’s quick, he’s skating, he’s using what his strengths are. And ‘Gerbs’ is quick, too. Those guys are hard to play against when you’re a bigger D-man, like 6-5 plus. Those little guys get in on you, tight, and they’re buzzing around you and they’re determined.”
The Canes have others who patrol the net. Most of Jiri Tlusty’s team-high 10 goals have come in and around the cage.
Peters would like to see more of his guys doing it, and especially Tuesday when the Canes (7-13-3) continue a five-game homestand against the Nashville Predators (16-5-2). The Predators, coming off a 4-0-0 run at home, could have Pekka Rinne starting in net, and Peters wants him to have company in the crease.
“It’s great. It’s nasty down there,” Peters said. “That’s the trenches. That’s where you can make a living.”