Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Sergei Zubov's long-awaited return sparks Dallas

Dallas Stars defenseman Sergei Zubov returned to the lineup on Sunday night for the first time since January 27. Zubie missed the Stars' final 33 games of the regular season and first 7 games of the postseason with a sports hernia injury related to surgery he had at the end of the 2006-07 season as well as a foot injury. While Dallas was able to prevail over the defending Stanley Cup Champion Anaheim Ducks in the 1st round of the Western Conference playoffs in 6 games, there is no denying the importance of Zubov.

Zubie is and has been regarded as one of the NHL's top offensive defenseman for his entire 15-year career. He is a unique player in his ability to quarterback the powerplay and has a knack of making creative passes. Zubov always has his head up as he looks to make that "homerun" pass that can lead to a breakaway. On Sunday night in San Jose, Zubov decided to give it a go after he felt good in pre-game warm ups and almost immediately, Zubie's impact was felt. With the score tied 3-3 late in the 2nd period, Zubov took the puck, spun around and put a nifty backhand pass right on the tape to Mike Modano who scored past San Jose netminder Evgeni Nabokov. Dallas added two goals in the 3rd period to secure a 5-2 win to take a commanding 2-0 lead in the Western Conference Semifinals. Last night's Game 3 provided another opportunity for Zubov to make his presence felt as he tied the game early in the 2nd period with a power play goal.

Zubov is a 4-time All-Star, who was selected to play in this year's All-Star game, but didn't play due to injury. He began the year as an early candidate for the Norris Trophy for Best Defenseman and ranked among the top three in defensemen scoring for virtually the entire first half of the season. Though the Norris Trophy might be out of his grasp this year due to injuries, Zubie still remains a key component of the Dallas Stars' attack. A win tonight in Dallas would clinch a spot for the Stars in the Western Conference Finals and move Zubov a step closer to winning his third Stanley Cup.

Apr 29, 2008, 10:00 AM EDT

Zubov makes Stars' offense go

Larry Wigge Columnist

It was one of those quick-twitch, in-the-blink-of- an-eye decisions that not everyone can make.

The game is going at full speed, and yet some players have the ability and skill set to calibrate the angles the opposition is going to take and assimilate them to his advantage, like looking at a chess board and seeing seven moves ahead. Stars defenseman Sergei Zubov is one of those players.

Zubov is smart, patient, creative, productive and some think he's the best pure passer in the game. And even though he was coming into Game 2 of a Western Conference semifinal series against the San Jose Sharks having not played a shift since Jan. 17, Sergei was able to shake off the rust and use his magical skills. After going nearly top speed, he stopped to draw attention to him near the right-wing faceoff circle to give his teammates time and space to get open, then spun and made a hard backhand pass through the middle of the San Jose zone for a quick wrist shot by Mike Modano for the go-ahead goal in a 5-2 victory. The win gave the Stars a 2-0 lead with the series shifting to Dallas for Game 3.

"What a way to welcome back an old friend," Modano said.

When asked if he meant Zubov or the pass, Modano said, "Both."

Then he continued, "With Zubie, you have to always be ready for the puck ... whenever. You have to know it's coming to you and to be ready for it."

This is where we would normally have to explain the hand-to-eye, magical sleight-of-hand Zubov possesses. But the reputation of 15 NHL seasons, Stanley Cups with the New York Rangers in Sergei's first full NHL season in 1994 and with Dallas in 1999, are proof enough of his Picasso-like artistic skills.
"No offense to anyone else who’s been here for a while, but Sergei is like our quarterback," coach Dave Tippett told me. "Most of what we do here offensively and defensively starts with him. Yet he flies under the radar. His vision, his patience and those great puck skills are behind a lot of our creativity. First and foremost, he’s such a leader. He’s in the game to win, he can’t stand to lose."

Today, there might have been some rust down here (touching his legs), but there's no rust up here (pointing to his head)."

The 37-year-old Zubov clearly missed the game after being knocked out of the lineup first with foot and groin injuries in mid-January that were later re-diagnosed as his second bout with sports hernia since he missed the team's last game in the playoffs last spring in Vancouver. With a player this valuable, the Stars made sure every stone was unturned to make sure he was back in the lineup when the team needed him the most in the playoffs. That meant a second hernia surgery called the Muschaweck procedure (named after Dr. Ulrike Muschaweck) that was supposed to be less invasive in Munich, Germany, less than a month ago.

"I struggled in the first half of the game, but felt better after that," Zubov said. "I feel fresh, but I felt frustrated sitting out. I missed everything. This is the longest I've been out of the lineup in my career."

"It makes me want to make big contributions right away."

He normally plays nearly 26 minutes a night. In Game 2, he played a little more than 16 minutes. There was rust -- he was partially victimized for the two Sharks goals. But when the Stars needed him the most on a third-period power play, the silky-smooth Sergei brought out his best skills. No one would ever dispute the importance of this 37-year-old defenseman from Moscow.

"He's like having a great point guard in basketball," Columbus Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock once told me. "He controls the flow of the game for the Stars."

Zubov is a product of a Russian system that stressed puck control."When I was growing up, we practiced at the same rink as the big team, and I often stayed and studied the style of Slava Fetisov and how Fetisov and Igor Larionov made the puck dance out there," Sergei explained. "They always seemed to have the puck -- and always knew what play to make."

Sharks coach Ron Wilson might not admit it now, but in January at the All-Star Game in Atlanta, I asked him about Dallas rookie defenseman Matt Niskanen. Wilson praised the kid, but let it be known that Niskanen's development was a testament to Zubov mentoring him.

"I’ve always felt that Sergei Zubov is the most underrated skilled defenseman in the game -- and you can sure tell that he’s mentoring Matt the way he’s developing," Wilson told me.

Niskanen, one of the young defensemen who were key to helping the Stars upend the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks in the first round of the playoffs, threw all the praises Zubov's way, saying emphatically that, "Sergei makes it work. He’s so good at reading so many things that are happening at fast pace on the ice -- and I’m lucky enough that he’s shared some of those little details on what to look for and when to go with the puck that he’s simply the master of doing."
Smart. Patient. Creative. Productive.

Teammates and the coaching staff marvel at his knowledge of technical gadgets. Whether it's a digital camera, pocket PC, home theater, camcorder and several computers are his toys, that part of Sergei's curiosity. But that part of his life is a far cry from tinkering with the inner workings of tape recorders and televisions.
"Did you ask him about the gadgets he loves so much?" Tippett asked. "He’s always tinkering with something electronic. In fact, if something happened to my computer, Sergei is the first person I’d go to see."

"He’s really into technology, but he’s no computer geek," said Modano. "He’s that smart, that quick to pick up on things. He is literally just a click away from hearing his cell phone messages on his laptop. He’s got a world cell phone that allows him to talk or send photos to his family and friends back home in Russia any hour of the day and night. I don’t know how he does it. But it seems like he’s got something new each week to tinker with."

And he's quick to make a technical and skillful contribution to the Dallas Stars lineup too.

"It lifts our spirits to see him out there," Stars captain Brenden Morrow said of Zubov's return. "It's like adding another player at the trade deadline or something."

"We're playing a great team game right now. But when you add the element of skill that Zubie brings, there's no fear that it might mess with the chemistry this team has. It just enhances it."

Friday, April 25, 2008

G Juha Metsola wins 2008 WHL Eastern Conference Finals MVP

Congratulations to PuckAgency client Juha Metsola, who won Eastern Conference Finals MVP on Thursday after winning all four of his starts in a sweep of the Calgary Hitmen! Juha began the season as the backup to goaltender Michael Maniago, but emerged late in the season, winning 11 of his final 13 games and finishing with the second-lowest goals against average and fifth-highest save percentage in the Western Hockey League. Metsola also was named ADT CHL Goaltender of the week twice during his rookie season. Metsola has continued his strong play well into the playoffs as the Lethbridge Hurricanes awaiting the winner of the Western Conference Final series between Spoke and Tri-City. Metsola is a combined 32-9-1 with 6 shutouts in both the regular season and playoffs. At only 5'10" and 165 lbs, Metsola is able to cover the net well with good quickness. Juha hopes to keep playing well into May as the winner of the WHL Finals will earn a spot in the Memorial Cup to be held in Kitchener, Ontario, beginning May 16.

Lethbridge Hurricanes Win MNP WHL Eastern Conference Championship
Created: Apr 24, 2008

METSOLA NAMED SERIES MVP -- Carter Bancks scored two goals and Juha Metsola made 23 saves to lead the Lethbridge Hurricanes to a 4-2 victory over the visiting Calgary Hitmen in Game 4 of the MNP WHL Eastern Conference Championship series in Western Hockey League playoff action on Wednesday, April 23rd.

With the Game 4 victory, the Hurricanes are crowned the 2008 MNP WHL Eastern Conference Champions, having defeated the Hitmen four games to none in the best-of-seven series.

The ‘Canes will now await the winner of the Kal Tire WHL Western Conference Championship series between the Spokane Chiefs and the Tri-City Americans for a meeting in the 2008 WHL Championship series and a chance to capture the Ed Chynoweth Cup.

Hurricanes’ goaltender Metsola, who hails from Tampere, Finland, was named the Most Valuable Player of the MNP WHL Eastern Conference Championship series.

The 19-year-old first-year WHL netminder allowed only seven goals on 89 shots for a 1.73 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage while winning all four starts of the MNP WHL Eastern Conference Championship series.

Metsola, the ‘Canes’ first-round pick at the 2007 CHL Import Draft, has won his last eight straight contests for the Hurricanes, and has recorded a 12—2 record with a 2.01 GAA and a .922 save percentage through the 2008 post-season.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Russia advances to the 2008 IIHF World Juniors Finals in Kazan

The Russian Junior team earned a spot in the finals of the 2008 IIHF World Juniors (U18's) with a 3-1 win this afternoon over USA. A great deal of young Russian talent has been on display in Kazan as Russia has won each of its five games in fairly easy fashion. Forward Kirill Petrov, who has played two seasons for Ak Bars Kazan, capped off Russia's scoring with an empty-net goal with just over one minute remaining in the third period. Nikita Filatov, who added an assist in today's contest, has had a strong tournament thus far, scoring 3 goals and adding 6 assists; his 9 points lead the Russian squad and is good for third among all scorers. Not to be lost in the shuffle is the strong play of both Magnitogorsk goaltender Alexander Pechurskiy, who has posted a 2.10 goals against average along with a .920 save percentage and Cherepovets defenseman Maxim Chudinov, who is tied for second among defensemen in scoring with 5 points. Pechurskiy and Chudinov currently carry Red Line rankings of 169 and 194 for the 2008 NHL Draft. Khimik winger and Chelyabinsk native Anton Lazarev has been a revelation, posting 3 goals, 4 assists, and a +5 rating while earning the best player of the game award in this past Friday's 10-1 win over Denmark (to clinch a spot in the semifinals). In that game, Anton Lazarev, Kirill Petrov and Artem Yarchuk each scored 2 goals to pace Russia's attack.

Russia will face off against Canada on Wednesday in what will be the first ever meeting between the two teams in the World Juniors. Canada will counter with Brampton center Cody Hodgson, who ranked 17th in the Ontario Hockey League in scoring this past season with 40 goals and 45 assists. Hodgson is tied for third in scoring in the tournament, trailing only Belarus' Igor Revenko (11 points) and Slovakia's Richard Panik (10 points). Also on Wednesday, Sweden will take on USA with hopes of earning the bronze.

Monday, April 14, 2008

PuckAgency's Swedish Prospects for 2008, 2009 NHL Draft

PuckAgency is proud to continue its tradition of looking to Sweden for the best up-and-coming hockey talent in the world. Two recent additions to our roster of clients that are assured to keep this trend going are David Rundblad and Tim Erixon. Not only are these two defensemen countrymen, but they are also teammates coming up together through the Skelleftea system. Both young men are sure to be desired commodities when they become eligible for the NHL Draft in 2009.

David Rundblad, 17, is a late 1990 birth, standing 6’2”, 183 lbs. Quickly surpassing the J18 level, he has spent the majority of the last two seasons playing for Skelleftea in the J20 SuperElit. The right-handed blueliner possesses unique offensive instincts, as evidenced by the 11 goals and 15 assists he has amassed in 35 J20 games this year, good enough to lead the lead in goals and points by a defenseman. The highest compliment to his play is his call-up to the Elitserien team for 6 games, an extremely rare feat for such a young player.

Tim Erixon, 17, comes in at 6’1”, 181 lbs. The left-handed defenseman is a second-generation PuckAgency client; his father, Jan, is a former NHLer and was represented by the company during his playing career. Like Rundblad, Erixon has been playing at the J20 SuperElit level for the greater portion of two seasons. Erixon is known as slightly more of a defensive-minded player, but still shows plenty of offensive upside. Holding the distinction of having played two games in the Elitserien as well, he has put up 2 goals and 12 assists in 29 J20 games this year.

Rundblad and Erixon are rated #8 and #9, respectively, in the early 2009 NHL Draft prospect rankings published by the Red Line Report. Complementing them in the stable of Swedish PuckAgency clients are the highly-rated 2008 NHL Draft-eligible centers Martin Lundberg and Johan Erkgards.
The Central Scouting Mid-Term rankings have Lundberg rated #19 and Erkgards rated #35 among European skaters.

Martin Lundberg, 17, is a 6’0”, 190 lbs. left-handed center, who can also play on the wing. He is an intelligent playmaker who can skate well and take care of his responsibilities in all zones. Also a product of the Skelleftea system, Lundberg has spent the bulk of his last two seasons in the J20 SuperElit. There, he amassed 5 goals and 13 assists in the 07-08 season, along with 1 assist over the 11 games he spent on the Elitserien roster.

Johan Erkgards, 18, was born late in 1989 and measures in at 6’0”, 176 lbs. Erkgards developed in the well-known Farjestad organization. He played parts of three seasons for them in the J18 Allsvenskan, winning a championship in 05-06 and leading the league in assists in 06-07. Most of this season was spent with Skare in Swedish Division 1, where he finished with 30 points, 14 of which were goals. Erkgards is known for his hockey sense and work ethic on the ice. His scoring and playmaking talents are accompanied by an impressive record as a penalty killer and team leader.

All four of these outstanding young men have featured internationally for Sweden at various junior levels. Rundblad, Erixon, and Lundberg hold the honor of winning an international competition for Sweden. They accomplished this together at the 2007-08 Ivan Hlinka Memorial U18 World Cup tournament. The continued development of players like these will ensure that Sweden’s resurgence in the junior international scene is not short-lived. As they continue to achieve success for both club and country, these are four names to look out for at the 2008 and 2009 Drafts and beyond.

RSL Finals Game 5 Recap

In the final period of the final game of the 2008 Russian Super League Finals, Ufa Salavat proved to the hockey world why they were the RSL’s 2007-2008 regular season champs, and why they deserved to capture the RSL Championship. Ufa rode three third period goals to a 4-1 victory in Game 5 of the RSL Finals to win the RSL Championship on its home ice over upstart Yaroslavl Lokmotiv.

After being blanked in Game 4 for the second time in the Finals, Ufa got on the board just three minutes into the first stanza on a goal by Konstantin Koltsov. For Koltsov, a former first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins, the marker was his second of the series and fourth of the post-season. Lokomotiv responded just 10 minutes later to even the game at 1-1 on 36 year-old pivot Alexei Kudashov’s second of the series.

The teams played a scoreless second period, setting the stage for a climactic third period. In the end, Ufa proved too strong for Lokomotiv. Vladimir Antipov, Salavat’s third-leading scorer during the regular season, notched his first of the Finals to put the home team ahead for good 2-1 four minutes into the period. Alexander Perezhogin, dormant on the score sheet for most of the playoffs despite strong play, scored his third of the playoffs and second in three games to provide Ufa with a two goal cushion at the ten minute mark of the session. Ufa’s barrage concluded when 25 year-old Alexei Medvedev tallied with three minutes to go in the third, sealing his team’s RSL title. Ufa previously had won the Vysshaya League (a notch below the RSL) Championship in 1992, which elevated them to the Russian Super League.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

NY Times Interview with Brian Leetch

Lew Serviss of the NY Times interviewed Brian Leetch this week for his Sunday Slap Shot column:

April 13, 2008, 4:31 am
Leetch, From the Point
By Lew Serviss

“So,” I asked Brian Leetch, Hall of Famer in waiting, “I can say you’re at home being Mr. Mom?

“Yeah,” he said, “I got no problem with it.”

Leetch, who hit 40 in March, lives in Boston (he signed for his last season as a free agent with the Bruins) and is making up for 18 seasons of living by the hockey clock. He stays at home with his three young children, daughter Riley and sons Jack and Sean. He enjoys having the energy now to engage the kids. “I was so tired before — after practice or games or uneven sleeping times — that I would just kind of look at the kids and watch them play. So it’s nice now to be able to engage them and do stuff with them and have the energy. I’m enjoying it.”

As Boston College headed into the Frozen Four, Leetch, an Eagle defenseman on the 1986-87 team with Kevin Stevens, Craig Janney and Greg Brown, was paying close attention. Brown is now a B.C. assistant coach.

“We’re been following them,” he said. “It’s been fun to watch. They’ve got quite a program going there. They don’t always have the preseason top-rated team, but boy they get it going by the end of the year and they seem to get to the final four. It’s amazing.” On Saturday, the Eagles knocked off Notre Dame to win the NCAA championship behind an outstanding performance by water bug forward Nathan Gerbe.

Leetch went on to became one of just five NHL defensemen to score more than 100 points in a season. Bobby Orr (six times!), Paul Coffey (five!) , Denis Potvin and Al MacInnis also did it. If you need Leetch’s bonafides as a rare athlete, see Top 10 Brian Leetch moments by The Daily News’ John Dellapina, himself a fair defenseman in his prime.

“I watched a lot of hockey last year and not quite as much this year,” Leetch said over the phone, “but I’m pretty familiar with everything going on right now.” We were talking about playing defense under the post-lockout rules.

Defense is a hands-off pursuit, for the most part now. No more locking on, tracking them up-close, impeding progress here and there. You can’t hold up with sticks, or sneak a one-glove tug. Gone, too, is the front-of-the-net cross-check and the assorted suomo that used to come with skating to the front of the net. Back-checking forwards can’t slow up onrushing forecheckers. Forwards barrel into the zone as defensemen pivot from backward to forward to chase the puck into the corner. They try to avoid becoming a nasty smear on the end boards.

Smaller and Faster

What this calls for these days is not so much a defenseman who will knock someone out so much as one who can keep up without touching anybody. You have to skate particularly well. Defensemen are becoming smaller, more fleet, robust skaters like … Brian Leetch.

Leetch recalls playing in Boston, in his last season, under the new rules. “I noticed a distinct difference of not getting help from the forwards, and holding up, or not getting help from your defense partner, and holding up, is that you were hit a lot more. A lot of times you had to choose, if there was physically a bigger player going in with you, a lot of times you had to try and get better body position as opposed to just trying to race back and get the puck. If he was going to make the hit and get the puck from you, sometimes you had to actually take more of a defensive position and let him go in first to get it and then try to knock it off his stick. Or get body position there so he couldn’t get to the net. It definitely irked me at the end of my career, I noticed it for sure. And I agree with you now that being able to go from backwards to forwards and go back and get that puck and make a play quicker is a distinct advantage now.”

Speed is vital now. “It always was,” he said, “but you also, because of the nature of the game, you needed big physically strong players because of fighting, because of the long season, and the hooking and holding. You needed a real mix. You see teams now that still have the strength and physical presence, but it’s not always as evident as it was before. Your big guys really have to be able skate now, both on defense and forward, or you can’t play at all in the game. But before, you could mix some players in to play an intimidating, hitting style without necessarily as good skating as you need now, for sure.”

The new requirements earned more than a few players instant banishment from a league they couldn’t keep up with (without holding on). “Before you could use what you’ve learned over the years, ways to hold up to make up for your shortcomings because you knew the league, you knew the players, you knew the referees, what you could and couldn’t get away with. When the new rules came, a lot of that went out the window and players that were hanging on because of their smarts, and playing so long, didn’t have a place anymore.”

No to Touch-Up Icing

One of the more dramatic recent illustrations of what can happen to a defenseman when a forward can crank to top speed going at the opposing endboards is the leg fracture that the Wild’s Kurtis Foster sustained during a touch-up icing race. Should tag-up icing go? “I thought that from the moment I came in the league.” Leetch laughs. “I never liked that rule as a defenseman. That’s probably the way most guys think as defensemen: they don’t see a reason for it. But lots of people have weighed in on that and they keep that rule in there. To me as a defenseman, it doesn’t seem to be a great situation to be in. Especially when you’re coming far blueline all the way and just a dead race with the player, two guys just going back to touch. It’s definitely set up for those types of injuries, for sure.” Pat Peake and Gary Nylund come to mind.

“For me, it doesn’t seem to have a huge bearing on the game,” Leetch said.

“Very rarely do you see a player beat the defenseman back and then turn it into a goal or a great scoring chance. I think the opportunity for serious injury is there a lot more than the chance to keep the game flowing or create scoring opportunities.”

So what is that mob in front of the net these days? Forests of legs that keep more and more shots from getting anywhere near the goalie. The crease is no longer a mosh pit, and what fun is that really?

Leetch, of course, about 6-foot and 190 pounds, wasn’t the terror in front of the goal. He had defensive partner Jeff Beukeboom for that. “I was never a huge physical player in front of the net. I was always timing in front of the net or trying to box someone out, which is what you worked on all the time.

“My skating was able to help me if a player was coming out of the corner. You could lock up with him and keep him from getting to the front of the net, and that was a good defensive play. He never actually got there as the shot was coming. Once a guy had position then I had to decide – I would read the play and start to lean on him or try to get him out then, cause if I just started battling with him, most of the time I would come out on the short end or he was going to get position again after I knocked him off balance or moved him. So it didn’t change too much for me.

“But.” Leetch draws out the “but.” “I played with Beukeboom, who was 6-4, 235, as my partner, and he’d be in there cleaning house – cross-checking and moving guys — and guys would be afraid to stay in there for long, they would come in and out. Now, almost every shot is screened, or you have the defensemen trying to block it as well as the forwards. You have a lot of deflections and people standing around in front of the net. It’s definitely different.

“They’ll give you an opportunity as the puck’s coming to give a shot or try to move someone. But as for trying to box people out and keep them away from the net and clear out before the puck is in that area, there’s really nothing you can do. You have to let them come. There’s still physical, intimidating guys, but it’s more subtle with little shots to the back of the leg or cross-checks to the lower back that don’t send guys flying onto the ice but are still making people at least pay the price a bit in front of the net. But it’s a lot tougher to be able to do that now.”

The Running of the Goalies

The inevitable result of this mob scene in front of the net is that more goalies are trampled. But Leetch said they’re in better shape to deal with it. “The goalies are certainly better physical athletes right now. Bigger and stronger. With the bigger equipment, they take up more room. But for sure, with that many bodies in front and then as the puck is coming, either the rebound or deflection, that’s when guys start pushing. You already have a number of players near the goalie, and then when guys start pushing and trying to clear guys out — I see a lot of goalies with players falling on them that I thought would be seriously injured. The goalies are such good athletes now they’re able to bend and somehow get away without serious injury.”

The Rangers drafted Leetch ninth in the first round in 1986 after he scored 70 goals and 160 points in 54 games in his last two years at Avon Old Farms, the Connecticut hockey laboratory. Joe Murphy and Jimmy Carson went 1-2.

After B.C., he went to the United States Olympic team, along with Janney, Stevens and Brown, Mike Richter and Peter Laviolette. They didn’t bring a medal back from Calgary. But their freewheeling style was a hit, and Leetch, the Olympic team’s captain, was serenaded with “U-S-A! U-S-A! when he assisted, in his first NHL game, on a goal by captain Kelly Kisio against the Blues at MSG. Jim Cerny of wrote: “Spurred by Leetch’s play, the Rangers closed out the season 10-5-2 with their new defenseman in the lineup. Leetch was 2-12-14 in those 17 contests, recording points in 10 of the 17 matches.”

The next year, Leetch’s first full season, he won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. He had 23 goals and 48 assists for 71 points. He would win a Norris Trophy in 1991-92 (his best scoring season at 22-80-102), a Conn Smythe in 1993-4 (and a Stanley Cup) and another Norris in 1996-97.

Offensive defensemen are still important to the game, he said. “San Jose thought that they were lacking in that position and went out and got Campbell which I thought was a great move,” he said, referring to Brian Campbell, a good-skating defenseman along the dimensions of Leetch. “They’ve been on quite a run at the end. And I think he’s had a big impact on that. They had a good team anyway and good goaltending but he’s really been able to make a difference on the power play and transition game.

“And he logs a lot of minutes,” he continued. “He’s on the ice for almost half the game and on special teams, so that’s a bonus, like Lidstrom. When your offensive guy is one of your better defensive guys, too, and can log all those minutes on the blueline. Same with Niedermayer and Pronger. All those guys are on the ice for almost half the game and then all the important situations.”

You have to ask whether the future holds a hockey job for Leetch. “At one point I’d love to,” he said. “Right now, I feel fortunate being home with the kids. I watch more now than I did when I was playing. It’s a nice feeling to be able to watch it as a fan — someone that enjoys the game and can watch the plays. I used to get very anxious and uptight because it was during the season and I couldn’t enjoy watching the game on TV as much as I do now, and it’s been fun. But I would at some point, yeah, if the timing’s right and the situation’s right. You never know, but it would be nice to be involved, for sure.”

Thursday, April 10, 2008

RSL Finals Game 4 Recap

Yaroslavl Lokomotiv entered Wednesday’s Game 4 of the Russian Super League Finals needing a win to remain alive in the series. And stay alive they did, in dramatic fashion. Propelled by a Zbynek Irgl goal with only three minutes remaining in the third period, Lokomotiv defeated Ufa Salavat by a score of 1-0 to even the Finals at two games a piece and send the series back to Ufa on Friday, April 11, for the decisive fifth game.

The squads played a scoreless first two periods, with goaltenders Semen Varlamov and Alexander Eremenko refusing to allow the first goal. But finally, at the seventeen minute mark of the third period, Irgl potted his series leading third goal, sending the home crowd into a frenzy while keeping Ufa’s champagne on ice.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

RSL Finals Game 3 Recap

Their engine stalled, their offense sputtering, Lokomotiv can only hope that come Wednesday they are not relegated to the train yard for the summer. For after Ufa Salavat’s convincing 4-1 victory on Monday in Game 3 of the Russian Super League Finals, the regular season champion Salavat now own a commanding 2-1 series lead in the best-of-five Finals, with the potential clincher on Wednesday in Yaroslavl. Having outscored Lokomotiv 7-1 over the past two games, Ufa appears poised to hoist the Championship trophy on enemy ice.

After a decisive 3-0 triumph in Game 2 of the series, Ufa got on the board a mere three minutes into the match when Andrei Sidyakin notched his first of the Finals and second of the postseason past the suddenly penetrable Semen Varlamov. Salavat’s lead was fleeting, as Zbynek Irgl snapped Lokomotiv’s almost 99 minute dry spell with his second tally of the series at the seventeen minute mark of the first period.

That would be all the elation for the home throng, however, as the rest of the game belonged to the surging Salavat. Ufa overwhelmed its host in the second period, riding two goals within four minutes by defensemen Vitaly Proshkin and Andrei Kutejkin to a 3-1 bulge. For the 22 year-old Kutejkin, his marker constituted a much-needed offensive contribution for Salavat, since he was Ufa’s leading goal scorer among defensemen in the 2007-2008 campaign. Unable to muster any offense in the third period against Ufa goalie Alexander Eremenko, Loko saw any comeback aspirations dissipate when Salavat’s star forward, Alexander Perezhogin, deposited his second goal of the playoffs with approximately two minutes to go in the tilt to give the visitors an insurmountable 4-1 advantage.

With only one goal in the past seven periods, Lokomotiv must find a way, any way, to revive its offensive attack. Otherwise, they will be watching Ufa coast around their home ice as champions, having emphatically put the brakes on Lokomotiv’s season.

Monday, April 7, 2008

RSL Finals Game 2 Recap

Ufa Salavat must have been wondering if they would ever score a goal against Lokomotiv. However, seven minutes into the third period of Game 2 of the Russian League Finals, Konstantin Koltsov ended Ufa’s almost five and half period scoreless drought when he finally beat Yaroslavl goaltender Semen Varlamov, propelling Ufa to a 2-0 victory in Game 2 to square the Finals at one game a piece. Buoyed by Koltsov’s third tally of the tournament, Igor Volkov padded Ufa’s lead with his playoff leading ninth goal with only 2 minutes remaining in the final stanza.

Heading to Yaroslavl for Games 3 and 4 of the Finals (April 7 and 9), it is now the once-steaming Lokomotiv who have been blanked for over four periods, having not lit the lamp behind Ufa netminder Alexander Eremenko since approximately the eighteen minute mark of the second period of the Game 1. Nevertheless, Lokomotiv accomplished their goal of a split in Ufa, affording them the opportunity to capture the RSL title before their own crowd . . if they can score.

Friday, April 4, 2008

RSL Finals Game 1 Recap

The last stop on this Lokomotiv appears to be a championship. Following their familiar playoff formula of stingy goaltending and timely scoring, Yaroslavl Lokomotiv continued to roll by defeating Ufa Yulayev 3-0 on Thursday to take a 1-0 series lead in the Russian Super League Finals. In doing so, Yaroslavl improved to 7-1 in its past eight playoff matches. The shutout also marked Lokomotiv's third blanking in its past six playoff games, with all being authored by sophomore goalie Semen Varlamov.

Ufa began the game as passengers, allowing Lokomotiv to take a 1-0 lead just three minutes into the first period on a Zbynek Irgl tally. Playing on a line with Alexei Yashin, Irgl has by all accounts established himself as a dynamic offensive force as the playoffs have progressed.

Again catching Ufa weary out of the gate, Ivan Nepriayev scored just one minute into the second stanza to increase Yaroslavl’s lead to 2-0. The goal was Nepriayev’s third of the postseason and first in four games. Veteran centerman Alexei Kudashov, who in 1993-1994 scored his one and only NHL goal as a Maple Leaf, added an insurance marker with two minutes remaining in the second period to salt it. Neither team tallied in the third period.

Game 2 of the best of five finals is Saturday, April 5. While Yaroslavl’s series lead is certainly not insurmountable, Ufa’s mission for Saturday is clear: derail this Lokomotiv before its too late.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

RSL Playoffs Recap: Morozov named League MVP

Building upon a 2007-2008 regular season in which he was named the Russian Super League’s best player, Alexei Morozov led Ak Bars Kazan to within two victories of the RSL Finals, only to see his team ousted by the RSL’s regular season champion, Salavat Yulayev Ufa, three games to one in the playoff semi-finals. The series saw the teams split the first two games, with Ufa triumphing 3-0 in Game 1 and Ak Bars rebounding for a 2-1 victory in Game 2. Ufa took Game 3 4-3, setting the stage for a dramatic elimination game. The teams were tied at 2-2 going into the third period, and Ufa scored an early third period goal to take a 3-2 lead. With the clock ticking on Ak Bars’ season, Alexei Medvedev tallied with just four minutes remaining to tie the score at 3-3. Ak Bars’ jubilation was ephemeral, however, as Ufa’s Alexei Tereshenko scored his first goal of the series and fourth of the tournament just one minute into overtime to end Ak Bars’ season.

Despite the disheartening ouster, Morozov continued his torrid play in the post-season, registering 11 points (4 goals, 7 assists) in only 10 games played. He tied for the team lead in playoff scoring, only equaled by his explosive linemate Sergei Zinovjev, who posted identical post-season statistics. Since 2005-2006, Morozov has compiled remarkable playoff numbers, and as the team’s captain, has clearly elevated his game when the stakes are at their highest. In 36 playoff games, Morozov has amassed a whopping 54 points (19 goals, 35 assists), good for an average of 1.5 points per game. With its 3-1 series victory, Salavat Yulayev will face-off against 5th place Yaroslavl Lokomotiv in the RSL Finals, which commences on April 3. Lokomotiv is fresh off a 3-0 sweep of Magnitogorsk Metallurg in their semi-finals matchup. While Ufa, losers of only 15 games in 57 regular season matches, is the favorite, they will have to be at their offensive best to beat Lokomotiv’s young netminder Semen Varlamov. Varlamov, a 2006 first round pick of the Washington Capitals, is widely considered one of the top goaltending prospects in the world and has had a stellar playoffs so far. Both finalists boast dynamic offensive talents, which should make for an entertaining series.

Ufa’s attack is led by the speedy Alexander Perezhogin, a former first round pick of the Montreal Canadiens, while Lokomotiv’s offense is paced by Alexei Yashin, who has registered 14 points (8 goals, 6 assists) in 10 playoff games. Certain players raised their level of performance to help their teams advance to the Finals. In particular, Lokomotiv’s sweep was aided by the breakout of 19 year-old Alexander Vasyunov. Vasyunov, who had no points in 7 games coming into Lokomotiv’s series against Metallurg, recorded the game-winning goal in each of the first two tilts of the series, with his second coming with only 6 minutes to play in the third period of Game 2. Similarly, with Ufa tied at one game a piece with Ak Bars, Ufa defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky potted his first two goals of the playoffs in Ufa’s Game 3, 4-3 victory. Will Tverdovsky’s Stanley Cup playoff experience help Lokomotiv bring the championship home to Yaroslavl, or will Lokomotiv’s magical post-season run fall short against mighty Ufa? We will begin to find out today.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

G Johan Hedberg wins the Player's Player award for the second consecutive year

Atlanta Thrashers Goalie Johan Hedberg was honored before last night's game against Florida with the Players' Player award, given annually to the player who best exemplifies being a team player. Hedberg has won the award both seasons he has been in Atlanta. Being well-liked and respected by his teammates is nothing new for the "Moose," who made a similar impact in Pittsurgh, where he played from 2000-2003. A teammate of his in Pittsburgh once said about Hedberg, “The town was going nuts for him. It was his show. He was competing with Mario (Lemieux) and (Alex) Kovalev and (Jaromir) Jagr and for a guy named Hedberg to stick out of those names is something special.” Hedberg always finds a way to fit in with his teammates, not matter where he goes. Moose has also connected with fans as he is regularly is a fan-favorite such that "Mooose" calls are loudly heard whenever he makes a save.

In addition to being a "team" guy, Hedberg is known for tremendous work ethic; he is continually the first player on and off the ice. Whether he is playing regularly or not, his work ethic never suffers and yet, when called upon, as he was in the 2006-07 Playoffs against the NY Rangers, he tends to come up huge for his team. After Atlanta lost Game 1 to New York, Hedberg stepped in and made a playoff career-high 37 saves in 2-1 loss to the NY Rangers. Moose is the type of player that teams want to be build around as he sets an example for the young players and even the veterans. 18-year veteran Mark Recchi chimed in on Hedberg's leadership qualities following last night's game: "Moose - No. 1 he's the most hard-working goalie I've ever played with. He's the ultimate team guy on your team. If you had 20 guys like him, you wouldn't have any problems. I'll tell you that. He's the type of guy you need in your dressing room to grow your team and get better. You can never get enough leaders like that." Earlier this season, Thrashers rookie standout Tobias Enstrom was living in Hedberg's apartment, further evidence that Moose is always willing to lend a helping hand, something that statistics do not always tell the story of.

Hedberg, Kovalchuk receive honors

Published on: 04/02/08

Craig Custance

• HEDBERG HONORED: For the second consecutive year, Thrashers goalie Johan Hedberg won the Players' Player award, given to the athlete who best exemplifies team play. The award is voted on by the players.

Hedberg is second player in franchise history to win the award in consecutive seasons. Jeff Odgers won it from 2001-03.

Always the first one out for practice and willing to spend extra time on the ice with anyone, Hedberg is often mentioned as the hardest working and most well-liked player on the team.