Thursday, May 30, 2013

Seabrook scores to win in overtime of Game 7

By Larry Wigge

Brent Seabrook has scored bigger goals before this -- all of them in his front yard as a kid growing up in British Columbia.

This one game in Game 7 ... in overtime.

It was Seabrook's goal at 3:35 of overtime that gave the Chicago Blackhawks a 2-1 win over the Red Wings of the Western Conference semifinals.

The goal was made possible, when Dave Bolland smashed the puck free of Detroit's Gustav Nyquist near the penalty box at center ice. Seabrook quickly lugged the puck into the Red Wings zone from the boards to the center and left go a wrister shot that deflected off defenseman Niklas Kronwall's stick and past goalie Jimmy Howard's glove hand.

"Shooting pucks around in the front yard, against the garage, breaking garage doors, it's always something you think about, scoring an overtime winner in Game 7," Seabrook said. "I love overtime. I think it's exciting and lots of fun. The stakes are really high."

The goal was the biggest goal of Seabrook's career.

"I don't think I've scored a bigger goal than that," he said. "With the Game 7 mentality, in overtime, against Detroit, it was pretty special."

At the end of a shift, the Richmond, B.C., native, had enough speed to beat Henrik Zetterberg and Danny Cleary in for the fatal shot.

"Nik Kromwall likes to go down to block shots like me," said Seabrook. "I just tried to get it on net and get it past Kronwall. I didn't want to get it blocked.

"I don't even know if I saw it go in, to be honest. I just heard the horn going and the boys jumping out. It was a pretty exhausting game, but I think I was more tired during the celebration. You don't get to do that too many times and it'll be something I'll remember for the rest of my life."

Seabrook, 28, had drawn the ire of Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville in Game 4. But, being reunited with veteran partner Duncan Keith gave him more confidence. Especially on the rush.

"Seabs kept going ... going ... going and got off a good shot," a satisfied Quenneville said.

Said Seabrook, "I was just trying to step up. The coaches have been on me about stepping up all year."

Seabrook has never scored more than nine goals in a season in his eight NHL seasons. However, in this lockout-shorted season, Brent managed eight goals and 12 assists in 47 games. You could justify this as his best season ever based on the number of games played and the Blackhawks recording the President's Trophy for having the best record.

In the playoffs, however, Seabrook had just one goal and one assists in 12 games.

You may remember, that it was Seabrook, whose last-second shots forced both overtimes and kept Chicago from falling into an 0-2 hole last year in the playoffs against Phoenix. He scored with 14.2 seconds left in Game 1 to tie it up before the Coyotes prevailed in overtime. And his hard shot in a frantic closing sequence of Game 2 was re-directed past Smith by Patrick Sharp with 5.5 seconds to go and Blackhawks went on to win in the extra period.  

"When you look at those kids when they were 17- and 18-year-olds? Dion was way ahead of him," Los Angeles Kings coach Darryl Sutter says of the former Lethbridge Hurricanes linchpin. "When you look at that 2003 draft, Brent wasn't in the top three defensemen. There was Braydon Coburn, Ryan Suter, Phaneuf and then a gap to Brent. Then, as a 19-year-old last year, Seabrook really improved. You could see it when you watched him lots, how much his game elevated.

"You pull for them guys because they played out here. I really like Brent Seabrook."

Brent Seabrook gravitated towards hockey at a young age.

"My mother wasn't a fan, but when my brother Keith always wanted to play hockey she did a lot of research and became an expert," Seabrook explained.

Like most hockey players, their parents are a big of their career. 

"Gary (his father), Suzanne (his mom) and a friend are co-owners of a steal fabricating business," he continued. "They started out making crab pots for fisheries and for fishermen. Now, they have gotten into garbage bins, garbarge containers."

Naturally, Chris Pronger was his favorite player growing. But, Seabrook enjoyed all sports. You should seen his room -- at decked out in a sports theme.

"I had a picture of the Bulls, when they won 72 games," Seabrook remembered, all the way out in B.C. a Chicago basketball fan. "I also had a Wayne Gretzky photo and one of Ken Griffey Jr."

It's already been mentioned about shooting pucks in his front yard. But there was a basketball goal there to that the neighbor kids would flock too.

Every player has sometime of an obstacle to over to get to the NHL.

"The knock on me was my footspeed and it's something I continue to work on," he said. "When I'm skating I'm at my best ... when I'm not skating I'm not so good."

At 6-3, 221-pounds, Seabrook is a mountain of a man. He is tough to move.

Another question I like to ask players is when they thought they might have an NHL future.

"My grade 7 teacher said it was then," Seabrook laughed. "We did a class project -- What do you want to be when you grow up? I told her that I wanted to play hockey in the NHL. She said I had to choose another profession, one with more options. I just looked at her and told her, "Nope I'm going to be an NHL hockey player.'

"She would always laugh. But, she invites me back to speak to her students."

Seabrook's coaches are too numerous to mention -- even though he wanted to name them all. But there were two he singled out.

"My summer coaches every year from 9 to 14 were former NHL players Harold Snepsts and John Grisdale," Seabrook added. "They taught me to 'Respect your opponent and respect yourself and your teammates.'"

You grow up and play, making many friends along the way. Current NHL playr Colin Fraser, Troy Brouwer and Andrew Ladd also grew up in B.C. They grew up watching the Canucks with interest ... and all four played for the Pacific Vipers.

"I don't know how many times I told my dad when we were driving home, 'I'm going to play in that building some day,' " Seabrook explained. "I stopped being a Canucks fan the day the Blackhawks drafted me (first round, 14th overall, in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft)."

Colin Fraser once told me, "I'm sure we all wanted to play for the Canucks at some point when we were growing up, but they're the enemies now." 

Seabrook, Ladd, Brower and Fraser all played for the 2010 Blackhawks, who won the Stanley Cup.

The first time Keith Seabrook beat his older brother Brent in a driveway hockey game, he returned inside their British Columbia home with a few more bruises than usual.

"It was a little tougher every game after that," said Keith. "He was mad."

Bumps, scratches and scrapes were part of growing up in the Seabrook household, where the brothers fostered the competitiveness that has launched professional hockey gigs for each.

They are crossing paths again, not in the competitive sense anymore, but as colleagues at different stages of their careers. 

But they both commit to solid defense, Keith also wears No. 7 and have a mean competitive streak.

They talk every couple of days despite the rigors of their seasons, which often jets them to different time zones and induces strange sleeping patterns. 

Brent tries to catch highlights of Keith's games on the Internet. Keith watches any televised Hawks game when his schedule permits and tries to catch nightly highlights.

The brothers share a home in Vancouver in the off-season, allowing them to train together and living close enough to their parents' home that they still stop by for dinner a few nights a week.

"Some things will never change in how we act around each other," Keith said.

Many draw comparisons between the way the Seabrook brothers play, looking to pass first. Keith said they learned it from their father, Gary, who coached his sons' hockey teams when they were young.

Their mother, Suzanne, an artist, painted a picture of former Canucks goaltender Kirk McLean on a wooden board that was part of the net they practiced on.

"We were out there for hours shooting on that every day," Keith said. "We had some driveway battles that were pretty vicious."

But none was quite like the memory Brent Seabrook will have for Game 7 overtime victory.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Like Ray Bourque ... Iginla want one chance at the Cup

By Larry Wigge

Jarome Iginla, like Ray Bourque before him, is the best player in the NHL not to win a Stanley Cup.

He is everyman's hero? You could say that he the closest thing to Tiger Woods in the NHL. Big. Strong. Handsome. Quotable. Divergent. Powerful. Magnetic and charismatic personality.

And being from Edmonton, he knows of the struggles and eventual success the Oilers, who were in the midst of an incredible run of four Stanley Cups. They boasted some of the NHL’s greatest players, including Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri and Grant Fuhr.

All were perennial All-Stars, partly because Jarome and his friends would grab all the ballots they could find and vote again and again for their hometown heroes.
You could say that Iginla has become what is today's Oilers -- the Pittsburgh Penguins, with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Kris Letang. The Penguins only Stanley Cup came in 2008 ... but they have become solid contenders every year with their immense talent.

GM Ray Shero capped off the Pittsburgh roster with the acquisitions of Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray, Iginla and Jussi Jokinen before the NHL trading deadline in May. 

"We're all in. We want to win," Shero said after the deals were made.

On the ice, he scored 525 goals and 1,095 points, won awards, represented his country internationally and won a pair of Olympic gold medals in 2002 and 2010. When you heard his name, you automatically thought of hockey and Calgary.

There were many ways in which Jarome Iginla could have looked forward to his new life with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but the analogy he chose was interesting.

"The way I'm trying to view it is, it's kind of like going to a Team Canada thing or an Olympics thing, where you're ready for any role," Iginla said of his deal with Pittsburgh for a first-round pick in 2013, plus the rights to college players Kenneth Agostino and Ben Hanowski for Iginla, the league's fifth-leading active scorer. "That's where I'm at and that's what I'm going to draw on ... and be ready to play hard and have fun.

"You always want to win, that's what we're made to do and what we want to do," said Iginla, who noted how quickly the first 16 years of his career zipped past. With each passing season, Iginla noted: "You definitely feel a little more urgency to win."

The closest Jarome Iginla came the winning the Stanley Cup was on 2004 -- Game 7 between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Flames -- won by the Lighting, 2-1.

You could still tell that Iginla was bothered by the near miss.

"When you get that close and then you hear the other team fan, the other fans celebrating to Simply the Best and We are the Champions, that hurt. It hurt a lot. We didn't know who was holding the Cup, but each time someone else took it, you could hear the fans go nuts. We're just sitting there, soaking all of this in and imagining what it would feel like ... if it was us."

The Flames were THAT close.

"One side of me thinks about how close we were to winning it all," continued Iginla. "But the other of me about playing again and getting another chance to get back. I thought I wanted to win a Stanley Cup before -- and I did -- but it's a whole new level, a whole new passion to get back there ... and win."

The 35-year-old Iginla may be showing signs of age. But two seasons ago, he had 43 goals for the Flames. 

He had 14 goals and 19 assists in 44 games for Calgary and Pittsburgh. In 13 games with the Penguins, Iginla's fire was stoked as he for six goals and 11 assists. In the playoffs, Jarome has tallied four goals and eight assists in 11 games.

"I wasn't fully sure what was going on, but I knew Pittsburgh was in the mix with Boston," Iginla said, before he waived the no-trade clause in his contract to go to Pittsburgh instead of Boston. "They're both amazing cities, very successful organizations, and great teams. As far as when it comes down to the choice that I had in one or the other, it's really hard as a player to pass up the opportunity to play on a team with Sid and Malkin and the roll that they're on and the success they had."
The Penguins and the Boston Bruins begin the Eastern Conference finals Saturday in Pittsburgh.

As to his future, Iginla is relaxed. He remains an unrestricted free agent July 1st, and nothing, he stresses, is set in stone.

"My wife and I talk about it all the time," said Iginla. "This is a unique life situation for us, in our experiences. I really have no idea what's ahead. Truly. We don't know what's going to happen and we're fine with that. You saw we sold our house in Calgary. That doesn't mean we'll never live in Calgary again, we just want to be prepared. A lot of questions but, like I said, no real answers.

"The focus right now is on trying to win here, now."

It didn't take off at once.

"The first week here, nothing seemed to go right," Iginla remarked. "I was a little anxious. I'd try to stickhandle with the puck and it'd dribble off into a corner. It was as if I was in a cloud. But it has gotten better and better."

"Talking to a couple of the players who have played with him about the character of the player, there was no doubt in my mind that if there was a chance to try to have this guy, we were going to try to have him," Shero said. "There's only one Jarome Iginla ... this guy's a future Hall of Famer."

There's the question of being the perfect fit. That has been a work in progress.

"He's brought a quiet confidence to our room right off the hop," said coach Dan Bylsma. "He hasn't been a guy who stepped right in and started screaming and yelling and rah-rah. We had some injuries and we had some different lineups and we went on the road and he really developed into a go-to guy on the power play that was a weapon. He has continued to be that for our team.

"It gives us a different dimension to our team that maybe we didn't have before, with that type of shot. He's got a fierce edge that he plays the game with. He has brought that to our team. When you are down there on the ice with him, you certainly know it and see it."

"Easy," said Crosby, when asked how it was for guys like Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray to fit into the Penguins dressing room hierarchy. "It was pretty easy with a guy like [Iginla] with his experience. It says a lot when you bring a lot of guys in like him and it was seamless."

When Bylsma heard what Crosby said ... he amended his comments about Iginla, giving a different side of things.

"You look at his entire career and wonder what kind of individual Jarome is," Bylsma said. "He comes to me after games and wants to know what he can do better. That tells me that he wants to succeed."

For Jarome Iginla, it's all about the team. He wants to win as much as anybody.

He still hears the Tampa Bay crowd in his dreams ... and he wants to win. 

Game 7. It's all about Justin Williams

By Larry Wigge

He was in the right spot ... at the right time.

That tells the story of Justin Williams and the success he has had in Game 7's.

"Game 7," said Los Angeles Kings coach Darryl Sutter. "It is all about Justin Williams. His game is about scoring and offense and ..."

Sutter left us dangling when his quote on Williams stopped.

The only two goals the Kings scored in Game 7 against the San Jose Sharks were scored by the 31-year-old from Cobourg, Ontario, vaulting the Kings to a 2-1 victory. But Williams is becoming the master of Game 7's -- he has scored in every one of the four he had played in and his team won. Five goals and four assists to be exact.

Quite a legacy.

"I like when our backs are against the wall," he said. "The ability to win when it's do or die."

Breaking a scoreless tie four minutes and 11 seconds into the second period on a power play, the Kings were fortunate when Slava Voynov's broken stick shot has eyes missing a diving Logan Couture and Marc-Edward Vlasic and came off the end boards. Sharks goalie Ante Niemi thought he had the puck tied up with his right pad.

But ...

"I don't think Niemi saw the puck," Williams said. "I was able to whack, whack, whack ... and it went in."

That Williams was able to flip the puck over Niemi and into the net was a marvelous job of patience and fighting to get it free.

With the crowd still roaring, Williams finished made it 2-0 at 7:08 on an odd-man rush as Anze Kopitar fed him a pass on the left wing circle for a one-time shot that just squeezed by Niemi.

"I could've had four goals," Williams said.

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.

That where you will find Justin Williams ... all the time.

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

In the strike-shortened lockout, Williams had 11 goals and 22 assists in 48 games. In 13 playoffs games, he now has four goals and two assists -- primarily because of a knee injury.

But he found the gumption to succeed in Game 7.

"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 of his interest in Williams as far back as the draft. "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.

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." 

But Williams had IT. When he showed promise after being chosen in the first round of the 2000 draft, 28th overall, by the Flyers. He showed it again, when he won the Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006 and again with the Kings last year. 

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." 

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.

Nolan was a power forward. Just like Williams, he could always be found ... at the right place at the right time. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Hossa has his eyes set on the Cup finals ... again

By Larry Wigge

At this time of the year, the price you pay to get into position to score a goal becomes insurmountable. There is a measure of hand-to-hand combat. A measure of courage to score.

Marian Hossa's goal not immediate. It was not without an extra effort of will on his part ... sort of like a goal in slow motion.

"I keep tugging away at the puck," Hossa explained. "Henrik Zetterberg has me tied up pretty good ... but I reached inside myself for a little extra strength."

Marian Hossa has scored nearly 450 goals in his career. None was more satisfying then the one he scored Monday night to start the scoring on the power play for the Chicago Blackhawks as they tied the contest and evened the Western Conference Semifinals against the Detroit Red Wings at three games apiece, 4-3.

The Stara Lubovnia, Slovakia, native, has played in just over 1,000 games in the NHL with Ottawa, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Detroit and now Chicago with various degrees of success. He had made it to the Stanley Cup finals with Pittsburgh in 2008, Detroit in 2009, before winning it all with Chicago in 2010.

So, he knows the kind of tugging and hooking and holding you can and can't get away with.

Hossa fought off Zetterberg, one the league's fiercest competitors, in the goal crease to open the scoring.

Said Hossa, "You have to keep tugging away ... until you can't give any more."

Later in the third period, he pulled off an amazing soccer pass to Jonathan Toews, who passed the puck along to Brian Bickell for the go-ahead score at 3-2.

More effort.

On this occasion, Hossa was being tied up in the right corner by Pavel Datsyuk, another of the fiercest rivals, and Kyle Quincey, who had broken his stick. 

"I couldn't use my hands," he said. "I had to kick the pass along to Toewsy and continue to tie up both players."

For the game, Hossa managed three shots and one goal and one assist -- giving him five goals and five assists in 11 playoffs games.

It was just last year that Hossa was taken off the ice with a stretcher suffering a concussion in a senseless hit by Phoenix forward Raffi Torres in the third game of the playoffs.

Torres was suspended for 25 games. The effects of the concussion were still bothering Hossa at nearly Thanksgiving.

"I came to the game with no hard feelings," Hossa said. "I tried to take it as another game for me and just prepared as I always do. It is a big two points ..."

Hossa thought for a moment, then he responded.

"I was worried about the concussion when it was the beginning of November and that's why I practiced so hard to be comfortable going into corners," Hossa continued. "After I was medically cleared in mid-November then I was happy where I was. My head ... it was clear."

Torres reached out to Marian Hossa about a week after he delivered the illegal hit that knocked the Blackhawks' winger out for the rest of the series.

"Around five days or a week after the hit, he contacted me," Hossa revealed. "It was nice that he contacted me. But I told him that I was upset. I said, 'I know we were playing that way, but the thing that upset me was the jump.' If he didn't jump, maybe I would have still been hit hard ... maybe I wouldn't have hit my head and he wouldn't have 25 games. The phone conversation was pretty quick .. and that was it."

Hossa said he doesn't remember much from the hit.

"I saw the replay a few days later and that's how I remember," he said. "I remember a few seconds of seeing (team physician Dr. Michael Terry) on the ice and I don't remember being in the dressing room. I remember a little bit in the ambulance and I woke up in the hospital. I only remember a few seconds."

It’s hard to argue with the suspension, however, especially considering how the hit left Hossa.

"Let's put it this way: It's not fun. I spent one week basically sitting at home in a dark room."

A little time ... and space.

"All it takes sometimes is a little spark for a guy as skilled as Hoss," said Johan Franzen. "You give him a little time and space and you'll regret it. He's that good around the net."

Hossa explained, "I had the chance to play against them in 2008 and I know how hard it is. They are good defensively, but they can also move the puck as quick as anybody." 

"Winning it all ... that's what it's all about," said Hossa. "That's why you play the whole year."

And Marian Hossa isn't afraid that he might have to pick himself up off the ice and dust himself off along the line if it means having a chance to get to the Stanley Cup Finals ... once again.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Back on the Sharks defense -- Brad Stuart

By Larry Wigge

For Game 4 Sunday night in San Jose, Brad Stuart stood tall for the Sharks.

Just like always. Whether, he was playing in Boston, Calgary, Los Angeles, Detroit or ... back in San Jose. 

The 6-2, 215-pound defenseman plays with a bit of a mean streak that wasn't on display very much in his first go-round. He is a horse, he's a warrior. He comes to play every night. He knows his role and plays it as well as any defenseman in the league. Stuart block shots. In no uncertain terms, he did all the heavy lifting most top-flite defenders are supposed to do to send the Western Conference Semifinal series to Game 7 against the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.

"I don't know who the idiot was that traded him out of here to begin with," Sharks GM Doug Wilson said with a smile.

The Sharks made Stuart the third player taken overall in the 1998 NHL draft, behind only Vincent Lecavalier and David Legwand. But, when the Sharks GM had a chance to get Joe Thornton from Boston on November 30, 2005, he couldn't pass up on that.

Stuart came into his own with the Red Wings during his four-plus seasons there, winning a Stanley Cup in 2009. With Detroit, he played with Nickas Lidstom. For most of the time there, he partnered with Niklas Kromwell in perhaps the game's best 3-4 teams around.

But ...

During his day in Detroit, he got homesick for his family.

Melissa was living in Los Gatos with Brad's stepdaughter, Cierra, and sons Jake and Logan. The Stuarts tried moving to Detroit as a family, but Stuart's stepdaughter didn't have a smooth transition. And so while Stuart played in Detroit, his wife, the stepdaughter and their two young sons lived in San Jose.

"Kind of a family thing. The Red Wings knew it," Stuart said of the dilemma. "I've been living apart from my family, who stayed back on the West Coast for the last couple of years.

"I missed quite a few milestones with my little sons ... and that was hard. Playing in Detroit was great for my career, because I learned a lot the last four-plus years. I've learned a lot in the time while I was gone and I feel like I'm a better player because of it.

"The Red Wings organization treated me first-class and did everything they could to make sure I was happy. It's tough to leave a situation like that. I've got mixed emotions about this. But the opportunity to be with my family is important to me."

Detroit worked out a deal with San Jose for the free-agent-to-be -- they traded Stuart in exchange for a conditional seventh-round draft pick in 2014 and forward Andrew Murray.

"There was no selling job," Stuart said, feinting a laugh. "San Jose wanted me as much as I wanted them.

"No longer wearing red and white. I'm back to the beginning -- wearing teal."

The only players left when he was in San Jose the first time seven years ago were Patrick Marleau and Scott Hannan, his old partner, who had just come back as well.

Said Wilson, "Brad is a player we are very familiar with -- a physical, team-first defenseman who is tough to play against, which is exactly the kind of mentality we want our team to possess. He's a true professional. He has been even beyond what we expected of him."

In San Jose, Todd McLellan, now formerly worked as an assistant under Mike Babcock in Detroit, was reunited with the Sharks.

"He's made us a more competitive back end," McLellan said. "Our penalty kill has improved immensely ... and he's played a huge role in that. He's a very physical player. Just the overall intensity of our blue line has gone up, in large part to his competitiveness."

The 33-year-old Stuart had no goals and six assists during the homecoming season. He had one goal and two assists in 10 playoff games -- making his 11th appearance in the postseason.

Stuart comes by his straightforward approach from his dad, Dwayne, who works for Husky Oil in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. Jeannine, his mom, runs a medical supply store.

Not bad for a guy who surprised the hockey world at the scouting combine before his draft, when doctors discovered he was born with only one kidney. Obviously, his body adjusted and he's just fine.

Being born in Alberta, he was a Calgary Flames fans -- Al MacInnis was his favorite player.

He remembers May 25, 1989, the day the Flames clinched the Stanley Cup in Game 6 with a 4-2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens.

It was bittersweet for Stuart. 

"I had a baseball game," a dejected Stuart recalled for me. "I couldn't watch the Flames. I had to hear that they won the Cup. It wasn't until later that night that we had a party to celebrate."

Then 9, Brad didn't get to see his hero, Al MacInnis, accept the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player in the playoffs.

He was so-o-o-o-o depressed.

"I don’t even remember whether we won or lost our game," Stuart said. "I was bummed about missing THE GAME."

In fact, he didn't forget the unhappiness until Christmas Day, when his parents gave him a video that celebrated the Flames' Stanley Cup run entitled C (a Flaming C) is for champions.

"I played it hundreds of times," Stuart said. Then he winked and added, "I memorized most of it."

Stuart and Hannan sit next to one another -- again.

"Just like old times," Stuart said. "A lot of years have gone by, but it felt like nothing changed when he came back."

Los Angeles Kings coach Darryl Sutter once the Sharks coach in the early days and the Calgary Flames GM when he acquired Brad Stuart.

"You could see from Day 1 that his physical assets were tremendous, because he can do it all on the ice," said Sutter. "He's got a great vision for the game. But most of all, I love his character."

All is well now for Brad Stuart ... back in San Jose.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Keith overcome many odds to win the Stanley Cup

By Larry Wigge

With a straight face, Duncan Keith was clearly pointing to Game 4 against Detroit with great urgency. 

"Absolutely," said Keith. "This is the biggest game of the year, so I mean, we need everybody. But we also need the guys who are relied upon the most to be at their best."

The Chicago Blackhawks defender wasn't letting any off the hook. Even himself.

Everybody could seen Keith was on his game. He won the 2010 Norris Trophy and helped the Blackhawks win that Stanley Cup. 

He played 30 minutes and three seconds -- far more than on most nights. But coach Joel Quenneville kept sending Duncan back out there.

Keith was in the zone. He posted two shots, three hits and two blocked shots.

But it was all for naught. The Red Wings won the game 2-0 to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series.

His teammates could see the tenacity and fearlessness he took in this game. 

"He's one of those guys you kind of take for granted because he's back there every night and does pretty much the same thing," Patrick Kane said. "Whether it's shutting down the other team, or creating offensive chances, or jumping in the rush, or how fast he skates, or how good he is defensively with his stick .. . he does so many things that you can name and really is huge for our team."

Taking a que from him, the Blackhawks rallied at home for a 4-1 victory in Game 5. Or, rather, they just followed the leader.

Keith didn't play 30 minutes again. He didn't have to. Chicago had a 3-1 lead after two periods -- Andrew Shaw tipped in a Keith shot on a power play 13 minutes in the second period to break a 1-1 tie and Duncan assisted on a Jonathan Toews goal on another power play 2 1/2 minutes later. Shaw scored again in the third period for a 4-1 triumph.

Keith contributed four shots, two assists, one hits, two blocked shot in 23:48 minutes of ice time on this night.

Duncan Keith is one of those self-motivated individuals. Nothing ... and I believe nothing ... is going to stop him from being a quality defenseman.

He dared to be himself ... and it has worked out pretty well.

The Blackhawks big-minute defenseman remembers that his parents never pushed him to be a lawyer or doctor, an electrician or a fireman. They told him to just find a career path he liked and go for it.

No pressure.

It wasn't unusual for a youngster in Fort Frances, Ontario, just across the border from frigid International Falls, Minnesota, to choose hockey. After all, everything was frozen around town for months.

"I'd like to say I got the athletic genes from my mom or dad (his dad, David, is a bank manager and his mom, Jean, is a nurse's aid), but I guess that comes from my grandpa, Wilf, who was a soccer player in England," Keith laughed. "As far back as I can remember, there was nothing other than hockey that I wanted for my career."

And even though he was a tiny kid, the diminutive youngster overlooked the barriers he faced and made it to the National Hockey League. He's grateful to his parents the figure skating classes they enrolled him in when he was just a tot. Experts will tell you that being so good at one part of the game often gives a kid the opportunity to catch up with the rest of the pre-requisites needed to play hockey at at high level. And that's the story of Keith's rise to stardom.

"It may sound funny, but I remember checking almost every day to see if I had grown," Keith said with a twinkle in his eyes. "I may have only been 5-3 when I was 14, but I had big plans. I knew I could skate. I knew I had talent."

Nothing was going to stop this singleminded, self-motivated youngster. Not even getting cut from Team Pacific when he was 15. That was just a small pothole on his road to success.

"That was just about the time I began to go through a growth spurt," he explained. "I went from 5-3 to 5-6 at 14, 5-9 at 16, 5-11 at 178 and 6-feet-tall at 19. For most of my life it always seemed like I was the smallest kid on the team."

You could say he was always measuring the future, measuring his pathway to success.

"A guy like Duncan Keith is fearless," Montreal Canadiens executive Rick Dudley told me. "He will go back and get the puck under duress. It used to be the bigger defenseman would have to hold up and you couldn't get a forecheck, but now under the new rules you need more character because you are going back with the threat of being hit almost all the time now.

"So whether you are a defenseman big or small, you have to have character and quick feet, and character is what Duncan Keith is all about."

To a layman's eye, the first thing you notice about Keith is his speed. He parlays that talent into an enormous positive, being able to take a chance offensively and still recover to be back in position defensively.

"I'll never forget a play last year against Nashville where Dunc was up the ice creating an offensive opportunity in a 4-on-4 situation in overtime and in an instant the play went back the other way," Florida GM Dale Tallon said, shaking his head (Tallon was with Chicago at the time Keith was drafted). "David Legwand, who has some of the best wheels in the NHL, was off ... and Keith gave him a head start and he still caught him before he could get off a shot at the other end of the rink."

Keith laughs at the play, saying that Legwand was at the end of his shift -- although there's a fire in his eyes to indicate that he'd love nothing better than to get Legwand or another of the NHL's fastest skaters on a track to show off his own skating ability.

"We keep hearing about how Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were responsible for creating the excitement about hockey in Chicago, but I think Duncan Keith should be credited with some of that success as well," former St. Louis Blues coach Andy Murray told me. "He can lift the fans out of their seats with his skills. And don't forget all of those quality minutes he plays -- and plays so well."

The 30-year-old defenseman's minutes seem to increase each year, a value barometer that had risen to more than 29 minutes a game -- Chris Pronger and Nicklas Lidstrom minutes.

Duncan is also remarkably durable, having missed just one game in his five NHL seasons. He credits his work with weights for improving his size and plyametrics and speed sprints with making him leaner and faster and all the stamina he needs to play the kind of minutes the Blackhawks have given him the last couple of seasons.

Keith, who was a late bloomer because of his lack of height, came on fast after three seasons of Tier II hockey at Penticton in British Columbia and 1 1/2 more nondescript seasons playing at Michigan State University. Still, the Blackhawks thought enough of him to select him in the second round, 54th overall, in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft.

"When we drafted him, he was 5-11 and 160 pounds," recalled Tallon. "Now, he's 6-0 and 190. That commitment to his growth physically and as a player shows me he has an unbelievable desire to get better."

Duncan Keith was a business major at Michigan State University. Weightlifting and mountain biking are his hobbies. When he was growing up, he was a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs. His favorite players back then were Paul Kariya and Pavel Bure, which probably helps to underscore his flair for the dramatic on offense. That plus the fact that he was both a forward and defenseman until he was eight or nine when he was put on defense for good.

"I liked defense right away -- getting the opportunity to control more of the game back there," he told me. "I always believed in myself. All I needed was to find a way to make it."

The offense was always there -- in Fort Frances, Penticton, Michigan State and Kelowna, but a driven Duncan knew there were other parts of his game -- can you say defense -- that needed work.

"I wouldn't be here today without the help I got from Rob McLaughlin, my bantam coach, who helped improve his skating stride using plyametrics," Keith acknowledged. "I noticed improvements on the ice right after just a week with Rob. It was like I had gained an extra step or two that I didn't have before.

"The same was true when I went Michigan State and Ron Mason taught me about systems and being responsible at both ends of the rink. Then, when I went to Norfolk (American Hockey League) and played for (former NHL defenseman) Trent Yawney, he really taught me how to play the position -- the responsibilities I had in my own zone, how to match up with a speedy forward or a power forward and win the one-on-one battle. I'll never forget how nice it was to have somebody at that point in my career willing to take the time to teach me how to be better."

"He's got great skills. The kind you can't teach," remembered Mason.

After Keith began to play on defense full-time, he switched his idols from Kariya and Bure to a mix of three of the greatest defensemen of the last few decades -- Bobby Orr, Brian Leetch and Nicklas Lidstrom.

"I've watched old tapes of Orr and, well, everything he did on defense, plus I liked how Leetch jumped up and anticipated the play to get open for a shooting lane or pass. And how can you not like Lidstrom's calm on the ice and the way he controls the play," Duncan explained. "Right now, I'd say I'm more of a puck-control defenseman. I'd rather try to make a pass and break it out, then go on the rush."

Talent like that is worth a trip around the world, similar to the one Keith's parents simultaneously took years ago, when his Canadian father and English-born mother met for the first time in —- of all places —- Yugoslavia.

"With that speed, he was always a player we talked about in our pre-game meeting -- making sure our guys were aware at how quickly he could jump up into the play and create a scoring chance," said Joel Quenneville, the new Blackhawks coach remembering how he'd have to game-plan against Keith when Joel was coaching the Colorado Avalanche.

Duncan Keith was the best defensemen in the NHL in 2010 -- and he won the Stanley Cup that year, too.

When he talks people usually listen. They'll have to if they want to continue on in this year's playoffs.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Thornton has only one award in mind -- Stanley Cup

By Larry Wigge

Joe Thornton wants what 22 members of the Los Angeles Kings enjoyed just last spring -- an opportunity to play for and win the Stanley Cup.

The San Jose Sharks' big center has been the No. 1 overall pick in the National Hockey League in the 1997 Entry Draft, he's led the NHL in scoring with 125 points combined in Boston and San Jose in 2005-06 and he won the Hart Trophy as the league's Most Valuable Player that same year. Thornton was a part of the 2010 gold-medal winning Olympic Team. But ...

The 6-4, 225-pound center doesn't want any individual awards. He has plenty of them. He wants to lift the Cup in celebration for everyone to see. Fans of his and his critics, who have judged him as lazy, not one of those players who will do anything to win.

"The Hart Trophy (NHL MVP for '05-06) is on the mantle in my dad's house in St. Thomas, Ontario," Thornton said. "I'm more interested in the big trophy. The Stanley Cup is all about sacrifices to be a winning team. That's my goal."

This is the Thorntnon's eighth season in San Jose and though the Sharks have had 99, 107, 108 and a league-high 117 points in 2008-09 as well as 113 and 105 points the next two seasons, they have yet to get out of the second round of the playoffs. And that's Thornton's biggest concern.

"In the past, we've had good teams here ... but we were always looking too far ahead," Thornton explained. "Successful teams work their tails off in the regular season to be ready for what's coming. That's been our mindset here. Each day we go over how we can be ready. How we can be better?"

Call it one small step for San Jose and one giant leap for the Stanley Cup theory, OK?

Thornton proved a good fit with the Sharks from the beginning. It's no coincidence that San Jose has posted an incomparable mark since acquiring Thornton from Boston in a November 30, 2005 trade.

"I felt it was important to build a team around him," GM Doug Wilson explained. "Steve Yzerman didn’t win until his 12th year. It's a team game built around your difference makers."

Smart. Strong. Deceptive with the puck. Jumbo Joe is a great passer and a force every time he's on the ice.

"All I know is the only time you know he's not going to hurt you is when you see him physically sitting on the bench," St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said late in the season. "He's just so big and skilled with the puck. He's got so much stamina that he can beat you in the first 10 seconds of a shift or the last 15 seconds. That's how much of a threat he is out there."

The only numbers the 33-year-old center is concerned with now is the 16 wins in the playoffs it takes to win the Cup. And, to date, the Sharks are two wins short of making it the conference finals.

All they have to do is rally to beat the Kings, who have a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference Semifinal Series.

Since Joe became the captain of the Sharks prior to the 2010-11 season, he has taken it upon himself to be the heart-and-soul leader.

"As far as leadership goes, the older you get the more comfortable you feel in your skin," said Thornton. "Leadership comes a little bit easier with age."

He still led the Sharks with 40 points in 48 games. But he is averaging a point-per-game pace in the playoffs -- nine points on one goal and eight assists.

Thornton had three assists in Game 4 vs. Vancouver in the first round of the playoffs on May 7.

"Jumbo's play has been essential moving forward," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "We're focused on playoffs right now, but our playoffs started a month and a half ago, just to get in and compete ... and he led that resurgence as well.

"Jumbo's very accepting of what we want to accomplish as a team. He puts himself second and the team first."

Thornton’s leadership and three-zone play powered a late-season surge, which included a seven-game winning streak. San Jose was able to secure the sixth seed in the West. 

King coach Darryl Sutter says Thornton's been a handful, "Everybody played against Thornton tonight (Game 4). He's a handful ... everybody has to."

For the first eight games of the playoffs, Joe Thornton has produced an eye-popping statistic -- he was on the ice for the Sharks 17 goals for and only one against.

The defending champions last years were able to minimize the impact of the top players on the opposition.

"Joe Thornton is a little more of a dynamic player than we played in the first round, no knock on St. Louis," Kings defenseman Rod Scuderi said. "That's just the type of player he is. He's big. He's tough to get the puck away from.

"When you limit his options, he seems to find another way out. If we're going to win this series, it's up to us to try to box him in and minimize his input."

"He's our leader for a reason," said forward Brent Burns, who scored the game's first goal in the first period on a pass from Thornton. "It's awesome to play with him when he's playing like that. It's a lot of fun."

Thornton started the game like he was shot from a cannon ... and kept the pace through most of the game.

"Joe was dominant tonight," Sharks center Logan Couture said. "That was vintage Joe Thornton. Unbelievable -- creating turnovers, making passes, skating. Skating like a young guy. He was flying. Me personally, got me going. We need Joe to play like that for the rest of the playoffs."

Said McLellan, "He can be a very dominant man when he's playing hard and strong through the middle of the ice going to the net. It was as simple as saying, 'Look what happens when you do this and when you do that. Which player do you want to be?'

"Joe was a little too predictable in my opinion. He was stationary and everything ran through him. Now we have movement around the ice in other areas and that makes a big difference."

With each game that goes by Joe Thornton is getting closer to that one big award -- the Stanley Cup.

True leader Toews is thinking about defining moment

By Larry Wigge

That defining moment is nearly at hand.

It is for Jonathan Toews ... and the Chicago Blackhawks against their most heated rival the Detroit Red Wings, who they are down 3-1 in their Western Conference Semifinal Series.

Four years ago in a hotel room in Detroit, Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews showed his age. He wanted to show his leadership, but he couldn't.

The 22-year-old center from Winnipeg, Manitoba, was too young and inexperienced to put on the defining moment, he knew the Blackhawks needed from him down 3-1 in the series against the Red Wings.

Toews wanted to put the Blackhawks on his shoulders and beat back the defending champion Red Wings. Every fiber of his soul, told you so. But his time simply hadn't come.

Toews said, "You look at the great players who have worn the 'C' and there's always a defining moment. For me, this is definitely the toughest time as captain. The biggest game coming up."

Mark Messier, Scott Stevens, Steve Yzerman and Mario Lemieux were names of famous captains that came to mind. All of them would not back away from a defining moment.

"Reality sinks in, you're not in dreamland anymore," Toews told me before Game 4. "You've got to earn every point and every chance. It's not easy.

"But it's not all on my shoulders. We're a young bunch ... with great goals."

From the time he left the University of North Dakota campus after his sophomore year, he was a 19-year-old with a 30-year-old's confidence and maturity.

"He’s a lot like Rod Brind’Amour," Former Calgary Flames GM Craig Button told me before the 2006 NHL Entry Draft in which Toews went third behind defenseman Erik Johnson and center Jordan Staal, who went to St. Louis and Pittsburgh, respectively. "There's no part of the game he can't compete in. He just does everything well. But what makes him so special to me is that I have never seen him give up on a single play ... and, believe me, that kind of attitude rubs off on everyone around him."

Added Rick Dudley, special assistant in Montreal, "He's one of those rare players, the kind of guy you see out there busting his butt play after play. If you're a teammate, you have to say; 'I'd better get my (butt) in gear.' "

But being such a young captain -- that's the tough spot that even Sidney Crosby discovered against the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Finals a year ago. There's always more you can give.

In 2010, he wouldn't let it go an go. He put the whole Chicago Blackhawks on his shoulder and led them to their first Stanley Cup since 1961. Forty-nine years had past since the Blackawks had lifted the Cup in victory.

You learn from the diversity you face -- and you grow from it. Toews has stepped up to show all the experts, that he has grown into the captains 'C'.

Watching and learning is something Jonathan Toews has been good at since he was a kid.

"I remember taking Jonathan to his first NHL game when he was 4-years-old. You know how kids are at that age, they lose their attention span after a few minutes and want to do something else. But Jonathan didn't even want a treat when I offered to buy him a pop or hot dog. He said, 'Dad, all I want to do is watch the game,' " Bryan Toews, Jonathan's proud dad said proudly in a phone conversation a while back. "When it comes to hockey, he’s always been driven and determined and very, very smart. He gets that from his mom."

Bryan Toews is from farming stock in rural Manitoba and now works as an electrician for the University of Manitoba. Jonathan's mom, Andree-Gilbert, is from Quebec, where she studied to become the managing director and finance expert for a large credit union in the Winnipeg region. She's smart and she is particularly proud of the work she has done in French relations in the Manitoba area for the bank.

It's been quite a quantum leap from getting his first stick when he was 2-years-old and stickhandling a tin of petroleum jelly around the house without a misstep. He got his first pair of skates when he was 3 and was an instant whiz on the ice.

"Jonathan could see things you'd show him and then go right out there and do them better than I'd describe them," his dad laughed. "I remember I had him on the lake when he was four. He had such a natural stride. I remember several parents coming up to me and asking, ‘How old is that kid?' "

Jonathan maintains that he wasn't so natural.

"I never was one of the biggest kids, but I kind of found myself thinking of ways in my mind to beat them," he said. "I'd use my skating, my stickhandling, my wits to visualize ways to win."
Toews has had to visualize ways to win, down 3-1 to Detroit.

The curious thing about it is that he takes every game, every shift, as a learning experience with him.

"We're slowly getting better and better," Toews started out. "It's not like it's just happened all at once. You saw a slow, steady improvement over the season. I think you're seeing it right now as the playoffs have come along. We spent a lot of time with each other on the road. We're having fun playing hockey, whether it's hanging out in the hotel or going for dinner. 
"We've done a lot of bonding as a team and it's showing on the ice -- even since last year's conference finals against Detroit. We're having fun. We understand what makes us successful as a team, that one guy can't get off his game or else we're not going to win that way. We're slowly getting better. But we're still working to that next level."

Still cautious to accept all accolades -- that have been coming the last two ... or three years.

"I've been asked a lot of questions like that just because I've been in on a lot of goals, whether it's a power-play or five-on-five," Toews said, without admitting any special about his game. "Again, just things seem to have really clicked around the net. I don't think I've changed that much from the regular season.

"Obviously, you raise your play at both ends of the rink. You try and play the right way. But just when you feel really confident, things click, pucks will go in. That's the way it's been right now. 

"But, you know, you got to understand as a player that you stick with what works and you work hard for that success. Just haven't taken shortcuts. Haven't changed my game. It's continued to go that way. So hopefully I'll keep scoring goals and contributing that way because it's a lot of fun when it's working that way." 

Detroit's Dan Cleary saw it ... in Toews. 

"You can see it," Detroit forward Dan Cleary said a while back. "With the Blackhawks, it Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.

"They hang out together. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrooke are the same for them on defense."

He paused for a minute. Then continued his thought.

"Toews and Kane are a lot like Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk." Cleary continued. "They are the Blackhawks two best players. Like Henrik and Pav, NO ONE works any harder than them. It's easy for the rest of the team to follow them."

Fast forward to 2013. Red Wings and Blackhawks meeting in the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

A lot of players have come and gone on the Detroit and Chicago rosters. But ...

The Blackhawks finished the season with a 36-7-5 record, best in the NHL. They had gone the Blackhawks holds the second longest NHL record for most consecutive games earning a point at 30 games (24–0–6). But ...

In the second round of the playoffs, they were facing their bitterest rival the Red Wings. Detroit didn't seem to be a match for Chicago. The Blackhawks were the first seed and the Wings were the seventh with a regular-season record of 24-16-8, just qualified for the playoffs on the last weekend of the season.

Toews laughed at checking into a Chicago hotel and ...

"Playing Mario Brothers all night long on the computer," the strong and rugged center said. "It could be one solution."
But this time, there was no time for fun.

Toews, the captain who had won the Stanley Cup in 2010, had few answers. Down, three games to one, in the Western Conference Semifinal Series.

"What's there to be down about?" Toews said. "Obviously, we're not where we want to be in the series, but dwelling on that and feeling sorry for ourselves isn't going to do anything."

Never has the one game at a time cliche been so apt.

"You've got to think about winning," Toews said, who reminded that the Blackhawks had won the Cup in 2010. They had learned to win. They had cleared the obstacle from the past.

Winning is the only thing.

"That's the only thing that should be on our mind," continued Toews. "Everything's got to be positive. You can't be thinking what-ifs. If you have anything like that cross your mind, Detroit's too good of a team. We're not thinking about that at all."

While Toews' job is obviously one of the safest in all of sports, the captain has been shouldering much of the criticism this series. The 2010 Conn Smythe Trophy winner has no goals and three assists in nine games this postseason. He's actually played quite well and has generated some quality chances the last two games. In fact, the Hawks have put together two strong efforts. Detroit's simply been better.

"We need him, he's the best player on the team ... and our leader," teammate Brent Seabrooke said. "And you know, if the rest of the group sees him like that it’s going to trickle down, so we need him to be focused and ready ... and I just told him to sit down and take a couple of deep breaths and be ready to be back out there. We need him.”

Said Hawks coach Joel Quenneville: "He's a true leader and he's everything that represents our organization in the right fashion. You couldn't ask for a better captain or a better competitor than Johnny."

Toews has been largely unable to shake free of the pestering presence of Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg, though Quenneville should be able to make that happen with the last line change at home in Game 5 Saturday night.

"I'm not as worried about him as maybe you guys think I should be," Toews said. "He's a good player, he's doing a good job of playing smart defensive hockey. But you know, it doesn't mean I'm not getting chances and not getting to the net. Those chances are coming and at some point they have to go in."

That's what he's telling himself, anyway.

In the meantime, the Hawks are trying to invoke the ghosts of comebacks past, notably the 2011 series against the Vancouver Canucks, when they were down 3-0 and rebounded to force Game 7 and only lost on Alex Burrows’s overtime goal.

"It just goes to show that things like that are possible, that we were very, very close to winning that series," Toews said, "and I'm sure Detroit knows and we know that this series is a long way from being over."

Jonathan Toews has been there before ... and survived.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Muskegon's own. Abdelkaer rising fast for Detroit

By Larry Wigge

His name was nowhere on the scoresheet ... yet Justin Abdelkader was perhaps the most prominent players in the game.

The seventh-seeded Detroit Red Wings won 2-0 over the Chicago Black Hawks, who had the best record in the NHL, to take a commanding 3-1 lead in their Western Conference Semifinal series.

Defenseman Jakub Kindl's shot from the blue line on a power play at 10:03 of the second  period broke a scoreless tie.

"Biggest goal of my life so far," said defenseman Jakub Kindl. "There's not a lot of time out there so when I got it. When the defenseman went down to one knee, I went short side.

"There was a great screen by Abdelkader and the goalie never could see it."

That play kind of has a strange ring to it. Oh, I know why. Detroit's Tomas Holmstrom used to make a living by screening the opposition goal -- often tipping shots in.

But Ablekader, who stands 6-2, 215-pounds, is one of the fastest players in NHL. He can do things with his shot, with his hits and ... with his body.

Recently, the Muskegon, Mich., native, was put on the Red Wings top line -- with Henrik Zetterberg and Danny Cleary. Sometimes, Abdelkader has been out there with Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. 

"Abby did a great job for us," Zetterberg said. "He skates well. He's really physical. He makes room for me and Pav. Tonight, he had a lot of energy (he missed the last two games because he had a suspension for hitting Anaheim's Toni Lydman) and it was nice to see."

Pretty heady company for the 26-year-old former Michigan State player, who came into the game with only 10 goals and three assists to his credit during the regular season. Heck, Abdelkader only had 18 goals in his 209 game career entering this season.

Hmmm? What gives.

In 16 minutes, 31 seconds of Game 4, Abdelkader has two shots on goal but a game-high five hits.

In Game 7 of the first round of the playoffs against the Anaheim Ducks, Abdelkader's shorthanded breakaway goal broke a 1-1 tie en route to a 3-2 victory. 

Big goals? Abdelkader scored the winning goal for Michigan State in the 2007 national championship game.

Aha, the legend of Justin Abdelkader continues to grow.

From zero goals in the four regular-season games over the last two years and no goals in his first seven playoff games leading into the Stanley Cup Final, where his two goals currently is more than Penguins stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin combined and he became the first rookie to score in consecutive Cup Finals games since Minnesota's Dino Ciccarelli in 1981.

"I've said this guy is a player you're going to talk about for a long time," coach Mike Babcock. "He's going to be a physical force in the league forechecking and he's going to have enough hands to be around the net and play with the good players and he's going to be a net presence."

And to top that off, Abdelkader was pretty confident his Mother's Day gift would be able to top his dad's.

That was even before he made his playoff debut for the Red Wings.

As if tickets to the game weren't enough, Abdelkader went out and recorded an assist in the Red Wings' 4-1 victory against the Anaheim Ducks in Game 5 at Joe Louis Arena.

Abdelkader wasn't sure what his dad, Joe, ended up giving his mom, Sheryl, but his first NHL point immediately trumped all previous Mother's Day gifts over the years.

Joe Abdelkader is a school teacher and Sheryl is a nurse. Honest beginnings. His first piece of sports memorabilia is a Red Wings jersey and his favorite player was naturally Steve Yzerman.

The Abdelkader's were there in front of the TV set for Justin's first goal -- sort of.

"We both kind of nodded off between periods," Joe Abdelkader said. "Then, I woke up and said, 'Sheryl, he has the puck.' And, then he shot and scored. We both jumped so high we almost touched the ceiling."

People were talking about Abdelkader ...

Like Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma. He was telling a gaggle of reporters at the 2009 Stanley Cup finals that he also grew up in Muskegon and was one of the first players from that area to make it to the NHL, but ...

"I never had a billboard in Western Michigan, Justin did," Bylsma said with a little tough of jealousy in his voice. "I don't know if he still does. But I was fully aware of this kid from Michigan growing up. 

"I remember seeing the billboard and I was a little jealous I never got one -- not that I'm a billboard type of guy. But he got it."

As it turns out the billboard in Muskegon wasn't for Justin's play at Mona Shores High School, where he was Michigan's Mr. Hockey in 2004 when 37 goals and 43 assists in 28 games. But rather it was a billboard for a knee injury he had in high school and the rehab he had afterward.

"The billboard was for a physical therapy unit that helped me with my rehab after knee scope when I was in high school," Abdelkader said a little embarrassed to know that the whole world now knows of this billboard he thought he had lived down before he got to Michigan State, where NCAA rules said the sign had to come down and no prohibited him from being involved in any sort of advertisement. "It was weird, actually. I had surgery, worked on getting my knee back in shape and there I am splattered all over a billboard, showing my knee and how I could now do things I couldn't when I injured the knee."

Bylsma's jealously aside, he is proud of this Muskegon kid, who went on to go to Michigan State University, was selected in the second round, 42nd overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft by the Red Wings. He went on to score the winning goal with 18.9 seconds left in the NCAA championship against Boston College in 2007. And now, more publicity against another Muskegon native.

"Even when he was young, I followed his career, even though I had not met him," Bylsma said. "Then when he went on to Michigan State and I remember hearing talk about where he was going to rank as a pro. I was fully aware of him, though I never got a chance to meet him until this year in Grand Rapids, where I met his family."

So, Dan what do you think of Justin's play so far against your team?

Added Bylsma, "When your team plays well enough and you have a great team concept, you give everybody a chance to put on the cape on any given night. Unfortunately for us he's been wearing it for two games here."

In Game 4, Detroit's Jimmy Howard got the 2-0 shutout over Chicago. Howard is a big fan of Abdelkader. 

"Abby, he's a very hard worker. He stays out after practice working on that sort of stuff with the goalies and it paid off for him," Howard said. "He's playing great and that's what you need in the playoffs. He's definitely right there for us. It's great to see. He's been our back-stopper all year so we expect nothing less."

So far, Justin Abdelkader learns fast. You couldn't tell that from the billboard.

Big game. Another big goal for Chris Kreider

By Larry Wigge
Why not me?

Chris Kreider sat in the New York Rangers locker room wondering, "Why not me?"

The 22-year-old Boxford, Mass., native, said every one of his teammates wanted to be the hero.

So there he was, going for the net. Kreider said he didn't have to holler at teammate Rick Nash. He was fighting off Boston defender Doug Hamilton, when he put his stick down strong on the ice and Nash's pass found it. Right on the tape for a deflection high into the net behind Tukka Rask for the winner ... 7:03 into sudden death for a 4-3 victory over the Bruins to stave off elimination in the Eastern Conference Semifinal Series.

"It was an unbelievable pass," Kreider explained. "He just laid it on my tape. I probably could've closed my eyes and it would've found my tape ...."

He paused for a minute. Breathed a sigh of relief, before finishing his thought.

"It is so surreal. It's not something that can really be explained, it's something that just has to be felt," he said of the bang, bang play that put an end to the game. "I think everyone wants to give their team an opportunity to play another game.

"There definitely is NO quit in this room."

Said coach John Tortorella, half-joking, "I'm so happy for Krieds. You guys have been kicking my ass about not playing him more all year."

Kreider had come right off the Boston College campus to score five goals in 18 playoff game for the Rangers last year. But, well, he came out of Tortorella's doghouse -- he had just two goals and one assists in 23 games -- to maybe get the coach's attention with his work ethic.

What you want most in a hockey prospect is a pedigree. How is his hockey IQ? Does he bring along all the intangibles -- hard work and drive and passion? Does he play and act like a winner?

The Rangers drafted Kreider in the first round, 19th overall, in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Amid plenty of hype. Why not. He's a 6-3, 217-pound left winger, every team is looking for a good power forward.

Twice in has last three seasons at BC, Kreider helped the Eagles celebrate national championships. He scored a goal in the 2010 NCAA title game for BC as they defeated the University of Wisconsin. He also scored six goals for the gold medal winning United States World Junior Championship team in 2010. Kreider was chosen to represent the United States once again at the 2011 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships, and led the team with four goals in six games as the USA won the bronze medal. Two of his goals were scored in the bronze medal game, and he was named the USA's best player for that game.

Ironically, he took the pass from Rick Nash -- many Rangers fans thought the team would have to give up Krieder in a package for Nash while he was still with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Now, the Rangers have them both.

In Game 6 last year, even though Kreider against the Ottawa Senators, he scored the game-winner -- on a wrist shot from the left circle -- in a 3-2 victory.

"He has no fear. That's what I like about him," Tortorella said. "The biggest thing is his mindset. He's not here to test the waters. He's here to make a difference."

Pressure packed games made of a youngster like Kreider.

Winger Derek Stepan echoed that.

"He's got great legs. That's what makes Chris effective," he said. "He skates onto pucks and he creates loose pucks. He did it all night for us."

If he's looking to overcome an obstacle, Kreider grew six inches between his 9th and 10th grade seasons. That growth sport, took a smaller and yet competitive to the prime size as well. 

Like most of those career-born players -- self-made players with the proper upbringing.

At the back of Dave and Kathy Kreider's garage in Boxboro, Mass., you can find any gadget available to a young boys heart. There's a pitchback screen, a lacrosse net and a soccer goal nestled in the corner.

Yes, there's also a well-worn hockey net, one that has been battered so much that the top crossbar is warped. 

"I can tell him where to shoot it," said Kathy. "Chris would hit it exactly where I ask him to every time."

His parents can see their son practicing his trade -- whatever the sport it may be.

Goal! Goal! Goal!

Each blast that has left a reminder on that crossbar or one of the posts -- not to mention the thousands he's driven into the twine of that same net.

At the scouting combine in Toronto, he laughed at all the tests -- hardly what Kreider expected a hockey player to do.

"And you do it all with a smile on your face; it's a little like the Miss America Pageant," he said with a chuckle.

Chris will never forget his love of soccer, football, baseball, lacrosse, tennis, golf, volleyball.

"But those are just games. Hockey's a sport," Kreider said.

We won't argue the virtues of the other sports. Chris made his choice -- and hockey was it. It has created the pedigree we talked about earlier at Boston College, United States team in the World Junior and now the New York Rangers.

For Chris Kreider, the self-motivated, career-born player, he's starred against older, stronger competition at every turn by challenging himself.

He's still challenging himself, wanting to get out of his coach's doghouse.

Maybe this will do it.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Trying to inside the head of Johnathan Quick

By Larry Wigge

He is SO good ... that Jonathan Quick won 16 games out of 20 starts last year to lead the Los Angeles Kings to the Stanley Cup.

In this year's lockout-shortened season season, the Milford, Ct., native, managed only 18 wins in 37 starts. He was, of course, coming off back surgery, but his record was there for all to see.

Only ...

Halfway through the second round of this year's playoffs, Quick showed everyone who was watching that his brilliance was still there. He posted a 1.61 goals-against average plus a .949 save percentage -- comparables to last year's stats -- plus had six wins and 2 shutouts.

But, this year he is having the answer questions about his being too competitive, too exact, too this or too that. That is about being too perfect.

Some say there is a little bit of Ron Hextall living in the body of the  Kings goalie.

Quick waved his stick and verbally went after both referees after the Kings lost, 2-1, in overtime to the Sharks in Game 3 of their Western Conference semifinal series at San Jose on Saturday night. He received a game misconduct for his actions but escaped supplementary discipline from the NHL.

Some question whether or not the Sharks are getting into Quick's head ... and into his kitchen -- goal crease. That is some that they couldn't do last year.

"That's part of being on a good team and looked on as the best player and looked on as a top goalie," said coach Darryl Sutter. "That's exactly what they're doing (with contact) and we saw it the last series with two or three of their players.

"We see it all the time. But  have to learn to manage it, because it can't become a distraction to your game. He's fine. He's good today."

Kings center Anze Kopitar didn't seem overly surprised by the Game 3 tirade.

"He's a passionate guy," Kopitar said. "Emotions are flying high and it burst up a little bit. He probably crossed the line a little bit. But it just shows the guy cares. You want to have a guy like that in your net, on your team.

"He's a guy — he gets fired up when he's not happy. It is what it is and now we've got to move past that for Game 4."

Quick response, "You're just playing in the moment."

There are chinks in the nearly impregnable armor -- in the first round St. Louis Alexander Steen stole the puck from Quick behind the net and scored the winning goal and defenseman Barret Jackman fired what appeared to be a soft shot past him in Game 2.

But Quick responded in like fashion to put together four straight wins against St. Louis and two consecutive wins to start the San Jose series.

The stats prove that he is every bit as good. It's kind of like Tiger Woods at the PGA Championship. But, you're rated on one weeks body of work ... and it isn't the Cup Finals yet.

"You're never really concerned about him to be quite honest," said Sutter.

Kings captain Dustin Brown laughed when he was asked about Quick's performance after the game. He has become accustomed to seeing Quick save the Kings time after time over the past two seasons.

"He's been our MVP for the last couple of years and tonight he was our player," Brown said. "That's Quickie being Quickie. You guys should be used to it by now."

Quick is an enigma wrapped in a riddle. He is short ... with inquisitors after a game. No small talk -- just the facts.

I remember speaking to GM Dean Lombardi, Hextall and goalie coach Bill Ranford about Quick and his intricacies, oddities or foibles and how the Kings have dealt with them since he was drafted in the fourth round, 72nd overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.

Lombardi's attitude raves and yet shakes his head in confusion the first time he saw goalie Jonathan Quick up close and personal.

"I'll never forget, he was really athletic, really competitive," Lombardi explained. "But when we got down to the locker room, we noticed his shoes were undone and he was only halfway dressed. I asked him how he thought he played."

Said Quick, "He said I got the 'W.' "

He got the 'W.'

"It was as simple as that. I'll never forget," recalled Lombardi. "He said, 'I got the 'W' with that Connecticut accent on the 'W.'

"He had a long process to become a pro. But he didn't work ... and his technique was raw."

Still, there was something the Kings GM liked about the goalie from Milford, Connecticut.

Little did he know then that Quick would post 39, 35 and 35 victories during a period of three season from 2009-10 through 2011-12. 

Jonathan brought steady and solid and then put up an amazing run of 16-4 to the Kings in their amazing Stanley Cup run, beating No. 1 ranked Vancouver, No. 2 ranked St. Louis and No. 3 ranked Phoenix. He had sparking stats -- 1.41 goals-against average and a .946 save percentage in the postseason. Quick even set NHL records for goalies who played at least 15 postseason games. Quick's stats slid under Chris Osgood's 1.51 GAA for Detroit in 2008 and Jean-Sebastien Giguere's .945 save percentage for Anaheim in 2003.

In the process, he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the NHL playoffs MVP.

"The biggest problem in my six years is we've had some pretty good teams here but we have no goalie," admitted captain Brown. "You build your team from the goalie out. You can have a good team and an average goaltender and you become an average team because hockey is a game of mistakes and there are going to be Grade A scoring opportunities. And if you don't have a goalie who can make those saves, you're not going to be able to advance as a team and an organization."

Said center Jarret Stoll, "He works so hard to find pucks. Maybe you think, 'How the heck did see that puck? How did he find that thing?' He's all over the net. You watch him on replays when the iso-cam's on him and he's constantly moving and his legs are so strong. He's so flexible, so athletic that he can get into so many positions in that crease and make saves.

"We've seen it time and time again where he can come up with these saves and calm our team down, keep the game 0-0, keep the game 1-0 for us, whatever the case may be. He does it game-in and game-out. That's the other thing that's surprising -- the consistency he has in his game. There's no valleys, there's no dips in his game.

"He's playing on another planet."

An 8-year-old Jonathan Quick was perhaps the most nervous boy in Connecticut in June 1994, at home on his parents' couch watching Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup Final between the New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks.

Quick's favorite player was goaltender Mike Richter, who carried the Rangers to their first championship in 54 years on the strength of the best regular season of his career that he managed to improve upon for four rounds of the postseason.

"I grew up a Rangers fan, so I saw a lot of them," Quick said. "He was very competitive, very explosive. He competes, he battles. I just remember I was more nervous back then ..."

Doug and Lisa Quick gave birth a solid citizen. Doug, a route salesman for Entenmann's bakery and does construction work on the side, knows the value of hard work. 

Hard work and an attitude adjustment were necessary to build the goaltender we know as Quickie. Jonathan was a third-round pick, 72nd overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. Drafted by Dave Taylor and left to Lombardi. Quick led Avon Old Farms to consecutive New England prep school championships in his last two years of high school, compiling a 45-3 record. In two years at the University of Massachusetts-Amerst, he took to within of the Final Four -- losing to the University of Maine.  

Lombardi recalled a saying that goaltending guru Warren Strelow told him when they were both in San Jose, whether it was with Miikka Kiprusoff or Evgeni Nabokov.

"Warren would say, 'Don't try to evaluate Quick. With goalies ... you never know.' So much is (pointing to the head). That's why you see so many first- and second-round picks that don't pan out." 

So, Lombardi left the analysis to his goaltending experts. But, still, he said, "Every year, he was always a great competitor, always a great athlete -- probably our best athlete on the conditioning chart. He's got that -- you could see right away -- that swagger. Got a little Hexy in him.

"Jonathan's a maverick. He's a real battler."

Hextall was there at watching the Manchester farm club with Lombardi in the 2007-08 season.

"Stylistically, he had lots of work to do," Hextall remembered. "He was very clean, but you could see the holes ... and we could see the upside. Allowed him to be the athletic goalie that he is. But ..."

During that 2007-08 season, Quick was guilty of sleeping in instead of meeting with Kim Dillabough, who was being sent to Manchester to work with Jonathan. Hextall and Ranford let the young goaltender that would never happen again. They also demoted Quick to Reading of the East Coast Hockey League as a consequence of the sleep-in.   

"I learned a lot. I played a lot of games down there and saw a lot of pucks and kind of got an understanding for the professional level," said Quick. "Maybe I wasn't too happy to go down at first, but looking back at it I learned a lot down there and it helped my game."

Hextall said that Quick needed to learn to become a pro.

Said Ranford, "He was very athletic. Pure atheleticism. Cleaning up the technical side of his game and utilizying the athletic skill as a plus.

"He's a real student of the game. He's special that way, in that you can talk about things in the morning and he'll be trying it that night.

"He showed great athletic ability and flexibility. Strong legs."

Quick's style includes elements of the traditional stand-up approach, which relies on reflexes; a hint of butterflying, which relies on positioning; and one wrinkle -- in which he puts the paddle of the goal stick flat across the crease to take away the low shot. Quick can do the latter because of his leg strength -- a speedy post-to-post leg push.

"That flexibility and leg strength is what is key to me," coach Darryl Sutter said. "He reminds me of Miikka Kiprusoff. So good on all shots along the ice ... plus he's got a crab-like quality of getting to the high shots, too.

"What he is best at is being a teammate, fitting in with the team -- not somewhere else like a loner."
There's a lot beneath and behind the mask of Jonathan Quick. He keeps his answers short. He refuses to look at the historical context. He says all he cares about is the next game, nothing else. "I feel I've tried to give my team a chance to get the 'W' every night," he said. "I think from a goalie's standpoint, that's your job."

That's it. That's Quick. 

"He never quits on a puck," said St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock. "He's like an old-school goalie. He reminds me a little bit of Marty Brodeur, because he just never quits on a puck."

About his own evolution, Quick shrugged: "It's just kind of a natural progression that everyone goes through. You pick up experience, and two more years of coaching at this level pays dividends. It's just a natural progression."

According to Ranford, "He used to use his athletic ability on every save versus just using it when needed. I think that's where his game has evolved the most.

"It's kind of the pot calling the kettle black myself, but I learned as I went along that you have to utilize (athleticism) as a tool, not your toolbox. That is the best analogy for him. He needed to get more tools to create a toolbox ... and then this athletic ability that he has, he could utilize it when needed as opposed to using it on every save."

The evolution of Jonathan Quick is a goaltender with swagger. The more success he gets, the better he becomes. And the more the opposition tries to get inside his head.