- Scott Burnside, NHL
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PITTSBURGH -- For all the Detroit Red Wings' star power, the defining figure in their lineup throughout the playoffs has been forward Tomas Holmstrom.
For the past six weeks, the tough-as-nails Swede has played a pivotal role in many of the team's most important moments. Holmstrom has been knocked down, cross checked, mauled, punched and otherwise abused by opposing defensemen and goaltenders. At one point in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals, Pittsburgh forward Gary Roberts tried to pull Holmstrom's head off his shoulders following a disturbance in front of the Pittsburgh goal.
But now, the Detroit Red Wings are facing the possibility of playing without their human punching bag. The game's finest screener of goaltenders suffered a hamstring injury when Pittsburgh defenseman Hal Gill hurled him into the Penguins' net late in Game 3. Holmstrom, who was seen limping after the game, did not play on a late-game power play and did not skate Friday. And after testing his leg in Saturday's morning skate, he is still a game-time decision.
"He did just what everyone else did," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said after the morning skate. "Basically, he felt pretty good. He's going to come back for the game tonight, see how he feels."
Holmstrom said Friday the injury was different from the groin strain that saw him miss 13 games from early March to early April. Despite the optimism shared by Holmstrom and Babcock, the buzz around the Red Wings' dressing room is that Holmstrom isn't likely to play.
"It was a pretty good skate. I felt it a little bit," Holmstrom told reporters Saturday afternoon. "That's the concern right there. We're trying to do the smartest thing and figure it out before game time. It's just a morning skate. You don't do that much and there is no body contact out there. It's a totally different thing when you do one-on-one battles."
The loss of Holmstrom would have a significant ripple effect through the entire Red Wings' lineup. The big Swede with the seemingly limitless tolerance for pain and abuse has been a staple on the team's top line the entire season. If he can't go, Babcock said Daniel Cleary would move up to play with Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.
"We just move people around," Babcock said. "That's what being on a team's all about. You have to pick one another up when someone goes down."
While Cleary is no shrinking violet, there is something unique about Holmstrom's ability to bedevil opposing goaltenders and enrage opposing defenders. Throughout the playoffs, he has been a lightning rod for both poundings and controversy. Against Dallas in the Western Conference finals, a Red Wings goal was waved off after it was ruled Holmstrom's butt had encroached on Marty Turco's crease even though replays showed that wasn't the case. In Game 1 of the Cup finals, Holmstrom was assessed a goaltender interference penalty that negated a Nicklas Lidstrom goal. He has been in the middle of dozens of scrums and has picked up 12 points in 19 playoff games.
"I know when he's there when he's on top of my crease," Pittsburgh's netminder Marc-Andre Fleury said. "He's always around. I see him a lot of times during the games. I think our guys did a great job with him."
Do the two ever exchange words?
"I don't know. He doesn't seem very talkative. It's been pretty quiet there," Fleury said.
If Holmstrom is unable to go in Saturday's pivotal fourth game, look for Darren McCarty to return to the Wings' lineup. He was a healthy scratch the past two games.
"They still have a lot of quality players," Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien said. "And it's not going to change anything for us. It might change something for them, but for us, our focus will remain the same."
Babcock had high praise for the native of Pitea, Sweden, saying there are few players who could take the abuse Holmstrom regularly does without retaliating.
"Most guys wouldn't go there and draw the number of penalties he takes or draws without taking them," Babcock said. "I think he's got great passion and great courage, and I think he's an unbelievable teammate. I like him a lot. I like having him in practice. He's good to yell at [in] practice. The guys like when he messes up the odd drills, so everyone can have some fun with that. We missed him out there [Friday]."
Babcock believes Holmstrom's determination has rubbed off on players like Cleary and Johan Franzen.
"I think he's taught Cleary and he's taught the Mule [Franzen] a lot just by watching," Babcock said. "And he's made us a better hockey club."
That belief might be put to the test Saturday night.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
The big news on the eve of Saturday's Game 4 was the status of Tomas Holmstrom. If he doesn't play, the Wings will be without one of their best players and will face their biggest test of the playoffs.