Thursday, May 31, 2012

For Justin Williams ... Right Place. Right time.

By Larry Wigge

Right place. Right time.

We follow the puck all the time, it's just plain common sense. So why not trace the play back to about 10 seconds before the play happened.

Justin Williams was facing the Los Angeles Kings' bench, digging and battling for a loose puck with New Jersey defenseman Bryce Salvador and forward Dainius Zubrus with his back turned to the open ice.

Williams admitted he never actually saw Anze Kopitar streaking toward Martin Brodeur with his own two eyes, though he chipped the puck to an open area.

"I just had a feeling," Williams said. "I kind of thought he might be there alone."

Kopitar went in alone on Brodeur and deposited the puck into the net for the game winning goal at 8:13 of overtime.

Williams then continued, "In the playoffs, everything is going to be tight. One play ... one pass ... one hit ... is important."

The 30-year-old right winger who comes from Cobourg, Ontario, always seems to be in the right place at the right time. In 2006, he had 31 goals and 45 assists in helping the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup. He also chipped in the seven goals and 11 assists in 25 playoff games. This season, six seasons later, Williams had 25 goals and 51 assists to equal a career-high points total. His assist Wednesday night in Game 1 of the Cup finals gives him two goals and 10 assists in 15 playoff games.

"It's not a dream," said Williams, who is now eight years removed from Philadelphia and won a Cup in Carolina in 2006. "We won Game 1. We've got something good going here, but . . . it's one game. We know it's going to be an extremely tough series. If we can keep going, it will be a heck of a story. If we lose, it will be a heck of a collapse."

Sound familiar. Right place. Right time.

"There are certain players you see in the draft and want, but don't get a chance to pick them for one reason or another ... and then you get a call a few years later and suddenly that young, talented kid you wanted so badly becomes part of a trade conversation," Kings GM Dean Lombardi said. "I was a scout with the Flyers in 2004, when (Hurricanes GM) Jim Rutherford called Bobby Clarke (my boss at the time) ... once again. Rutherford had to have Justin. But I knew I knew how much Bobby liked him. He had big plans for him."

Rutherford's eyes lit up and a smile crossed his face. 

"It was just our luck that the Flyers ran into some injuries on their defense," Rutherford continued. "Bob Clarke called to see if I'd part with Danny Markov. I paused for just a second and then said, 'I will if you give me Justin Williams.' I know Bob didn't want to part with Justin. But his call came at the right time for us, because of the injuries the Flyers had on their back line." 

Same thing happened with the Kings, when Carolina called Lombardi with the same kind of request in March of 2009 at the trade deadline. The Hurricanes needed Patrick O'Sullivan to complete a trade to reacquire Erik Cole from Edmonton. Williams was actually on the injured reserve list at the time. But we wanted him ... and it was the right time.

Right time. Right place.

Williams was just saying the other day that it seems like just yesterday that he was pretending to play for the Stanley Cup with his friends in the basement of the family's Cobourg home.

"There were holes in the dry wall of our basement from where we shot the puck," he said, laughing. 

Craig and Denise Williams, Justin's parents, don't mind the basement repairs any longer now that their son is playing for the real Stanley Cup and had successful scored the tying goal, 4-4, en route to Carolina's 5-4 victory in Game 1 of the 2006 Cup finals.

"My mom and dad were like basket cases during the Buffalo series, pacing outside the house wondering what kind of a list they would have to leave," he laughed. "You know ... important things ... like yard work in case they had to come to Raleigh for the finals." 

Williams only showed promise, not results after being chosen in the first round of the 2000 draft, 28th overall, by the Flyers. He had 12 and 17 goals in his first two seasons in Philadelphia, before dropping to eight in an injury-plagued 2002-03 season. He then combined for 11 goals between the Flyers and Hurricanes in 2003-04, before he netted 14 goals in 43 games for Lulea HF of the Swedish Elite League during the lockout in 2005.

"He showed up every game and played the same way," linemate Rod Brind'Amour said at the time. "Obviously he's got skill and can skate, but he plays every shift of every game. To me, that's why he's had the numbers he's had.

"You've never saw him go 10 games without points. He was there every night. That's a sign of a great, young hockey player."

Speed is what attracted the Flyers to draft him in the first round in 2000. And it's speed, size and a scoring touch that Rutherford always had in mind for the 6-1, 190-pounder. 

It's funny, but I remember Jeremy Roenick telling me a few years back when he was playing on a line with Justin that the youngster reminded him of a younger version of himself ... about 10 years earlier when he had the skating legs that Williams has. 

"He's a tenacious, hard-forechecking, two-way hockey player," Roenick told me. "And you watch, he's going to turn his tenacity into scoring opportunities and points in the near future." 

"Justin creates a lot of opportunities for us -- like tonight -- with his speed," said an admiring veteran teammate Mark Recchi. 

A Montreal Canadiens fan as a kid, Williams said he modeled himself after Owen Nolan, a gritty, two-way player who can score goals had been an effective power forward for Quebec/Colorado, San Jose and Toronto.

Right place. Right time

Williams remembers every game of the Carolina Hurricanes' 25-game grind through the 2006 playoffs. He knows all about the blood, sweat and exhaustion necessary to raise the Stanley Cup.

That's why he realizes the NHL playoffs aren't usually as easy as the Kings have made them look so far.

"If you told anybody, let alone us in the dressing room, that we'd have a place in the finals as an eighth seed, I would have only told you that you were crazy if you said it took 14 games," Williams said.

"But we're here for a reason," he continued. "We've battled our tails off here the whole season and things have come together here. We go into every series thinking it's going to be seven games. It's just so far, they haven't worked out that way."

Said Lombardi, "Williams is a really smart player. He can do a lot of things for you and, again, he has proven he can play in the playoffs. I think he's a better fit for us." 

For Justin Williams it has always been right for him. Right time. Right place.

Kopitar Scores a Defining-Moment Goal in the Cup Finals

By Larry Wigge

It was one of those defining moments in sports you often here about, but rarely ever see. It was like a walk-off home run with everyone watching the batter's every move as he rounded the bases -- it had that finality to it.

The clock was ticking ... 8:10, 8:11, 8:13 and 8:13 into sudden death with the scored tied at one goal apiece between the Los Angeles Kings and the New Jersey Devils.

Anze Kopitar was in the right place at the most opportune time to make some magic work. No one else would have the guile and speed to break free behind the defense. No one else would have retrieve a perfect backhanded pass from Justin Williams while in stride and he let his God-given ability to break in along on Marty Brodeur. And no one else would have neatly faked the all-world goaltender down an out with a move made in heaven before he deposited the puck into the net.

It was a surreal trip down memory lane for Kopitar -- in his first real trip on the big stage.

Anze Kopitar made the whole scenario work for him.

"I wanted to make sure I went through the middle. I don't know if he heard me or not," Kopitar said of Williams. "I yelled for the puck. He chipped it obviously perfect, right on my tape.

"You know, it happened pretty quick. I was able to finish it off ..."

But there was some leftover magic to be completed for Kopitar ... the goal. 

Many things were going through his head, but the only thing the Kings star could think of as he sped down the ice in overtime Wednesday night, incredibly, was a shootout game against the Devils earlier in his career in which he tried a backhand move against Brodeur.

"I went forehand against him," said Kopitar, still smiling at the podium twenty minutes after the play had been complete. "I guess that goes back a few years ago, when, you know, we were in a shootout in L.A. and I went backhanded on him.

"Maybe, he thought I was going to do it again. Tonight, I just wanted to mix it up a
a little bit."

Williams didn't say whether he heard Kopitar shouting amidst the din of the crowd.

"I knew Kopi was in the area over there," Williams said. "That's when you just throw an area pass over there, hopefully he skates into it and hopefully it's timed right. Fortunately it was."

Mike Richards saw the move and marveled at it long into the night, "It was a move two or three people in the World could make."

It reminded me of a young Michael Jordan scoring on the twisting jumper as the clock was running out for the Bulls in the NBA Finals. Santonio Holmes making a TD grab in the back of the end zone from Ben Roethlisberger in the Super Bowl for the Steelers. Joe Carter with the walk-off home run against Mitch Williams to decide the World Series for Toronto. Or maybe Jarome Iginla of Calgary in Game 1 of the 2004 Stanley Cup finals against Tampa Bay's Nikolai Khabibulin on a breakaway.

One of those game-defining plays in sports might come to mind. It only happens once in a lifetime.

It served as a reminder just who Anze Kopitar was and how he came into the NHL.

As a youngster, Kopitar would wake up in the morning, walk out on the balcony of his family's home in Jesenice, a town of about 21,000 people on the Adriatic Sea. Kopitar says its not unlike a young boy growing up in North America with his nose pressed against the window, looking in the distance. Only Anze wanted to see more than just the countryside in his native Slovenia, which gained its independence and split from Yugoslavia in 1991. He wondered what what out there in the distance beyond the tunnel that separated the former Yugoslavia and Austria ... for him.

"I was five minutes from Austria and 25 minutes from Italy, but ..."

Kopitar paused to reflect on the whole big world that his family helped him to reach, from the hockey rink Matjaz, his dad, built for him to learn to skate and refine his skills and where he taught him a lot of the 1-on-1 drills he used as a hockey coach in Austria, to the discipline he learned working at his mom, Mateja's, restaurant to the insistence of his grandmother, a schoolteacher, that Anze take English as a second language.

Kopitar wasn't dreaming about the National Hockey League, when he was growing up in the tiny border town of Jesenice. His parents wouldn't let him stay up at night to watch any NHL games that might be shown on Slovenian TV. That didn't stop Anze from waking up in the morning and getting on-line to study the scores and stories of a game that seemed so far off.

Kopitar grew up reading about how Sergei Fedorov defected from his Russian team in Seattle before the Goodwill Games in 1990. He watched and followed Fedorov's career with the Detroit Red Wings. He dreamed that he might someday also make his way to the NHL.

"It was really helpful to have a dad who knew so much about hockey," Anze said. "He gave me great advice. I remember we spent a lot of time watching old tapes. We'd watch different NHL players, Fedorov was one of my favorites. I'd watch his stride, his skills, his disciplined among others. Then my dad and I would try to work on certain parts of my game and use the tapes as a learning tool."

A few minutes with Kopitar and you come away thinking he's 19 going on about 30. He's bright, outgoing, smart and always looking to challenge himself to do more. The problem some European players have with adjusting to the culture, the language, the bigness of everything over here doesn't seem to affect Anze.

Nothing seems to bother him.

Not even Marty Brodeur on the biggest stage of his life with the game on the line for the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Finals.

"It's amazing how lucky I've been," Kopitar said.

Lucky? Not this young man, who has the Midas Touch.

Now, when he wakes up in the morning and looks out the window, he must enjoy knowing how old dreams have been reached ... and finding new dreams that are oh-so-close to being conquered as well.

Anze Kopitar clearly is a difference-maker.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

At 40, Brodeur Seeking more Championships

By Larry Wigge

Marty Brodeur was surprised to learn the he was about to be playing his 200th playoff game Wednesday night. Some numbers, well, they come as a surprise to you even when you are 40. But ...

There was never any talk or even speculation that retirement was any conversation. The three-time Stanley Cup champion is having fun one again ... and this not about to be his Swan Song.

"For myself I always approach my game the same way," said the Montreal native. "I want to give my team the best chance to win. I'm probably not gonna steal too many games, but I try not to hurt my team and be there for them when they need me. 

"Do you feel younger? Yeah, it's fun to look at these young guys. I feel like one of 'em. I have more experience than anybody, but when you're on a hockey team and part of something great, I think ages, experience, nationalities -- it all goes out the window. You're part of it, and it's been a lot of fun."

So are you even thinking about retirement should you win, Marty?

"I can't say no ... but I doubt it," Brodeur explained. "I know a lot of people say it's great to retire on top. But ..."

He completed the sentence with a tough of reality, saying, "At the end of the day, when I'm going to say 'It's over,' it's over. I'm not going to come back. I want to make sure I make the right decision. Right now I'm leaning toward coming back."

Even though this is the last year of his contract, you can bet GM Lou Lamoriello want Brodeur back.

"He has a personality that never looks back," Lamoriello said. "He plays it because he loves it. He works at it. He's changed his game accordingly to the way the style is. He's a student."

Changed his game? He's playing with larger pads than earlier in his career.

It's taken Brodeur 20 years to put together 656 regular-season wins and 105 shutouts. But retire? In the 2009-10 season, Marty played in a league-high 77 games. He had a league-high 45 wins and nine shutouts. Does that sound he was on his last legs.

Brodeur admitted that but for this season it might have been his last. Coming off a 23-26-3 record 2.45 goals-against average and six shutouts, he was thinking about it. He was constantly battling injuries. But ...

This year, Marty posted a 31-21-4 season ... and magic ... again.

"I really thought this was gonna be my last year," Brodeur said. "More and more, it was like, 'Wow, hockey's still fun.' "

"He"s an impressive guy," first-year coach Peter DeBoer said. "He's calm. He's been there before, and he's a calming influence on our team and in our dressing room. That's why he's the best of all time."

Mariano Rivera won his fifth championship just before his 40th birthday for the New York Yankes. Brodeur plans on tying his idol, Patrick Roy, with his fourth championship now and chasing his fifth just after his 41st.

"He is just a real thoroughbred athlete," Lamoriello said. "He loves the game. His mind is 100 percent there and he feels good. It's Mariano Rivera."

To those who say his style of play, which once was unique, is obsolete.

Dinosaur? Not Brodeur.

In terms of style, French-Canadian Brodeur could be viewed as a dinosaur because he is considered a hybrid goalie at a time when most prefer to use a butterfly style, which essentially means the goalie plays mostly on his knees. Brodeur plays sometimes on his knees and sometimes standing up.

"He gives us a chance to win every game," captain Zach Parise said. "When they put pressure on and guys are getting antsy, he has the ability to calm a bench down."

Voice of reason.

Remember all of those 1994 rumors. Brodeur's downfall to Mark Messier and Stephane Matteau.

"So now it's at least -- I don't know if they're going to give us credit, but it's 1-1,"
said Brodeur matter of factly.

Though he wouldn't say this victory exercised the ghosts of 1994, he didn't shy away from it.

"Every team writes their own stories," Brodeur said. "I was fortunate to be part of great teams that had success. I was part of great teams that didn't have success. Right now, we're having a lot of fun doing what we're doing.

"The success is coming with it right now. We have a lot of guys contributing. I think that's what's making a winning team. It's not just a one-man show out there. A lot of guys are contributing. But until you finish out these playoffs, we'll see then."

Lamoriello scoffed when asked about Brodeur performing so well at 40. He pointed out that some 30-year-old people act like they are 50, and vice versa. He said the same holds true for athletes, adding athleticism and genetics also play a part.

Brodeur refused to compare this Devils team to the ones that won Cups in 1995, 2000 and '03, or to the one that lost the Cup in seven games to Colorado in 2001.

"The love of the game is still there," Marty Brodeur said, "and the passion of playing ... and that will never change."

Monday, May 28, 2012

King Brings the Kings a Lot of Size and Muscle

By Larry Wigge

After he scored the game-winning goals in the previous two games, Dwight King's coach Darryl Sutter was asked about the growth of his young power forward.

You had to be there to understand the jocularity by Sutter, but it was there nonetheless.

"Still 232 pounds," said the Los Angeles Kings coach. "After games he’s 228."

What the media wanted to know was about King's growth as a player, from the first time Sutter seeing Dwight score the winning goals against the Phoenix Coyotes on May 15 and 17.

"Better than he was when we got him, right?" Sutter continued, talking about an early February scouting mission he took to the Kings Manchester farm club. "Just 'cause he's scoring, I don’t think it's growth. That's kind of been what he's done in his junior career and his pro career. Same thing.

"He's a big kid that is strong on the puck, has a good sense, good feel for the game."

The Kings have gotten the most out of the 22-year-old, a lot of development there from King during his three years at Manchester. For most of his time, he was just a big body trying to hustle his way -- developing at Manchester of the American Hockey League and at Ontario Reign of the East Coast League. It was not uncommon to here the complaint, "What's it going to take to get this kid going? He's a big kid and he's not ready to play." 

This year, the Manchester officials finally saw IT -- the maturing of the big man and accepting the role of a big man that could barge right through an opposing team's defense and score. In 50 games in the AHL, King contributed 11 goals and 18 assists.

The Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan, native, put up five goals and nine assists in his 27 games for the Kings and in 14 games in the playoffs Dwight have contributed five goals and no assists.

"It's a dream. You want to be part of the Stanley Cup playoffs," said King, who was called up from Manchester for good in February 11. "To be a contributor is even better. Everything is coming around."

You get so many opportunities at winning the Stanley Cup ... and King has a very good one.

"You realize it when you look around and see guys who have played their whole careers or been in the league 10-plus seasons and not had many chances," King explained. "You grasp how serious it is. It's exciting to be a part of it."

First, King had to gain the trust of Sutter.

"You have to gain the trust of the coach," he said. "He's pretty simple. He's a guy who wants hard work from his players. You put your best foot forward and you get rewarded."

He's done it on the third line, combining with veterans Jarret Stoll and Trevor Lewis.
Morris believes King deserves this success. 

"It's a small town of about 5,000 people," King said of Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan. "I'm sure everybody gets around the TV room and makes a night of it."

His dad, Dwayne, is a truck driver. His mom, Donna, is a secretary. His brother, D.J., is a tough guy who has spent time in the St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals organizations.

King is a sixth round pick, 109th overall, in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft.

"I would not have believed them, that's for sure," King said. "Crazy things happen in hockey. It's a dream."

Four of King's goal came in the Phoenix series, in fact he at one point had outscored the Coyotes 4-3. He is one goal from tying the Kings' rookie record, set by Daryl Evans in their 1982 against Edmonton.

King became a key piece of the Kings radar, when in November scout Jack Ferreira liked what he saw. His report was handed directly to GM Dean Lombardi.

"I had Dwight King and Jordan Nolan both on there," Ferreira recalled. "I was making a suggestion. But I firmly believed that at some point down the line both of those kids were going to be in our lineup.

"Every time I went to Manchester, I just liked what I saw from those two guys. I thought they were ready."

Ferreira credits Brent McEwen, the Kings' Western Canadian scout, for finding King.

"The first year we were all here, we were out in Western Canada and I asked Brent, 'Is there anybody out there that's kind of under the radar that you like?' Anyone that wasn't getting much attention," Ferreira said. "He mentioned two players: one was Dwight King and one was Keith Aulie (now with Tampa). So, we went to watch both kids. Dwight only played maybe five minutes in the whole game but we were both impressed in what he did in those five minutes. So we kept him on the radar and same thing with Keith."

Another source was Sutter's younger brother Rich, who was an assistant coach at Lethbridge.

The next season King scored 34 goals with the WHL's Lethbridge Hurricanes. He also scored 24 goals in AHL Manchester last season. So while his current goal-scoring exploits are surprising some, he has shown he can do it at other levels.

King was a power forward in the making similar to ...

"Growing up, I used to watch Todd Bertuzzi when he was playing well in Vancouver," said King. "My favorite player was Peter Forsberg and he also played pretty tough and pretty strong. Those are the two guys I watched growing up."

Having a big strong center on the third line like Stoll and a quick winger like Lewis has made the line even more important.

"He's a big strong body that can control the puck and obviously shoot the puck, like we saw tonight. Come playoff time, that type of player is huge," Stoll said.

"He's strong on the puck, he can get in on the forecheck, be physical, and control the puck down there. Him and Lewie are great down there controlling the puck. You've seen it lots here down the stretch, late in third periods, they're controlling the corners side to side and you see what he can do when he shoots the puck. He's a very special player for us right now."

Dwight King has become more than just a tag-a-long winger. He's been a key contributor for the Kings.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Somebody Got to be a Hero, why not Henrique

By Larry Wigge

"Somebody has to be the hero, right? Why not me?"

You would think those comments came from a veteran of the Stanley Cup wars like Ilya Kovalchuk or Patrik Elias, not from a 22-year-old rookie with little or no experience like Adam Henrique. But Henrique said it. He's the rookie who wondered, "Why not me?"

For the second time in this year's playoffs the series was on the line ... and for the second time it was the kid who slammed the puck hard into the net.

No fear. No second guessing. Only poise and patience.

Adam Henrique just stood there at the edge of the goal crease. He waited and waited ... until, it was time to pounce.

"That one was like Christmas," said Henrique. "I couldn't see the puck, but I knew he was down and I was just praying it was gonna come under his pad ..."

He was calm and collected and he waited to complete his sentence.

"Finally, the puck came from and I slammed it in," Henrique continued. "It's a big one. That's one you dream about."

Sixty-three seconds into overtime of Game 6 Friday night in the Eastern Conference finals, Henrique converted a mad scramble for a 3-2 New Jersey Devils victory over the New York Rangers to send the Devils to the Stanley Cup finals. 

It was the second time this postseason Henrique has come up with a series-clinching overtime marker. In Game 7 of the first round against Florida, the kid from Brantford, Ontario, native found the net, beating Panthers netminder Jose Theodore in double-OT to set up a second-round matchup with Philadelphia.

"Unflappable," coach Peter DeBoer said. "The kid is just right place, right time, all the time. The two biggest goals of the playoffs come off his stick, and that's not accidental."

Somebody has to be the hero, right? Why not me?

That's exactly what Henrique told reporters after his first success in overtime magic earlier in the playoffs. There must be some kind of abracadabra involved, eh? 

Henrique has done everything asked of him all season, counting for 16 goals and 35 assists in 74 regular-season games and another three goals and eight assists in 18 playoff games.

All three of his goals came in those two playoff game of note -- in the decisive games against Florida and the New York Rangers. Maybe that why he is a finalist for the Calder Trophy for the NHL's top rookie.

Goalie Martin Brodeur is excited to see the contributions from the young players.

"It's great ... these kids are a big part of our success," Brodeur said. "Adam's had success everywhere he's played, so it's nice for him to come through in the NHL like that."

He's the second player in NHL history to score two series-clinching overtime goals in one playoff year. The first was Calgary's Martin Gelinas in 2004. Furthermore, Henrique's two OT goals tie the rookie record for one playoff year (series deciders or not) set by Montreal's Jacques Lemaire in 1968 and equaled by Claude Lemieux in 1986 and Colorado's Milan Hejduk in 1999.

Joe and Theresa Henrique were there in the stands cheering for their son. Joe Henrique had his four sons working summers on the family farm in Burford, Ontario. The cash crop was tobacco, and Adam Henrique's job for one summer was priming leaves.

"You're going up and down the rows, sitting on this little metal seat with this cushion, almost right on the ground," he recalled. "Your legs are straight out, and you're bent over all day."

He stretched his legs out, twisted to his side and said: "You're like this, picking leaves, putting the leaves in your bag. The leaves are hitting you in the face. It's wet. You got tar all over you. And you've got an 80-pound bag that you're filling up. It's no fun."

Henrique's father also made sure to tell his sons they could prime tobacco for a living or find something more enjoyable, lucrative and comfortable. Adam admired his father for his work ethic, but priming tobacco made Adam chase a career in hockey a little harder.

And now, Adam is having the most fun of his life.

Said captain Zach Parise, "He's just like the rest of the team -- getting better as the playoffs go on."

The 6-feet, 200 pound center played in one game with the Devils last season. He prepared to make it to New Jersey to stay this time.

"I told myself, no matter what happens, to stay positive," Henrique said. "But this is where I always wanted to be. Due to injuries and a couple of opportunities, I got a chance to play, almost right away. That was something I tried to take advantage of, and it all worked out."

DeBoer is most impressed by Henrique’s composure. DeBoer has said Henrique does not get overwhelmed by any kind of situation at any point of the game. Henrique, the coach said, tends to play even better when the stakes are higher. He does not play much like a 22-year-old.

"I don't think about his age right now," DeBoer said. "We're way beyond that."

Henrique scored 111 goals in four seasons for the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League. He won two Memorial Cups with Windsor as a junior. He's a winner, plain and simple.

A third-round draft choice of the Devils in 2008, he played mostly for the Albany Devils last season, scoring 25 goals.

Nothing has seemed to faze him yet.

Said Clarkson: "I don't think I've ever seen him rattled by anything."

"This is the big stage. The NHL playoffs playing for the Stanley Cup is what everybody dreams about," Henrique said. "You dream about having this opportunity. Luckily for me as a young guy getting this experience early in my career you can't replace that.

"There are guys here that have been in the league and haven't gone this deep. I just try to take it all in and learn as much as I can as a young guy."

He doesn't feel pressure.

"No. I don't feel any pressure more than at any other point. I'm just playing every day," he said. "I focus on myself and my game and what I need to do in order to be successful and help the team win. Score a goal, win a faceoff, kill a penalty. Whatever it is."

Ilya Kovalchuk was asked if he's ever seen Henrique nervous.

"Nervous? Not really," Kovalchuk said. "What is he, 21? He's a grown man. We're all nervous before every game."

Those are just the kind of qualities that the Devils saw in Henrique prior to the draft.

Marcel Pronovost, one of the Devils top scouts, was one of the loudest voices telling Devils's draft guru David Conte to take Henrique in the 2008 NHL draft, he did so based on what he knew not projections.

Henrique was always a solid offensive contributor -- a 30-goal scorer. Pronovost said Henrique's unselfish nature and his willingness to play a surprisingly physical game for a player of such skill makes him the perfect foil for Taylor Hall, Adam's linemate, and the No. 1 overall draft pick in the 2010 Entry Draft.

"One is a flash of blades and the other Henrique has a helluva shot," Pronovost said. "He's so quick shooting the puck. It's on the blade and bang it's in the net."

It was just as fast in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against the New York Rangers, the puck was on Adam Henrique's blade and bang it was in the net.

Hey, Henrique's not your gruntwork tobacco farm worker. He's got a very special talent in hockey.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Callahan won't Predict a win, but he'll play to win all night

By Larry Wigge

The captain's 'C' he wears on his chest is very important to Ryan Callahan.

Callahan would do just about anything to win one for the New York Rangers ... except guarantee a Game 6 victory the way Mark Messier did for the Rangers in 1993.

"No," he said. "Not in my nature."

His performance in the last game seemed to mirror that of New Jersey captain Zach Parise in Game 4, when he scored two goals and added an assist in the 4-1 Devils victory.

Callahan scored one goal, hit the goalpost with another close call, had two shots and six hits by the Rangers lost 5-3 to fall three games to two in the Eastern Conference finals matchup. 

"I felt good last night," Callahan explained. "I was strong on the forecheck, which I have to be. And as a line I thought we were holding onto pucks.

"We've just got to win one game. We've been in this situation in the Ottawa series. We've just got to win one road game."

Coach John Tortorella know he will get a supreme effort from his captain.

"He did all the things you need to do as a leader to try and get us a win, right to the bitter end," Tortorella said. "He'll do the same thing next game."

The Rochester, N.Y., native, is not of the flamboyant ilk as Messier, he'll put the Rangers on his back and block shots and do anything within reason to win. He became known for his willingness to throw his body at opponents with reckless abandon. If there was a shot that needed blocking, Callahan was happy to throw whatever body part was available in front of it.

It was just a day after he watched boyhood friend Stephen Gionta play unlikely hero in Game 5. For years they played for the Stanley Cup finals on the cul-da-sac in Grapeview Circle outside of Mike and Donna Callahan's house in North Greece, N.Y.

"Now we're on the big stage," said Callahan. "It's exciting. You get a chance to play on this stage, against one of your best friends growing up ... I'm happy. It's pretty special."

Said Gionta, "Something we've dreamed of is actually coming true."

"They’ve beaten the heck out of each other many, many times," said Sam Gionta, Stephen's father, "besides wrecking Mike's garage and house."

Callahan's garage and house aside it was a good place the play for the twosome.

It was five miles, door to door, from the Callahan house.

"We grew up together and we spent so much time together," Callahan said. "We were going out on the lake at his house or we were swimming in our pool."

When they weren't playing ball hockey or knee hockey or real hockey, that is. They were teammates for several years in Rochester Youth Hockey, but they could never get too much of the game.

The pick-up games in the driveway or on the street were highlights of many summer and winter days 15 and 20 years ago. The Callahan garage was the loser.

Oh, but the fun they had trying to one-up the other with the puck.

"Of course I outscored him," Callahan joked.

Those ball-hockey games were intense, too. You'd have thought they really were playing for the Stanley Cup.

In his first season as captain of the Rangers, Callahan has been outstanding -- posting 29 goals and 25 assists during the regular season and another five goals and four assists in 19 playoff games.

"I think I had a pretty tough road to get here," Callahan explained. "Size-wise, everybody thought I was too small for the style of game I play. In my first NHL camp, I didn't play in the Blue-White Game at the end of that camp. I was one of five kids who got sent right down to Hartford and didn't play in that game."

He's too small now at 5-10, 185 pounds for the style of game he plays. He'll throw his body in front of a shot. He's fiery. He's competitive. He loves to hit.

"I feel like I'm a guy who crashes and bangs and hits a lot," Callahan continues. "I love contact.

"Sceptics? I just used it as motivation more than anything. I don't think I do anymore. I hope I've shut up all my critics." 

He grew up a Buffalo Sabres fan. Pat LaFontaine was his favorite player. He was until ...

"I'd say my biggest hockey inspiration would probably be Brian Gionta," he said. "Our families are pretty close. Just looking up to him and seeing everything he's done really inspires me."

Most Painful Moment: "When I was younger, actually got cut from travel team, that was pretty painful when I was 14."

That was Callahan's reputation in the NHL -- a player who was hard-working, a leader, someone who would do whatever it took to win. He deserves all the credit for being a self-made star. Most of his points came from his drive and determination in going to prime scoring areas in the offensive zone. He will not be intimidated when confronted in a tough, physical game.

A lot of kids in hockey turn out to prove people wrong, but few have come as far as Ryan.

He didn't go through the draft unpicked like Gionta. The Rangers drafted Callahan in the fourth round that year, with the 127th overall pick, in the 2004 Entry Draft as he continued to be undervalued.

"I was with another team at the time," said Gordie Clark, the Rangers' player personnel director, who was with the Islanders. "Me and the scouts around the league, we'd watch Callahan's play skyrocket and take comfort in knowing that we all blew it."

"We've all had our hits and misses," Clark continued. "I'm telling you, I didn't draft Ryan Callahan, but his is the name that always comes up. Everyone marvels at what he's accomplished. He's listed at 5-foot-11, but he plays like he's 6-3."

Said Tortorella, "He is a huge piece to everything we do. He is our identity. Offensively and defensively, I look up and down the bench for him."

Looking for a guarantee. Looking for a promise that the Rangers will win. You won't find in coming from Ryan Callahan.

But .... looking for a win the right way ... stay tuned.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Stephen Gionta is more than a Fourth Line Contributor

By Larry Wigge

Stephen Gionta stands 5-feet-nothing ... generously speaking. 

Call him an unlikely hero, if you will. After spending six season in the minors, he thought he might finally be given a chance. There were no commitments from the New Jersey Devils. No guarantees that this career minor leaguer would get an opportunity of a lifetime.

No promises that he might become a Cinderella story of this year's playoffs.

"No, I didn't really have any expectations," Gionta explained. "I'd been told I may be sticking around for the playoffs. They were going to try to get me in for that last game against Ottawa."

Little did the undrafted player from the Rochester, N.Y., know that in that game against the Senators, he would score the winning goal in the Devils 4-2 victory on April 7.

That was Gionta's first NHL point ever. He had only up for 12 games at the start of the 2010-11 season. But, he is proving with every opportunity he gets that he can play no matter what size he is.

In 17 playoff games, he has three goals and three assists.

There are no pedigrees with this little guy, Stephen's biggest claim to fame is that he helped Boston College win a NCAA championship in 2006 or that his brother Brian Gionta was a little guy who played with a big heart and helped the Devils win a Stanley Cup in 2003.

"How can you not enjoy this? It's the Stanley Cup playoffs," Gionta said, rejoicing in his moment. "This is every kid's dream. It's just fun to be a part of this right now and just trying to enjoy every moment."

Fourth line duty -- that's normally about five to 10 minutes a game. But in the case of Gionta, Ryan Carter and Steve Bernier, they have formed a dynamic fourth line that has been crucial to the Devils success. On this night, Gionta was being double-shifted by coach Peter DeBoer.

Gionta opened the scoring for the Devils, as they rolled to a 3-0 lead. Then, after the New York Rangers rallied to tie it, Gionta centered the pass out of the corner to Carter for the tiebreaker with 4:24 left, on a play initially set up by Iyla Kovalchuk's hard forecheck in the corner.

"Kovy did a great job getting it on the forecheck," Gionta said. "The puck was just sitting there, I closed my eyes and threw it out to Carts."

Did he really close his eyes? Well ...

"No, I didn't close my eyes," Gionta said, laughing. "I saw him coming down the middle and was hoping he was still alone."

The little man with a big heart had succeeded again, leading the Devils to a 5-3 victory -- giving New Jersey a 3-2 lead in their Eastern Conference finals matchup.

"He's come in here and there's been zero intimidation on his part about the situation or about the spots I've put him in or about the guys he's lining up against on a nightly basis," said DeBoer. "I give the kid all the credit in the world. He's been fantastic.

"He's a little guy with a big heart like his brother."

Said Kovalchuk, "That guy, he's five feet tall ... and he plays like seven feet tall."

But whatever Stephen Gionta may lack in innate skill or size, the 28-year-old has more than made up for it in good old-fashioned sweat and hard work and an attitude that has helped carry him through more than a few disappointments along the way.

If it weren't for hockey, Gionta would have to contemplate another line of work.

"That's what keeps you going," he said. "It's been tough, but that comes with the business aspect of the game."

Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello was quite candid in saying he never would have given Stephen a shot if it weren't for the team's experience with his brother.

"It's such a solid family. If we hadn't had Brian we probably wouldn't have given Stephen a chance," Lamoriello said. "You know the character. You know their makeup."

When Jacob Jasefson got hurt, Lamoriello said there was discussion about which player to bring up. But there was little disagreement that Gionta was their man.

"He was the right player to bring in at the time," Lamoriello said of the youngest of three Gionta brothers. "He's earned everything he's got. This hasn't been a gift or a favor. He's earned the ice time the coaches give him.

"Stephen's here because he deserves to be here."

You won't get any disagreement from Gionta, the captain of the Albany Devils. 

"Obviously it's great to see him getting rewarded because he's worked so hard," Brian Gionta said. "It's been an uphill battle most of his career."

The Gionta brothers talks or text on a regular basis.

"I don't know if I've been helpful at all," Brian said. "I've always tried to be there for him. Coming out of training camp has always been the worst time for him.

"In those times you just try and be there for him."

Captain Zach Parise thinks Gionta deserves a new contract, "His speed backs defenders off. He really gets in fast on the forecheck. He's responsible."

Sam and Penny have been there for their boys. They have driven countless hours, packing up the kids in their Chevy cargo van and never thinking about traveling 500-600 miles to see older brother Joe, Brian or Stephen play hockey.

They got to about 800,000 miles on the van before they sold it a couple of years ago while he was running a hardware store in Greece (suburb of Rochester). Sam now drives a company car, so you can see how things have changed.

Gionta or his brother Stephen wouldn't say they had a chip on his shoulder that wouldn't let him quit, even when someone was always there to say he couldn't make it at the next level. He preferred to insist that the real drive was the positive reinforcement he received from his parents, Sam and Penny Gionta.

"He ran a hardware store in Greece (N.Y.) and imparted his work ethic on my older brother, Joe, myself and my younger brother, Stephen," Brian Gionta recalled. "We've got this van. It must have about 500 or 600 miles on it from him taking us to hockey games through the years."

It's at this point in the story where I could say that Brian or Stephen or Joe learned the nuts and bolts of the game from others, but became mentally tough as nails by watching how important it was for Sam Gionta to quit his job as a home improvement contractor, bought a hardware store and hired a few good people so that he could find time to be with his boys and help them advance in life to the point where Joe is coaching a Pee-wee team in the Rochester Youth Hockey program.

It's here where we say that Brian or Stephen or Joe would say, they have never doubted themselves.

"No. When you get to this point, if you have that doubt I feel that's when you're not going to succeed," Stephen said. "You have to have confidence in what you're doing out there. The coaching staff has showed that and I want to make sure I don't make them look back for trusting me."

Fourth line duty or whatever the job. Stephen Gionta has earned every minute of playing time.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Penner Part 2 -- Still Producing in the Playoffs

By Larry Wigge

Dustin Penner is big and he's strong -- all 6-4, 245 pounds of him. He has been on a journey in these playoffs. Appparently, like he was on in Game 5 Tuesday night.

"He  had  a  journey  tonight," said Los Angeles King coach Darryl Sutter. "I stuck with him. He struggled early in the game ... but I stuck with him."

Journey's aside, Penner scored the overtime winner with 2 minutes 18 seconds left to give the Kings a 4-3 victory over the Phoenix Coyotes -- en route to a four games to one Western Conference finals matchup.

"It's the biggest goal of my career so far," Penner explained. "Hopefully, there are a couple more waiting in the finals."

Penner now has three goals and 10 points in 14 postseason games, after struggling to score seven goals and 10 assists in 65 regular-season games. 

In a matter of seconds, the puck came bouncing out to Penner, who quickly sent a wrist shot that eluded Phoenix goalie Mike Smith. Of course, in Dustin's mind the play took more than a matter of minutes -- it took him about five minutes to describe. 

"Elation," said Penner of his feeling when the shot went in. "We had a draw just off center on blue lines. Mike Richards went back to Slava Voynov. Then, Slava threw a bouncer off the boards. I watched it hop a couple times, ended up I think it was Keith Yandle's stick. I retrieved it. Threw it to Jeff Carter coming down the right side. He threw it on the net. Bounced down a few more times. I just waited for it to settle down. I just followed the bouncing puck until it was in a good enough position for me to shoot it."

Elation and jumping around in victory as the Kings go to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1993.

Dustin Penner. He of the big contract. Trade bait at the deadline, only there were no takers. In the final year of a contract he signed for five years, $21.25 million with the Kings. He is making $4.25 million in 2011, pretty good change -- most would say he isn't worth it, but boy would they like him now.

The Winkler, Manitoba, native, is once again in the Cup finals, where he was before he signed the big contract. That didn't work out too well for Penner, after the Anaheim Ducks won it in 2007.

"I guess when you're in a hole that no one can really dig you out of except for yourself," said Penner. "I put that pressure and that stress on myself to get me out of where I was. I had great support from teammates, family, friends, the organization as a whole."

Penner was asked if this experience was similiar to Anaheim when, he was just 24-years-old.

"Definitely there are some similarities," he said. "I'm in a different place mentally. When  you're in your first year, everything is new. You don't really comprehend the situation in front of you.

"Now, I think I have a better general overview of what it's like, how hard it is to get to where we are now."

In this most unusual and inexplicable Stanley Cup playoff season, where the Kings have established an NHL record by winning eight games in a row on the road, it may as well have been Penner who scored the overtime winner.

It was a challenging season for Penner, on a personal level, going through a messy public divorce. On a professional level, trying to earn coach Sutter's respect, after Terry Murray had been let go in December.

And, oh yes, there was the injured-while-eating-pancakes-routine that followed Penner around. Call it Aunt Jemima's Revenge.

"I woke up fine, sat down to eat and it locked right up. It never happened to me before. I couldn't stand up. I was probably at the third stage of evolution. So my wife helped me get dressed. Then I drove to the rink here to hope they could do some magic and get it opened up. Kinger (trainer Chris Kingsley) just looked at me and said, 'Go home.' So I got some treatment and went home.

"Apparently it's one of those mysterious things, where you can throw it out from sneezing. I just leaned over to dip into some delicious pancakes that my wife made. It's just like it the pain wraps around you and squeezes."

Many of us are painfully familiar with, back injuries can occur through the simplest of activities: Getting out of bed, tying one's shoes, lifting a child. Or eating a plate of pancakes.

The undrafted Winthrop, Manitoba, native, was dug in the last few months in Los Angeles. He had seven goals and 10 assists in 65 games for the Kings. Penner was back -- the same guy who had 29 goals as a rookie for the Ducks in winning a Stanley Cup in 2007 and had a career-high 32 goals for the Edmonton Oilers in 2009-10.

"You know, he's done it every year, scored 20-25 goals until this year. You don't just lose those skills," said Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter. "And I think that's what he expects of himself.

"The biggest thing I said when I first came is, it's totally unfair, just because he's 240 pounds, to expect a guy to be a physical presence if that's not natural for him, but he can protect the puck and he can be stronger around the net and when he does that, he can have an impact on your team."

Dustin Penner sees a lot of the Cup champion Ducks in these Los Angeles Kings. That's kind of a coincidence because the Kings are starting to see a little of the 2007 Dustin Penner in him.

"The one thing I've noticed with this group is a willingness to believe in the system and believe in ourselves as a team," said the 29-year-old winger. "We have that quiet confidence, a bit of a calmness because we're so focused and intense."

But this from-rags-to-riches-story didn't all of a sudden come to life across the NHL without a lot of hard work on Dustin's part. It's hard to keep the faith, when coaches keep telling you that you're either too small as Dustin was as a kid ... or too gawky as he was after his EIGHT-INCH growth spurt. 

"I kept at it because I saw other players that I knew weren't better than me getting an opportunity," he said. "I think about it all the time. If Grant Standbrook (the University of Maine) hadn't found me that one summer, I'd probably be working at the gas station in Winkler right now. 

"Looking back on it now, I think taking this route to the NHL probably made me work harder and learn more."

Goal-scoring comes at a premium in the playoffs. Most goals, in fact, can be traced back to a strong play along the boards or in front of the net.

And what a presence he's been.

"I always tell people, 'Don't give up on your dreams without a fight,' " he said. "You can wait for what seems like a lifetime for your dream and then, all of a sudden, it happens in a split second." 

Not so suddenly Penner went from this 5-6 teen-ager struggling to get picked to play ... anywhere ... to a 6-4 power forward scoring with regularity in the playoffs. 

"I'm a person who likes challenges," Penner said. "I always thought the biggest challenge was to get somewhere with my hockey career. But now that I'm here in the NHL, the challenges are even greater to stay here and excel.

"But it's not hard to remind myself where I’ve been and where I am right now. For me, the keys are simple: Move the puck, move my feet and go to the net. Hey, I've done that in my dreams all of my life." 

Pumping gas?

That was never part of Dustin Penner's future. Playing in the NHL? It's been well worth the wait. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Secret is out -- Travis Zajac is a Star in the Making

By Larry Wigge

Travis Zajac and Zach Parise go together like two peas in a pod.

They are center and winger, both from the University of North Dakota. Both worked well together there, so why not in the NHL. They feed off one another.

Zajac is the straw that stirs the drink and prefers to stay in the background to Parise's star status.

The secret is out, Zajac is a star too.

For much of the 2011-12 season, Zajac was a lost man ... a player without a team.

In August, Zajac stepped awkwardly and injured his Achilles' tendon. For four months, Travis labored through rehabilitation and finally was able to return to the Devils' lineup in mid-December. Unfortunately for Zajac, his comeback was cut short after just eight games.

His own desperation to return to the ice had come back to bite him. Zajac's Achilles' tendon wasn't strengthened enough and was told by doctors to quit skating and resume conditioning. Zajac was forced back to square one and began the process all over again, eventually returning on March 25, after missing another 37 straight games.

To say, it was a hellish eight months for Zajac would be putting it mildly.

"I was close," Zajac explained. "After that setback the first thing I was thinking about was where I am in my career. As much as you want to come back and play, you gotta look out for the future. So, yeah, it was in the back of my mind to shut it down.

"We knew that I probably could come back at some point in the season. I was lucky enough to get a few games here at the end of the year. Feeling good from then on it just kind of helped my confidence."

In just 15 games this season, Zajac totaled two goals and four assists. In the playoffs, he had six goals, including the game-winner in a 4-1 victory in Game 4 against the New York Rangers, to go along with five assists in 16 postseason games.

Rehabbing can be a quiet and lonely place for a hockey player. Especially for Zajac who played 401 consecutive games before suffering the injury.

"It sucked sitting out most of the year," said Zajac. "It's tedious stuff you have to do every day. And that gets annoying. But you look at the bigger picture. Eventually, you get back on the ice and it keeps you going."

Getting Zajac back was better than any acquisition for a centerman that the Devils could have pulled off at the trade deadline.

"Getting Travis back was probably 'The best trade deadline acquisition' we could've made," said Parise.  he said. "To see him come back finally and be healthy and be playing as well as he has been down the stretch for us was huge. It enabled us to get deeper as a team and everybody's clicking right now."

"He's our best centerman," Ilya Kovalchuk said. "It didn't surprise me.

The first good sign for Zajac was getting the game-winner in OT in Game 6 of the first round against Florida at 5:39 for a 3-2 Devils triumph.

"We wouldn't be here without him," coach Peter DeBoer said. "A guy who was at a crossroads where he could have stepped away and said let's go back at this next year. He worked and refused to take that road. He's been our most effective, our most consistent forward so far."

"It was pretty cool," Zajac said. "You always think about scoring an OT playoff goal. Everyone wants to ...

Zajac couldn't control his emotions of all that has happened to him.

"It's a fun time to play hockey and to compete at this level," Zajac continued. "But we want to win. That's what we want to do. And to be able to contribute in any way you can, it's fun."

For the 27-year-old veteran from Winnipeg, his whole career has been like a dream.

For Tom and Trish Zajac and their three other boys it has been an adventure. Tom work as gas station manager. He also conducts a hockey skills camp. Tom went to Denver on a hockey scholarship and earned a business administration degree.

"I enjoyed the game and when Travis, our oldest, started going to the rink, he enjoyed it and the other boys just followed," said the elder Zajac. "We've always told our boys that education is important. The direction I guess I pushed the guys was that I said, 'This is what's available if you want to work towards it and get yourself an education, which is needed nowadays and you get to do something that you like while you're doing it.' "

Darcy, 25, had a scholarship at North Dakota. Kelly, 23, played at Union College. Nolan, 19, is at North Dakota.

Travis remember his draft day very well. Zajac had enjoyed a 43-goal, 112-point season with Salmon Arm (BCHL). But, with the draft in Raleigh, N.C., it was all about European players -- Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Malkin went 1-2.

Sitting at 22, the Devils traded up two spots, sending a first and a third to Dallas. Zajac's agent seemed to know what was about to happen, but Travis wouldn't have believed it if he hadn't experienced it himself.

"I wasn't sure where I was going to go in the draft. I didn't think I was going to go first round and just sitting there during the draft, I remember my agent telling me that I was going to be up next with the 20th pick," said Zajac. "I'm like, 'No way.' I didn't believe him, and he was like, 'Yeah, watch.'

"I don't remember much. My heart was pounding a little. I was a little nervous walking down there. I remember getting on stage with Lou and David Conte and thinking to myself, 'Oh, I'm a lot taller than these guys.' It was fun. It was great to put on the jersey and the hat. That was probably the most exciting part for me was taking the pictures on stage when you put the jersey and hat on."

The draft book said: He uses good skating skill to control pace of the game. ... He's patient with the puck in drawing opponents to him. Then thrives on one-on-one battles. ... He's a clutch player who is not afraid to go into the corners. ... A confident puck carrier.

Travis Zajac is all of the above ... and more.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Coyotes Comeback is Up to Rising Star Yandle

By Larry Wigge

Last year at Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals at TD Garden in Boston, Keith Yandle had some prime seats set aside for him. They were courtesy of Bruins winger Brad Marchand.

The arrangement was made for Buddy Yandle, Keith's father and long-time friend of Marchand's ... actually a former teammate and friend at Moncton when they growing up.

"We were right behind Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo," said Keith. "The Bruins were down 3-2 in the series after Luongo shut them out 1-0 in Game 5. We hoped we would see plenty of Boston goals that day."

The Bruins won 5-2 and then captured Game 7 at Vancouver 4-0. The Bruins were a comeback team all playoffs long. They rallied from a 0-2 deficit in the first round against Montreal and came back from another 0-2 deficit in the Eastern Conference finals against Tampa Bay.

Now, Yandle is hoping for the same kind of comeback for his Phoenix Coyotes in Game 5.

Yandle got a front row view of the Cup finals, but more important he got to see a Boston team that won three Game 7's in the process. This year, Yandle's team, the Coyotes, could use a little bit of luck in getting to Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Kings.

Down 3-0 in the series against the Kings, the Coyotes roared back on the strength of two goals by veteran Shane Doan and the stingy goaltending of Mike Smith.

Yet, it all comes down to coming back for Phoenix and Yandle.

Said Yandle, "I saw the Bruins do it last year ... why not us this time."

The 25-year-old Boston native grew up a Red Sox and Bruins and Patriots fans. 

"As a kid I played a lot of road hockey and I always said I was Ray Bourque," Yandle explained. "Growing up, I was friends with his son, Chris Bourque, and I always used to get Ray's old half-broken wooden sticks and I'd use them for street hockey. I was a huge Bruins fan growing up."

As a kid, Keith always wanted to be a firefighter, if he couldn't be an NHL player. His grandfather was a fireman ... and I looked up to him big time. Whenever I was at my grandparent’s house I was always wearing his helmet pretending to put out fires. 

But hockey was his real dream -- and playing defense was his way to get there.

Keith is the total package of skating, size, skill, hockey sense, vision and leadership ability. He is a clutch performer who is at his best in highly competitive situations. He is especially strong quarterbacking the power play. He is very strong passing the puck with hard accurate passes. He is also very strong in his own end.

Yandle and Bourque played prep hockey for Cushing Academy. While there, he was named as a New England prep First Team All-Star (2004-05). But, his plans to play college hockey at New Hampshire like his older brother Brian were scrapped. He decided to blaze his own trails and play for the QMJHL instead.

In his first and only year playing for the Moncton Wildcats (2005-06), Yandle helped the team become first in the league, helped lead Moncton to the Memorial Cup finals, and received the Emile Bouchard Trophy being named the league's best defenseman as well as the Telus Trophy for CHL defensive player of the year.

He always had his sights on the NHL and the Quebec League was right. There, Ted Nolan, former NHL coach with Buffalo and the Islanders, was in charge.

"I think going to play in the Quebec League was the right decision because it was more of an NHL-style league, with the travel and the amount of games," Yandle said. "In terms of offensive ability, the Quebec League isn't like the Western League. The West has big guys and lot of clutch and grab. The Quebec League is more of a free-wheeling league and you get to hone your skills pretty good."

Skills ... Yandle had plenty of them.

"The Q isn't the league it used to be when it was all offense, as a lot of focus is that it is more of a position game," he continued. "If you're a good skater then you have a pretty good chance to be successful.

"I thought it was my best chance to get to the NHL ... and make it as fast as possible."

In the process, Yandle led all QMJHL defenders in assists (59) and points while finishing tied for second in the league in goals, third in power-play goals (15) and fourth with a plus-50 rating.

The 6-1, 195-pound defender was selected by the Coyotes in the fourth round, 105th overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.

Some may have said he was good enough to make the NHL right away, but Yandle split time between San Antonio of the American Hockey League and Phoenix from 2006-08 as he worked to refine the defensive side of his game

"In the NHL you can't be all offense, you have to play good defense to get on the offensive side of the puck," Yandle explained. "It's more about managing your game and keeping it simple."

Pretty smart theory for a young whipper-snapper.

In his third season with Phoenix, Yandle scored 11 goals and 59 assists -- third in the NHL behind Lubomir Visnovski and Nicklas Lidstrom.

Growing up, Lidstrom was always his second favorite defenseman -- next to Ray Bourque.

Yandle said he wanted to chat with Lidstrom at the All-Star Game and pick his brain.

"But he seems like such a great guy, obviously he's a future Hall of Famer," Yandle said. "Every guy there is going to be fun to meet and get to know."

Shane Doan, captain of the Coyotes, said he'd introduce the two.

"Keith is our best player, a special player and he should be there," Doan said. "Night in, night out, he's the best player on the ice for both teams. He's just starting to get an idea of how good he can be. It's going to be a lot of fun to watch him grow.

"He's already the best player on the ice probably 75 percent of the time."

Seventy-five percent of the ice. That's a mouthful.

In 15 games in this year's playoffs, Yandle has eight assists. He is steadily growing as we watch his game.

"Keith is an alternate captain, he fits into our culture and he fits into our future," said GM Don Maloney. "When we looked at the term, even with dollars spent, I thought it was good value for a top young Norris Trophy-potential defenseman that I still believe has upside to his game."

Five years for a total of $26 million should make Yandle one of Phoenix key guys in a potential dream comeback against Los Angeles.

Long way since Keith Yandle used Ray Bourque half-broken sticks for wooden sticks for street hockey.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Lundqvist's Journey is Nearly Complete ...

By Larry Wigge

Now, it can be told. The secret is out.

There was a great transformation in the way Henrik Lundqvist plays since last August. It might be noticeably apparent, but it's there nonetheless. 

You might be able to trace the evolution of the New York Rangers goaltender to one or all of the following: First Lundqvist married Therese Andersson lovely young lady and then secondly, he lost 12-13 pounds, after changing his workout routine and his eating habits this past summer.

As the story goes, Lundqvist said that goaltender coach Benoit Allaire told him something always happens when they celebrate his 30th birthday, which he did in March 2. It may have been Allaire's attempt at getting King Henrik to work a bit during the offseason ... more than usual.

"I remember Benny told me after last year, that goalies, when they're closing in on age 30, they usually get better. They have a better understanding," Lundqvist explained. "But ..."

Before completing his train of thought, Lundqvist came right out with it.

"Now, I think I'm getting a better understanding of the game and reading plays and players," he continued. "I guess, around 30, you have a better understanding and you can do something about it ... you're not slow yet."

Lundqvist said he felt so much better going into his seventh NHL season. Not just He physically. He said he felt renewed.

Then came the proclamation that he told his family and his closest friends last August.

"I'm going to be the best," Lundqvist said. "And that's that."

So far. He not only topped the 30 wins he had in his six previous seasons, Henrik had 39 wins and a 1.96 goals-against average, tops for his career.

This season and playoffs has been the closest Lundqvist has come to perfection.

On Saturday afternoon, Henrik stopped 36 shots, some of which were of the special variety, en route to his second shutout this series against the New Jersey Devils for a 3-0 triumph for the New York Rangers to run the series to 2-1 in favor of the Rangers. The last New York goaltender to post two shutouts in a playoff series was Mike Richter in 1997. 

"I was focused on every shot," Lundqvist said. "As a goalie, you often find yourself in the zone."

Lundqvist's teammates and coach have seen this side of him.

"I've been a part of a lot of games where he gets in a zone like that," said defenseman Marc Staal. "You could tell early on he was at his best."

"He's been the backbone of our team for a long time now," said defenseman Dan Girardi. "He is making huge saves, stopping breakaways and backdoor plays, we just feed off his saves and turn the offense going the other way."

Just like the Rangers team ... blocking shots ... blocking shooting lanes. In other words, in the shutdown mode.

"It's a bit of our personality," Tortorella said of his team's ability to feed off Lundqvist. "That's a bit of who we are. And I think Henrik displays that, how he does compete. And he's a great competitor as far as his preparation and as far as what he does for this hockey club."

Even the opposing coach Peter DeBoer was effusive in telling his side of it.

"I don't know. I think their goalie was the difference," DeBoer said. "We're not the first team that Lundqvist has done this to."

Henrik and identical twin brother Joel were born to Eva Johansson and Peter Lundqvist. They grew up in Are, an area where alpine skiing is the most popular winter activity, but Henrik and Joel chose to play ice hockey over the more popular winter sports. Henrik and Joel, who was selected as a center by the Dallas Star, improvised, shoveling the snow off the lake near their home to skate on it. Sounds like the Sedins, eh?

As a youngster Henrik Lundqvist watched videos of his favorite Swedish goalie, Peter Lindmark, and two NHL stars, Patrick Roy and Dominik Hasek, incorporating elements of Roy's butterfly style and Hasek's unorthodox technique. But ...

For competitive hockey, Henrik and Joel had to travel from Are to Jarpen, Sweden, about 30 minutes east. It was during one of those car rides that a 9-year-old Henrik started plotting his future. He dreamed of playing in the NHL, but how would a scout find them -- out in the wilderness.

But the Rangers did find Lundqvist in the seventh round, 205th overall pick, in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft. But not without some luck ... Henrik, was in fact, the 22nd goalie chosen in that draft.

"You're just throwing darts," said Phoenix Coyotes Don Maloney, who used to be the Rangers assistant general manager.

He then described the arm-twisting that was involved with a couple of his scouts over Lundqvist, the goalie that scouts observed at 18 had loads of natural ability, sharp reflexes and a strong work ethic augmented by his competitive spirit, but he lacked consistency. Martin Madden, then the Rangers' chief scout, watched Lundqvist in two tournaments in early 2000 and came away unimpressed. But, Christer Rockstrom, then the team’s head European scout, held a different perspective.

Living in Sweden, Rockstrom saw Lundqvist play more regularly and rated him No. 1 on the Rangers' list of eligible European goalies. Rockstrom pushed for the Rangers to draft Lundqvist in the middle rounds, but Madden overruled him.

But in the sixth round and seventh rounds, Maloney turned to his right, to Rockstrom. "Is that your top goalie in Europe?" Maloney asked Rockstrom.

Rockstrom nodded in the affirmative. And with that, Lundqvist was a member of the Rangers.

It didn't take Madden to long to come over to Lundqvist's side. In 2004-05 while the NHL was locked out, Lundqvist was joined in Europe by several established goalies like Miikka Kiprusoff and Jose Theodore. Henrik led the league in save percentage (.936) and goals against average (1.79). In the playoffs, he was even better, recording six shutouts in 14 games, allowing only 15 goals, as Frolunda, Lundqvist's team, captured another title.

To this day, Lundqvist says, he knew, he could make it to the NHL. He didn't know then of the argument Madden and Rockstrom had over him. But, there was one more reason to slow down the express from coming into the station. His name was Al Montoya, the University of Michigan alum who was the sixth overall pick by the Rangers in the 2004 draft. But that was only a small obstacle in the way of King Henrik.

Obstacles are the root of every great athlete, whether it be Wayne Gretzky or Sidney Crosby. Some where too small or too this or that. With Lundqvist, it was technique.

At the request of his new goalie coach, Benoit Allaire, began playing a more conservative style, deeper in the net. The switch maximized Lundqvist's quickness, one of his main assets and enabled him to glide from post to post with an economy of movement. That was away from the norm -- where you want your goalies to come out and challenge the shooers.

Lundqvist acceded to Allaire's way of thinking. He accepted the new approach, often spending 30 minutes on the ice with Allaire before practice. It worked for Henrik.

But Henrik Lundqvist became a man for all seasons. When time allows, he jams with his band, the Noise Upstairs, which includes John McEnroe and Jay Weinberg, son of Max Weinberg, the longtime drummer for the E Street Band. He once was voted the best dressed man in Sweden. People magazine listed him among the world’s 100 most beautiful people. And he tends a mean goal.

"He's the best goalie in the world," Rangers center Brad Richards said.

Through the years, Lundqvist has noticed that not everyone who gets a chance to win the Stanley Cup takes advantage of it. You may recall Ray Bourque, making it to the Cup finals when he was a youngster but never really taking that success until he was traded to the Colorado Avalanche late in his career.

"The clock is ticking," recalled Lundqvist, during the Devils series. "You don't know how many more chances you're going to get."

Henrik Lundvist was right on. Thirty-six saves and he's ready to go for the Cup. His transformation is now complete.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

In Goal, Holtby Played Like on Another Planet

By Larry Wigge

Most of the time Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby is somewhere out there on another planet in another a different solar system. He's cool and calm ... but a little quirky.

Plain and simple, Holtby has come out of nowhere in this year's playoffs.

Standing tall in goal. Twirling the stick, watching the droplets shot from a water bottle, shuffling around the top of the goal crease, that thing where his eyes track back and forth looking out on an empty ice surface. His habits might make good television, but not everyone loves to watch them. Doing deep breathing exercise training and visualization exercises help take him to a place of serenity. Somewhere ...

"It could be a beach or I could be skating on a pond back home as a kid," explained Holtby. "It brings you back down to earth and relaxes you."

Holtby has been practicing with visualization and controlling his heart rate since he was first introduced to sports psychologist and goaltending coach John Stevenson as a 16-year-old member of the Saskatoon Blades. 

There isn't a much tougher job than goaltending ... and Holtby was asked to take on a whopper. No. 1 goalie Tomas Vokoun and backup Michal Neuvirth were both sidelined with injuries. In the playoffs, all of the heat was squarely on the 6-1, 209 pounder.

"He's played well, you know? Under extreme pressure, he had to go up against Tim Thomas, you know, Stanley Cup winner and now Henrik Lundqvist, who could be MVP of the league," former Capitals coach Dale Hunter said. "He battled tooth-and-nail even with them. I'm proud of him."

Long before Game 7 against the Rangers, Holtby was handling himself as a veteran rather than a 22-year-old rookie. He emerged as one of the unexpected stars of the postseason as he started each of Washington’s 14 games, stopping 429 of the 459 shots he faced through two rounds for a .935 save percentage and 1.95 goals-against average.

Holtby acknowledges he is a work in progress in everything from knowing when to handle the puck to learning how to dial down his emotions.

"I always dealt with nerves and trying to do too much and I always fought with myself in my mind," Holtby explained. "I experimented with some mental exercises. Some of it didn't work for me ... and some of it does.

"It's still hard to find that balance. Not all nerves are bad, but you want to be calm and bring your heart rate down so you don't wear yourself out."

Take it from a former goaltender Olie Kolzig, the Capitals associate goaltender coach.

"The thing with Braden was just consistency. That was the thing we were worried about: Could he do it night in and night out? What really impressed me most about him in the playoffs is his resiliency," Kolzig said. "Whether he gives up a bad goal or has a bad game, hell come back and make that next big save or hell come back and win the next game. The mental toughness, the resiliency and the calmness, its been impressive to watch.

"I just think he's playing in the moment. He's not looking in the past, he's not looking too far ahead."

Finding the right exercises or visualization was important to Braden Holtby ... and to his father Greg, a former goalie who played two years with the WHL's Saskatoon Blades in the mid-1980s. Braden was strapping on the pads in his family's basement by the age of 3.
Braden Holtby's father set up a backyard rink under a large spotlight so he could train well into the night. When Holtby went inside, he spent countless additional hours firing pucks off the walls in the family basement.

"I had a way when I was young of shooting on myself somehow. I'd shoot off the wall and try to save it," he recalled. "The walls are kind of looking a little worse for wear now.

"I played hockey all day. There is not much else to do in Saskatchewan."

The Capitals selected the Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, in the fourth round, 93rd overall, in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft from the Saskatoon Blades.

"I think it's a big help to young goalies," Caps goalie coach Dave Prior said of having a parent who played the position. "You're dealing with a parent that understands what the pressures are and what the goalie is going through. Even if they're not technically equipped to help their son, it's someone who just gets it."

All of his time spent in D.C., Holtby was under pressure -- none so much as the night he made 44 saves in Game 4 of the first round against Boston. The saves were the most in a regulation playoff win for a rookie goaltender since Ken Dryden made 46 stops for Montreal in a 4-2 win against Boston on April 16, 1971.

Said Holtby, "My type of fun is intensity, is big games, big moments. I might not show it on my face, but that's the way I've always been. I've always had the most fun when I'm battling and competing."

Or rather a calming influence on his teammates.

"He makes it very calm for the rest of us," said forward Brooks Laich, after the 44-shot barrage. "If we gave up a shot, we know Holtz if gonna cover. When he does leave a rebound, and I didn't see many tonight, we know guys are gonna clear it.
"When you have a goaltender playing well, it really, really settles your team down. He was a leader for us tonight."

Holtby played with the South Carolina Stingrays in the ECHL, did a few stints for the Caps as a backup goaltender (he suited up and was on the bench for five games but did not play) and moved back and forth to the Hershey Bears. He had a starting role on the Bears when Neuvirth was called up to D.C. after Semyon Varlamov's injury and finished his season with the team when it won the Calder Cup. Holtby led AHL rookie goaltenders in the goals-against-average (2.32) and save percentage (.917.) and played in the ECHL All-Star Game.

In his effort to gain an edge over the competition, Holtby's pre-game ritual involves visualization: rehearsing his moves without a player or puck. He recently had Lasik eye surgery because his sweat used to interfere with his contacts.

There is a line that Prior draws from patience to structure to consistency, something Holtby initially struggled with.

"There are too many good shooters," said Holtby. "It has been a challenge. With my personality it's always been kind of to do things, always wanted to take things in my own hands.

"Goaltending is a position really unlike anything in sports. You have to let things come to you."

That is at the core of what Prior teaches: stay patient and make the shooter blink first.

"A good shooter will take advantage of your lack of patience," Prior said. "We don't try to make the saves, we try to make the shooters beat us. We're keeping the pressure on the shooter to beat us with a great shot. The foundation to our philosophy of defending the goal is that patience."

While at Hershey Braden Holtby's goalie mask had the roller coaster painted on it as a tribute to one of the rides at the Hershey Park amusement park in central Pennsylvania.

"It's just a Hershey thing," he said. "When I had to get my mask painted, I knew I was going to be playing in Hershey for the better part of the year, so I thought it was something creative to represent Hershey."

Eight months later, the roller coaster is a symbol of the wild and crazy ride this season has been for the 22-year-old, who has gone from training camp afterthought to one of the top rookies in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Some ride for Holtby and the Capitals.

"It's disappointing. We really did believe in here that we had the team to do it all," Holtby said. "We really can't hang our head at the effort.

"Little things, inches. Its what, 13 out of 14 one-goal games? We gave ourselves a chance to win every night."