Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Blues Brian Elliott out to juggle his way in playoffs

By Larry Wigge

Brian Elliott was sitting or standing in a catbird seat.

Meaning he was in an enviable position ... a controlling position ... a position of great prominence or advantage.

It was Game 7 of the Chicago-St. Louis series. Just imagine how emotional position ... now multiply it by 1,000 times. Put yourself in the goal crease. Every stop. Every save. Counts for so much at either end of the rink.

There were probably more, but we can count two times during the final 20 minutes of play in the Blues 3-2 victory, where Elliott can show you the emotions running wild in the third period.

"It's quite emotional," Elliott explained. "Playing a team like that for seven games, you get to know every player on that Chicago team really well."

It's more than just Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford.

Say Elliott, "When it gets down to 3-2-1 ... and the crowd goes crazy, it's a great feeling."

Catbird seat.

"It's definitely a different feeling," continued Elliott, after making 31 saves. "You're not packing your bags the next day and losing your season in one instant.

"It's a good feeling to know there's another day. We have to play for that day. One at a time. I think our guys have a good belief and work ethic to know that once we stick to our game plan we can beat anybody."

We said two plays in that third period were multiplied. Troy Brower's game-winning goal ... and Seabrook's shot from the point through bodies that not only hit the left goalpost, but the right goalpost as well and spun to the goal crease -- only to be swept aside by St. Louis defenseman Alex Pietrangelo.

"When knew it all year, all year long we knew that our third periods were our best," Elliott said. "We came back in a lot of games. We tied up a lot of games."

On this night, going into the third period the game was tied 2-2 until Brouwer struck at 8:31.

The goal was Brouwer's first in 24 playoff games.

"That was the ugliest goal I've ever scored ... and probably the most timely goal I've ever scored," said Brouwer, who played for the Blackhawks from 2006-11. "I might quit hockey ... if I hadn't scored."

Brouwer actually kicked the puck off the goalpost during the stretch of trying to knock the puck into the Chicago net.

"I just tried to stay with it," Brouwer said of taking two swipes at the puck.

Take it back to the catbird seat ... and Elliott down at the other end of the ice.

"Yeah. It was such a good play, Robbie Fabbri created the turnover at center ice," Elliott repeated. "Then, Paul Stastny had the puck along the wall. He had the patience to look for Brou on the backdoor. And Fabbri having enough patience to look for Brou in front.

"I didn't really see it go in. I saw Brouw kind of taking a swipe at it. I was just kind of hoping he didn't kick it in. When I saw Brouw's reaction, I kind of leaped in the air."

But there was more emotional time. Like with 3:30 to go and the puck on Seabrook's stick.

"It kind of just saw the puck at the point. They were a lot of bodies in front," Elliott continued. "Obviously, I knew Seabrook was trying to shoot for that side. But, I just didn't see the release and kind of picked it up at the last second.

"They say the goal posts are your best friends ... well, in this case they were ... until Petro came in and saved the day, sweeping it away. It was huge."

Said Pietrangelo, "I just got back as quick as I could. I got it at the last second. A half a second later and it's in our net."

To beat the odds ... Elliott got the Blues out of the first-round of the playoffs since 2012 and they beat Chicago in the playoffs for the first time since 2002 when Brent Johnson zeroed in on the Blackhawks for three straight shutouts.

For Elliott, his unlikely position in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft ... 291st in the ninth round by the Ottawa Senators. Ups and down during his career ... like winning the NCAA championship at the University of Wisconsin in 2006.

The Newmarket, Ontario, native, never really made a name for himself at Ottawa, always battling one goaltender or another for the top job there. Then, he was traded to Colorado for goaltender Craig Anderson and another downer.

It was not until July 1, 2011 that he was signed as a free agent by the Blues that he could finally see hope.

But then, there was Jaroslav Halak and a trade for Ryan Miller. Then, low and behold, Elliott still had to watch young Jake Allen get the starting nod in the playoffs in 2015.

Vindication after being passed over time after time when the playoffs came around.

"It's hard to put into words what that means when it comes together on your side," Elliott said. "I'm really proud of our guys to go into a third period tied against a team that's done it and come out on top like we did."

"So much of goaltending is confidence," he continued. "I've worked hard, so I feel I’ve earned that confidence and I belong here. My mindset that I'm now 31 years old -- I don't feel like I'm 31."

Elliott has been more than just a steadying force in goal for the Blues this season. He compiled a 23-8-6 record, led the NHL in save percentage (.930) and was second in goals-against average (2.06). included in that was a streak of 18 straight games, posting a 12-3-2 record with a 1.91 GAA.

After allowing just four goals in the first three games, Elliott has allowed three, then four and now five goals in a game -- 12 in the last three contests -- and has a save percentage of just .893 in Games 4-6. His record in the playoffs coming into this season was 6-10.

Marty Brodeur, now the Blues assistant GM, likes Elliott's make-up.

"He's got size, and his technique is really good and he's a competitor," Brodeur said. "For me, it's all about competing, being ready to play and wanting to play. There are guys who everybody wants them to be in net. But it doesn't mean they want to play all the games. This guy wants to play every game."

Elliott takes a cue from goaltending coach Jim Corsi.

"Usually when you're making those saves, you're kind of out of position, so it means I'm not playing that well. But like Jim Corsi says, 'You just need to throw the furniture at the puck and see what can get in the way.' We work on having different tools in your toolbox and then when you're in the game, you're just hoping that you select the right tools for the job."

That's a new approach for Elliott ... to throw the furniture at the puck.

"It's a balance, it's a dance," Elliott said. "In the summer, as much as you want to focus on getting better, you have to get away from it, too. I’ve gone from the typical golf, to now I'm into fishing. Even if it's just an hour before or after dinner, it's like a meditation. It's still a competition -- it's you against the fish. It's calming and it kind of refreshes me. Stepping away keeps you refreshed so you don't burn out.

"You have to peak at the right time. You want to gain five pounds of muscle -- but if you're not careful, you're burned out at the start of the season. It's not about winning the Stanley Cup in September. You have trust in the process. When the fitness testing comes you'll do what you'll do. The goal isn't to bench press a house in September -- the goal is to stop pucks, or score goals or defend. You learn over time that sometimes 'less is more.' "

Said Elliott, "This is the most comfortable I've been in my skin as a goalie, as a person. I've felt confident in my abilities to go out there and have that winning attitude."

"I've got quite a few pucks lodged in his glove hand ... when I was in college at Minnesota State and here," laughed Blues captain David Backes.

Elliott's father, Bill, is a television director, who has worked on numerous Canadian television programs -- including The Red Green Show. Brian takes a rather hard look at things. Just like his father.

Reality is something St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock added.

"I don't think what we're seeing is an accident or a fluke or just the puck hitting him," said Hitchcock. "He's a perfect example for perseverance. One of the things that you learn about 'Ells' is he's a really good listener. He's resurrected a career based on being able to look in the mirror and make adjustments."

Elliott understands. The success of goaltending is not just about technique, but also the psychology of the position. He watched Ed Belfour and Curtis Joseph and growing up, two supremely active goalies.

"The mental part is huge," he said. "You have to stay loose. If you lose a game you can't get too down on yourself. There is always a next opportunity to get back in there to prove what you can do.

"As a goaltender you sometimes put all the blame on yourself. The media and the fans can also blame you. But as a goaltender you have to realize it's a team game. If your team is playing well in front of you and you're playing well than there is a good chance you're going to win."

Like other goalies, prior to a match he will skip rope, play some hallway soccer with teammates and juggle tennis balls.

"The juggling," he says of his fun time away from the pressure of stopping pucks coming at him at 100 mph, "doesn't give me the chance to think too much about anything other than the tennis balls."

There is everything about Brian Elliott to like. His work ethic. His keen perspective of the goaltender position. And juggling.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Nicklas Backstrom ... sleight of hand ... magic passer

By Larry Wigge

Nicklas Backstrom couldn't pass up a chance at history.

Narmally, the 28-year-old assist-man extraordinaire would have found a way to dish to somebody, anybody, within sight.

But on Sunday, April 24, Backstrom positioned himself in the right faceoff circle and he completed a tic-tac-toe passing from Alex Ovechkin to Marc Johansson for a one-timer by Backstrom at 8:59 of the second period.

It was going to have to be a perfect shot to beat Michal Neuvirth, the former Capitals' goaltender who saved 75 of 76 shots in Games 4 and 5. Backstrom aimed for the top of the net -- a place he knew Neuvirth couldn't defend after sliding over -- and unleashed his shot for a 1-0 Washington Capitals victory and a 4-2 series victory over Philadelphia.

"It's still a one-goal game, but I thought after that goal we got some energy and starting playing a little better, got in our zone, some chances," said Backstrom. "It gave us a little boost that's for sure."

And Neuvirth also said he knew he had an angry Backstrom after coming out of the penalty box for serving a penalty he did not think should have been assessed.

"This is a shoot-first league," Trotz said, "and today Backstrom was the difference-maker for us."

Backstrom flies under the radar like no other current player with 600 career points. Only six active players have more points a game since he entered the league and they're the best of the best: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Ryan Getzlaf and Patrick Kane.

Ovechkin said Backstrom makes him better every day. Their chemistry has led the Capitals to eighth playoff appearances in nine years. The Ovechkin-Backstrom duo could go down as one of the best in hockey history.

"It's just a perfect match," Ovechkin said of having an all-time shooter with an all-time passer.

"It's like Patrice Bergeron, who doesn't talk about himself and get a lot of accolades, but everybody's recognized it and now they've seen him play in international tournaments and all this," Trotz said of the Boston Bruins center. "You've got the coaches talking about how great Bergeron is. Well, I'm talking about Backstrom ... and he's in that same mold as a Bergeron ...

"They're both complete players, they're fantastic on the draws, in every situation, on both sides of the puck and when the game is on the line."

The Gayle, Swede, native, had a late start to the 2015-16 campaign following offseason hip surgery, but still managed to play in 75 games, picking up 20 goals and 50 assists in that span. It was the sixth time he has accumulated 50 or more assists in nine seasons, topped by an amazing 33 goals, 68 assists and 101 point 2009-10 season.

"I watched him before, too, and I knew he was great," said Vancouver Daniel Sedin, played with Backstrom at the Sochi Olympics. "But I didn't think he was that good. He was so much fun to play with on the same line -- great passer, great vision. Just the way he skates and moves, he's easy to play with.

"He's up there among elite centermen."

"It's nice to kind of get appreciated, maybe?" Backstrom said. "But at the same time, it's not that I haven't gotten any recognition at all. I'm happy with the way it was or is."

Backstrom was the first pick by Washington, fourth overall, in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.

On a personal level, Backstrom is a father now and he is remembering the lessons his father taught him when he first put him on skates at 3 or 4 years old: "Try your best and work hard."

Like so many great player he learned from his father, Anders, who played defense in Sweden, and from his mother, Catrin, a former handball in the Swedish Elite League in the 1970s and '80s.

"He is one of those guys who I think you can say it is up to him how good he gets, because he has all the tools, he plays with great players and he has a coaching staff that knows what makes him tick," said former coach Adam Oates. "He obviously has a chemistry with Ovechkin and he knows where he is all times. That's really what a good passer does. You have the ability to understand where a guy is going to be even when he's not there and you almost anticipate the way he thinks.

"It is like a husband and wife -- you start passing the salt before she even asks for it. He obviously has that talent."

He's always looking to make himself better.

The center began training both on and off the ice with former speed skater Sebastian Falk.

"I try to get better every year when I go home but I wanted to try something new," said Backstrom. "I've been doing more work on my skating, to get more speed out here.

"I've been working on just getting those first couple steps a little better, faster. That's important to me. I think that can really help my game."

It's inherited and it's something important to him.

"There's something that's ingrained in him," former Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said. "You don't think of it with Nick because he's a blond, blue-eyed, Swedish, good-looking young man. But he's got a toughness that belies all that, a toughness that coaches just love. He's not going to fight, but he's tough. I saw him last year where he could barely walk, but he was playing.

"He does things that are very subtle, but that not very many people can do. As a passer, I'd put him in the same category as anyone you'd put in with the best passers in the NHL today."  

Defenseman Mike Green added: "It's like Peter Forsberg back in the day. Guys emphasize making hard passes. He doesn't need to, because he knows where guys are going to be."

Backstrom's game is still evolving, though and there are two areas where he must improve to become a complete player: faceoffs and shots on net.

Like most Europeans, the Olympics are tops on his list. He did well -- one goal and five assists in four games for Sweden at the Vancouver games in 2010.

"The Olympics have been a dream since I was a kid," Backstrom said. "It was fun to hear the news. I'm excited right now."

What works for Backstrom -- the playmaker.

"When I was young I was always practicing and stickhandling. Passing was tops on my list," he said.

But ...

"When I was 17-year-old coaches told me I was too small on my national team," Backstrom said of the most common obstacle he had to overcome.

He was no Peter Forsberg in size and strength, but he working on those things -- he's 6-1, 210 pounds.

To that, he'll always credit Boudreau for giving him his chance.

"He gave me the opportunities to play ... and the clutch situations to play in," Backstrom marvels.

To this day, Boudreau says, "From the first day he came on he was a tremendous passer. What he learned at first was whenever he touched it, he passed it to Ovie. He then learned that he too could score.

"Early on he amazed me with his passing. I still can't believe that ... he put the puck between four players with a pass in a playoff game."

Who said he can't do the little things in the playoffs?

Watch Backstrom enough and, eventually, every part of the mosaic begins to sparkle. See him nightly and those deceptive first steps, the way he'll pass the puck then quickly tie up an opponent's stick, or the way he routinely emerges from the corner with what he came for, become things that cannot be missed. But many people aren't watching the Capitals regularly and absorbing all that nuance can require a trained eye or, at the very least, one that isn't fixated on Backstrom's supernova of a linemate.

Nicklas Backstrom was nearly 3 years old when he received his first pair of ice skates -- rugged yellow-and-brown hand-me-downs first worn by an older cousin before they were gifted to his older brother.

There was no ice outside on which Backstrom could skate, and so in his excitement, he wore them all day, gashing the floors throughout the house with their dulled blades, dodging pleas from his parents, Anders and Cartin, that he take them off.

There was no ice outside on which Backstrom could skate, and so in his excitement, he wore them all day, gashing the floors throughout the house with their dulled blades, dodging pleas from his parents that he take them off.

"I didn't want to take them off," Backstrom said, smiling, "so I slept with them on. My parents couldn't do anything. I wanted them on. That's what happens."

Said Trotz, "His hockey IQ is off the charts. I've had a lot of good players, but he's the best at that complete package."

Buffalo coach Dan Bylsma says that Backstrom is one of his favorite.

"For me, I was scared of him before and I'm probably more scared of his game now," Bylsma said. "He has such a great ability to hold on to the puck, manufacture time, read the play and execute with the puck, that it allows the other players on his line to freelance, to not be in the same spot all the time.

"They can go to different areas, they can work to get open away from the puck."

He likens Backstrom's gifts with the puck to those possessed by Hall of Famer Adam Oates, who's considered one of the greatest playmakers of all time.

"It's an unbelievable asset that he has. I don't want to say it's sleight of hand," added Bylsma. "To me, he's the best player on the half wall, he's the best half-wall distributor."

Just when you think you've seen it all, Nicklas Backstrom does something new and more exciting.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

In the world of the Joneses, Martin Jones life is good

By Larry Wigge

Martin Jones wanted to be his own man.

After spending the last two years as the Los Angeles Kings backup goaltender, the 6-4, 190-pound netminder from North Vancouver was yearning to get his shot.

He made the 350-mile journey from Los Angeles to San Jose by way of Boston. He became a Bruins in the June 26 trade that sent Milan Lucic to the Kings.

A contrived deal. You bet your life on it. Kings GM Dean Lombardi wasn't about to let a prospect like Jones go to a Pacific Division rival. So ...

Maybe there was a little under-the-table negotiations going on between San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson and Boston GM Don Sweeney.

"He was number one on our list," explained Wilson. "We liked his style of play. His size. His age. His competitiveness. We thought he was a guy that would fit great for us.

"We've had a lot of trade discussions, and there are a lot of different ways to acquire people. This one came to fruition after a lot of conversation."

Now, 11 months later the truth can be told.

The Bruins traded the 25-year-old puckstopper to the Sharks four days later for a 2016 first-round draft choice and prospect Sean Kuraly.

And now the Sharks have knocked the Kings out of the first-round of the playoffs by a 4-1 margin ... and Jones was one of the major reasons for it.

Jones posted a brilliant 37-23-4 record with a 2.27 and a .918 save percentage and he capped that by going 6-0 in the Forum in Los Angeles by winning three straight games there in the playoffs.

Following a historic collapse against the Kings in the 2014 Western Conference First Round, the San Jose Sharks missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs entirely last season for the first time since 2003.

But back to Jones.

Backup to Jonathan Quick no longer, Jones had beaten Quick in the series. He stopped 19 of 22 shots in the April 22 series-clinching Game 5 win over the Kings.

"Composure," coach Peter DeBoer said when asked what sticks out about Jones. "He really has a calming sense. I think good goalies have that. Marty Brodeur had that. Cory Schneider has that quality. They don't get rattled. They don't get too high or too low. Your team reads off of that, so it's a nice feeling."

Joe Thornton says that Jones was a perfect fit for the Shark. "He's a stud. There's no denying it."

"Not a lot gets to him," said Sharks defenseman Paul Martin. "Not a lot affects him. I think for us, playing in front of him calms us, too."

Jones was on a golf course with some pals in Scottsdale, Arizona, when he got the call that he had been traded to the Sharks last June 30.

It was pure elation, which wasn't exactly the reaction he had a few days earlier when he was dealt to the Boston Bruins.

"I thought it was kind of a step sideways for me with Tuukka there," Jones said. "So I didn't really know what was going to happen. But then it didn't take long before I got the call that I was going to San Jose. That was a quick turnaround ... and that was really exciting."

He was so excited about being his own man, having the No. 1 job.

"It's hard being a backup goalie," Jones said. "You've got to sit on your games a couple of weeks at a time. It puts a lot of added pressure on yourself to get the results.

"It's tough, especially when you want to play and you're not sure when you're going to get the start. But going into a season with a guy like Quick, you know that's going to be the case. It's part of the job. You just try to be a good teammate and work hard in practice."

In Boston, it was ...

"It was a win-win on both situations, Jones is a quality goaltender but we also got quality return," said Sweeney.

Jones was undrafted as an 18-year-old, but the Kings were shrewd enough to sign him as an unrestricted free agent October 2, 2008. That year, he went 45-5-4 with the Calgary Hitmen.

A goaltender's mentality gets out.

Years ago, Dylan Crawford, son of Marc Crawford, who was then coaching the Kings then, told his father that Jones was a kid Los Angeles should look at. He had IT.

As a goaltender you want to have the same mindset that a baseball pitcher has -- you want to have a bad memory. If you give up a home run or if you give up a bad goal, you're able to get over it. Martin Jones had that. He's got a perfect demeanour for a goaltender.

The same was said years ago about all-world goaltender Dominik Hasek when he twice named the NHL's Most Valuable Player in 1997 and again in '98.

"Martin doesn't know anything but winning," Crawford said. "The goalie has to win games for you, and he's learned how to do that from a young age. I've very rarely seen him have bad outings. When he does have one, he'll follow it up with a real quality start. That's character, but it's also having the quality of knowing what your game is all about. That's why I think he'll continue to be real good in the NHL."

Unknown, but with a rich pedigree.

"I watched the tape of it two or three years ago and I'm looking at it going, 'Holy, was Marty ever good.' So often that was the case," continued Crawford. "They had about five or six kids playing in the NHL now, including Evander Kane, Patrick Wiercioch and Stefan Elliott, which means they had a lot of really good players, but Marty's was outstanding."

But something else was happening to Jones as well ... he was growing ... and growing ... and growing. By the time he was done growing the quick little goalie who did nothing but win with the Winterhawks was now nearly 6-4.

When you're a smaller goalie you need to be very technically sound to be successful. When he was small, he was sound. Now, that Marty was big, he had the advantage of his size ... the sky was the limit.

Harvey Jones, Martin's father, worked for the Vancouver Canucks for 15 years as a vice-president and general manager of arena operation at Rogers Center.

Before joining the Canucks, he worked on construction projects in Argentina, Guam and Iran. Martin's mother, Sofia, is from Argentina.

"He likes to be in the center, likes the responsibility and likes to be important but not in a way where he's outgoing and aggressive and goes seeking it," Harvey Jones said. "Being a goalie was perfect for him. He likes to be relied on, a thoughtful, reflective kid ... he was around the dressing room a little bit. He saw what it was like and what was going on. It would be different than some kid that grew up in northern Saskatchewan and had never been to an NHL game."

For years, things, obstacles had gotten in his Martin Jones way. Undrafted. Being stuck behind one of the greatest goaltenders in the world -- Jonathan Quick.

Everything is going Jones' way in San Jose.

"That's the end game, is to play in this league and be a starting goalie, and have a chance to play for a Stanley Cup," Jones said. "I think the transition has been really good. All the guys, all the trainers, have made it very easy for me. It's been very good."

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Jonathan Drouin: In Lightning's plans and loving it

By Larry Wigge

Jonathan Drouin can find you in a phone booth.

Think about it, tight quarters ... no place to move ... for anyone.

Stay tuned. We're at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena. Hostile at best.

On May 21, Nikita Kucherov, who needs very little time or space to get off his dangerous shot, had a pair of goals, courtesy of nice setups by Tyler Johnson and Drouin -- one 5:41 in the first period and the other at 10:31 of the second. Kucherov also made a fantastic cross-ice pass to Drouin, who eventually found Ondrej Palat for the game-winning goals breaking a 2-2 tie with 2:59 remaining.

"The one thing that gets missed in all of this is we never, ever gave up on Jonathan," coach Jon Cooper said. "He took a stand and made a decision, we can debate or not whether he was right or wrong, but it turned out he came back and made a choice to succeed, and to battle through. There was no gratuitous callup. He earned his way back. He's helping us win hockey games, which we knew all along he could."

The story was like a soap opera on January 2, when Droin was sent to Syracuse of the American Hockey League ... then he balked at the demotion and demanded a trade by the Lightning ... and he went home to stew. Being suspended by Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman.

Finally, he relented and accepted the demotion, scoring 11 goals and two assists in 17 games at Syracuse. In playing big minutes, in all situations, Drouin rekindled his confidence. Knowing a knock on him was being a pass-first forward, Drouin shot more.

He earned his recall.

"You're sitting at home, you don't really know what's going to happen," Drouin explained. "That's why at one point I decided to go back to playing hockey, making sure I'm at least playing -- if it's Syracuse, it's Syracuse. To get the call-up is huge -- definitely happy to be back."

It did matter that the Lightning had lost star winger Steven Stamkos during Drouin suspension.

For the season, Drouin played in 21 games and had four goals and six assists. But in the first four games of the playoffs, he already has four assists. He sparked a stagnant Lightning power play with three assists.

"Hopefully," center Brian Boyle said, "we keep writing it for a couple months."

Drouin, who was born in Ste-Agathe, Quebec, displays vision and skill set are next to none. He can stickhandle in a phone booth, too. That is why the Lightning spent the third period in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft.

"I'm not waiting for something to happen," Drouin said. "It's more make it happen."

Drouin did just that on the winner, directing traffic on the power play, raising his stick to call for a seam pass from Kucherov. Drouin faked a shot, waited, then zipped a pass on the tape of Palat's stick in the crease.

"You watch some of the things he does, it's just remarkable," Johnson said. "When he gets his motor running and speed going, it's pretty magical to watch. I'm really glad he's on our team right now."

When Lightning forward Alex Killorn was 15, he and his buddies on the Lac St. Louis Lions in Montreal would notice a 9-year-old skating rings around his peers.

A year or two later, the kid began skating with the older players and, funny thing, he skated rings around them, too.

"We'd hit him, push him around to just toughen him up a little," Killorn said. "Nobody was trying to hurt him. He was so skilled you couldn't be mad. We just looked at him, like, 'Who is this kid?' "

It was Drouin, who now stands at 5-11, 191 pounds. Still nobody's going to push him around.

"He's a very special player, a player with special vision and great hockey sense," said Colorado center Nate MacKinnon, a linemate of Drouin's at Halifax the past two seasons. MacKinnon was picked No. 1 overall in the draft, Drouin was No. 3.

Drouin had playoff runs of 12 and 23 assists in 12 games at Halifax in 2012-13 and 13 goals and 43 assists in 16 games the next year.

"He's going to have a long, great career in the NHL," continued MacKinnon. "He's a very special guy and a very special player. He's going to do wonders with Tampa Bay ... I think his puckhandling stands out for me.

"That he creates the other things with his hockey sense. His decision-making as well is one of the best on the job, so he's a very special player."

Drouin says, "Biggest thing is my vision. I see things that maybe others don't see on the ice."

Watching Drouin's speed, it's surprising he was late to put on skates. He preferred to wear boots while on the neighborhood rink until age 7, developing his quick, soft hands by stickhandling with a golf ball in the basement.

"I didn't like skating," Drouin said. "At one point, my dad said, 'You've got to start skating if you want to play hockey.' "

But once Drouin laced them up, he rarely took them off. With the ice just a five-minute walk from his  home -- about 60 miles north of Montreal -- Drouin would be out there before school, after school and late into the evening.

Drouin's father Serge looked after the rink and once Jonathan started skating, he didn't stop.
His mother, Brigitte Dufour, said she would often bring dinner or snacks out to him.

"He'd eat," she said. "And then keep skating."

Drouin's favorite player was Avalanche captain Joe Sakic, dreaming of one day making it to the NHL.

"To be here now is a little surreal," he said.

Even so, Cooper said of Drouin, "I'm fairly sure he is going to jump the curve a little sooner than others. His hockey IQ is off the charts. So when you have that in your repertoire, usually you can advance a little bit quicker than some others."

Says Yzerman, "His hockey sense, his skill, his competitiveness, we like all his tools."

Not that anyone is guaranteeing Drouin a Lightning roster spot.

"Steve Yzerman has been very clear he's not going to rush anybody," Murray said. "But he's not going to hold anyone back, either."

Fans called him a "quitter," "crybaby" and "spoiled brat" after Drouin walked away from Syracuse on January 20. Drouin knows some aren't happy with him, and he respects that.

"I did this stuff," he says. "I've got a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. I've got stuff to prove. You want to show that you deserve to be in the NHL, you deserve your shot."

Said Drouin, "You’re not just drafting a player, you’re drafting a person."

Think about that.

"This is a fast pace," Cooper said. "You just can't jump in. He has to learn to play the pace of the game. It takes time to learn to play the pace, I don't care who you are.

"When he gets his motor running and speed going, it's pretty magical to watch. I'm really glad he's on our team right now."

Jonathan Drouin would like to play on the same line as Stamkos, too.

"One day I hope I get to play alongside Stamkos," he said. "He is a great player and I have loved watching him play."

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

John Carlson ... your latest super defenseman for Capitals

By Larry Wigge

John Carlson does not serve as Alexander Ovechkin's caddie -- the way he tees him up for passes for one slap slot ... after another ... after another ... on the power play off wing.

Let's get that straight ...

In fact, this burly, strong defenseman -- 6-3, 212-pounder -- could just as easily deposit you into the fifth row of seats with one his typical hip checks.

"I don't ever want anyone to think I'm a one-dimensional player," an angry Carlson explained.

To say that John Carlson has simply replaced Mike Green as the shot on the Washington Capitals power play would be easy. No one did it with the flair that Green did when he scored 31 goals in 2008-09. But, Carlson has found his niche and is certainly proud of his setting up Ovechkin.

"You notice him Carly out there right away," explained Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "It's not just his shot. With his size and his strength, he's got that physical stature you can count on."

Carlson's plays solid defense. His outlet passes are hard and accurate. And when the pressure is on, he demands the puck with a stern whack of his stick on the ice.

Like Green, Carlson has found time to score a goal in each of the Capitals first three playoff win over the Philadelphia Flyers. All three points in Game 3 came on the power play, as the Caps connected a whopping five times with the man advantage.

Carlson is the first NHL player to score a power-play goal in each of three consecutive team games in one playoff year since the Sharks' Patrick Marleau had a three-game streak in 2011. Carlson is the first defenseman to do that since Bill Houlder of San Jose in 1999. He also tied the Capitals record for the longest power-play goal streak in one playoff year, which was set by John Druce in 1990 and previously equaled by Dmitri Khristich in 1992 and Al Iafrate in 1993.

He was selected by the Capitals with a first-round pick, 27th overall, in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.

A little background on Carlson: The Natick, Massachusetts. native, grew up a Boston Bruins fan, before moving to Colonia, N.J. When he was 5, Carlson grew up playing hockey for the New Jersey Rockets and quickly became a Scott Stevens fan.

"You could see the raw abilities," Toronto forward Brooks Laich, once a teammate, said. "He could shoot the puck. He was big, he was strong, he could skate. You could tell he had the ability to elevate his game. The raw material was fantastic."

Former Capitals coach and currently Anaheim coach was left saying, "The higher level you get to, the more speed forwards are attacking with. John was right in everyone's face, whereas other defensemen were stiff-legged and puck-chasing."

For a while this spring it was iffy whether Carlson would play down the stretch, he missed from February 25 to March 24. Carlson’s 412-game playing streak ended with what Trotz described as a lower body injury.

Carlson finished the season with eight goals and 31 assists in 58 games. He leads the club in average ice time with 24:28 per game.

THe kid was a center until he was about 13, when at the urging of his father, Dick Carlson, he switched to defense. The elder Carlson manned the blueline at Division III Framingham State in Framingham, Mass., and was involved in coaching his son throughout his youth.

As a defenseman, Carlson saw his game blossom.

"We moved him to defense for a couple of reasons: He had a good head for the game and he had pretty good size," Dick Carlson said. "We thought he would be able to control the game a little more, and he did."

Being chosen to play for the U.S. Olympic team in Sochi, Russia, in 2014 was always a dream. When the roster was announced in alphabetical order and it wasn't until a young boy wearing a Carlson jersey skated in front of the camera that the 26-year-old realized his dream.

"It's obviously an honor to play for your country and I feel a bond with D.C.," Carlson said. "It's just cool standing in front of the White House. This city has a lot of meaning and so does playing for my country. It's a whole new level."

The last represented Team USA in the 2010 World Championships, when he scored the game-winning goalin overtime of the Gold Medal game. That gold medal-winning goal stands, to this point, as an on-ice highlight of Carlson’s career. But Carlson also painted the picture of a tighter-knit corps, bolstered this offseason by the signings of Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, stabilized because none of the top four has missed a game this season.

"The better you feel usually, the easier it is to come to the rink every day and put in your time, the happier you are, you want to come here," Carlson said. "Sometimes when things aren't going well and you don't have the feeling that everyone is down, it's harder, like anything else, to dig deep and keep going at something that's not working, which has happened to us this year, but I think we've always put our foot down when stuff like that's happened, because we've stuck together so much."

A potential sweep of Philadelphia for the Capitals, who ranked first overall in the NHL during the regular season, might make some sense for the most ardent Washington fan.

To show that John Carlson is not too wrap up on one-game, he and several of his teammates were asked last year which kind of super hero they would you be?

Said Carlson, "Superman would probably be my favorite growing up and I guess that would have to carry over for now."

As a follow up question, Captain America would be ranked where?

"Terrible ... I play hockey. That's far from a superhero."

Well said by John Carlson ... the super defenseman ... in the mold of Larry Murphy, Rod Langway and Scott Stevens.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Roman Josi from rover to All-Star defenseman

By Larry Wigge

Bern, Switzerland. Usually you here clock making. That's what they are famous for.

Like a good clock, Roman Josi can be counted on. Tick. Tick. He is a classic, working on the power play. But the Nashville Predators have him on the clock -- and has been since 2008, when he was drafted in the NHL Entry Draft in the second round with the 38th pick.

Some might call him a rover, a hybrid defenseman who can lug the puck like Phil Housley used to do or an Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators who has won two Norris Trophies as the best defenseman in the NHL.

"A guy like Roman Josi is probably the Erik Karlsson of the Western Conference," explained Washington Capitals' coach Barry Trotz, who formerly broke in Josi to the Nashville defense.

Trotz went on to say, "Like Erik Karlsson, he's got to be watched because he likes to carry the mail. He's dynamic ... He's going to be, just as Shea Weber is over there, a Norris Trophy candidate for the next number of years."

So Josi is a trailblazer. A pioneer and countryman and current Philadelphia Flyers blueliner Mark Streit, who helped pave the way for Swiss players like him in the NHL.

"At first there were only goalies coming over, but the first skater to really make it was Mark Streit," Josi said. "He really opened the doors for all the young players in Switzerland. He had a tough first season, but fought through it."

The 6-1, 192-pound defenseman is a good all-round defenseman that has solid hockey sense and a good skillset. He's a good passer, can be a puck mover and possess a very good shot from the point.

In his first two NHL years, Josi appeared to be uneasy. But he has quickly worked into the system in Nashville to have accounted for 13 goals and 15 ... and 14 this year plus a career-high 47 assists for 61 points.

He proceeded to get three assists in the first two games of the playoffs -- both by 3-2 scores over the Anaheim Ducks.

He has worked into the Predators system, going from 18 minutes as a rookie for nearly 25 or 26 minutes of quality work in the last two seasons.

"Roman, he’s always so good with the puck and his skating ability and he never gets tired," Trotz said. "But what you notice over time is his ability to defend: His stick detail, his one-on-one play is much better than it was. His strength on the puck in battles is much better as he’s gotten older and stronger.

"He’s getting better and better all the time. Roman Josi will be a player that you’ll here from for the next number of years."

In Nashville that puts on a plane with All-Star defenseman Shea Weber, the Predators five-time All-Star Game contributor.

"Just watching him play last year, what he brings to our team on the ice and off the ice, he's a player that we count on in all situations," said coach Peter Laviolette. "His leadership inside the room and on the ice really shined last year as the person and player that he was. And he fits into the group that we already have in place."

Other coaches may have other opinions about Josi, the talented defensman.

Bruce Boudreau, who was at the All-Star Game at Nashville this season, now tries to figure out how to stop Josi in the first-round playoff matchup.

"Bruce, Roman Josi is a player that flies under the radar," a reporter began, unable to fully ask his question before Boudreau interjected.

"Not mine," he said.

Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice offered this opinion,
"I think Roman Josi now is starting to get the credit that he's deserved for a while"

On the ice, the 25-year-old blue liner knows that he is supremely talented, able to evade oncoming defenders and carry the puck from end to end with a certain graceful ease. He is one of the NHL's most offensively gifted defensemen, his 129 points since the start of the 2013-14 season ranking eighth among players at his position.

And he's able to do all of that while logging heavy minutes -- only seven defensemen have received more total ice time over the past two-plus seasons -- against the opposition's most dangerous skaters.

So, he's not just another rover/defenseman out there.

"Obviously as defensemen, your first priority is always to defend well," Josi said. "Obviously my game, I try to make something happen in the offensive zone, too, try to join the rush. I think that's what I would like people to look at me as -- as a two-way defenseman."

Even less is known about him personally, though he probably prefers it that way. Josi wouldn't describe himself as shy, though he's very modest when dealing with the media, often punctuating his answers with a bashful grin, particularly when the questions are about him.

“My mother was a swimmer on the national team and my father was a top-level soccer play,” he explains. “We always played sport, even on holiday. When I first started, I didn’t really mind how I played. It wasn’t that important. But when the first agents started to show up, I was 15, and I realised that hockey was big business.”

Josi isn't even the most famous resident of his Midtown  Nashville condominium complex. Though to be fair, very few celebrities can match the popularity of Taylor Swift.

Josi, who was one of Switzerland’s key players at the Sochi Games, has always been proficient when called on to play on the international scene. At the 2013 World Championship, he helped the Swiss to a silver medal, which was their best finish since 1935. Josi was named an all-star, the tournament’s best defenseman and, most impressively, its MVP, making him the first player from Switzerland to receive the honor.

"That is my favorite memory," says Josi. "We had the Americans up against the wall and played an almost perfect match."

Josi had four goals and five assists and was named best defender and best player of the 77th IHF World Championships.

"You could tell that he’s going to be a really good player," Streit said, knowing that at an early age he was going to be good.

At that early age, Josi plays forward.

"Actually I played forward when I was younger," he recalled. "I think I was 13 or 14, when the coach pulled me back, because we didn’t have enough defensemen. I liked it back there, and yeah, I’m glad I did it."

Most of the time, Josi is paired with Weber.

"Any time that you play with a great player like Shea, you pick up things, you have a comfort level, a security blanket there, as well," said Trotz. "They both face the hard matchups defensively."

Weber and Josi -- All-Stars.

"He's just continually getting better," Weber said. "He's going to continue to get better, too. You forgot how young he is. From him to be growing at this rate and playing at this level right now, it's exciting to us to know that he's going to have even more ahead of him."

Roman Josi is on the clock.

He is a good all-round defenseman that has solid hockey sense and a good skillset. He's a good passer, can be a puck mover and possess a very good shot from the point.

Josi has gone from trailblazer, to rover to just plain all-round All-Star.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Radek Faka keeps climbing the ladder to success with Dallas

By Larry Wigge

Radek Faksa is a lot older than 21.

A offensive center by trade. But his indoctrination in the Dallas Stars lineup behind two of the most productive centers Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza in the NHL has been a slow progress. He's learning his trade ... on the fly.

Like he was supposed to.

After scoring just one goal in his first 36 games, the 6-3, 210-pound center scored twice in the past four games.

Faksa scored by driving the net off the rush and putting home the rebound on Antoine Roussel shot to give the Stars 2-1 lead in the game they would go onto win 5-2 over Nashville on March 29.

"It was just sheer determination. He's had some great looks," Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. "If you keep getting the opportunities, sooner or later they are going to go in. I think he is getting to the right places."

After getting five goals and seven assists in 45 regular season games, Faksa scored in his first playoff game -- a 4-0 conquest of
the Minnesota Wild.

Faksa ended up being credited, conservatively, with three hits and one blocked shot, though it seemed like he made a much greater impact in his own zone with his relentless pursuit and mature positioning. He also won 59 percent of his draws, helping Dallas establish a clear edge in possession.

In all, it was a terrific playoff debut, and one that sets Faksa up as a player to watch as Dallas advances through the tournament.

There is no timetable on his offensive output. This is the way GM Jim Nill and the Detroit Red Wings worked a player into the lineup. Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk worked their way up the ladder.

Slowly ... not before he was ready. A player has to learn the defensive side of the game first.

"He's come in and played the way everyone envisioned him to play," Nill explained. "He's a big, heavy body. He plays the right way. He's strong on draws. He's strong down low. I know Lindy can trust him playing against anybody."

The kid taught himself English. He raised himself through his pre-teen and teenage years. He spent six seasons living in a hotel-cum-boarding-school setting and playing for youth teams with Trinec, Czech Republic.

"I moved from my hometown of Opava at 11 years old," he explained. "My hometown didn't have that good of a hockey program and my mom, she couldn't drive me everyday there, so I had to live there in the hotel by myself.

"I think it has helped me with my life because I learned to do things on my own -- I learned how to do laundry and shop for groceries, make food. It was pretty good for my future, I guess."

Faksa was born in Vitkov. He was the Stars first-round pick, 13th overall, in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft after scoring 29 goals and 37 assists for Kitchener of the Ontario Hockey League.

He was considered a two-way player compared to Bobby Holik, but said his favorite players growing up were Jaromir Jagr and Datsyuk.

"I really like Pavel Datsyuk, but I think I play like Eric Staal," Faksa said in a clear, concise way.

Datsyuk and Staal were both good comparison. Steady. Offensive and defensive responsibilties. Both strong and workmanlike.

Then, Faksa let it all out, saying, "My whole life ... my dream ... has been to play in the NHL. It's incredible."

Dallas feels they lucked out when eight of the 10 players selected in the 2012 draft were defensemen.

"Filip Forsberg (selected 11th overall) was an intriguing pick, but when Faksa fell to us it was a no-brainer," then Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk said. "He's a big, strong kid. He's a character kid."

Character. His parents, Alena, his mother, Jiri, his father, were divorced and he was living with his mother and two siblings, struggling to make it in Opava in a poor area of the Czech Republic until he moved to Kitchener.

Ruff needed to see Faksa play once in a preseason game.

"He just needs that little extra step, that little extra quickness," Ruff said. "You could see that his hands and some of that is just a quicker step that will come. But he defends well."

Leading to Game 2 of the playoffs and Faksa's emerging responsibilities, like taking the final faceoff in Game 2.

"It means he's got a lot of trust in the coach is what it means. I like what I've done, he's got a lot of confidence in his game and I trust him in every situation, which is a good thing," said Ruff. "He's got a big body and right now that's his role for me, is go out there and take those.

"If he's having a good night, we wanted to know who the best faceoff guy at that point was against certain guys and he was the guy we wanted to go to."

On Faksa winning that final draw clean.

"You got to take a lot of pride in those little 1-on-1 battles. That's a big faceoff for us," Ruff continued. "When a young guy goes out there, it can become something he'd get criticized for, but in my case he's earned every minute of ice time I've put him out there for. There's going to be a time when he loses one, but it isn't because he's won his majority."

There was a time, perhaps, around January 1. It was Radek Faksa's second recall from the Texas Stars of the American Hockey League.

He knew it was the right time ...

"I wasn't expecting it at all," he said, before suiting up against the Panthers around New Year's Dave.

This, indeed, was the time when Faksa was in Dallas for the long rung. He has earned it. Up the ladder.

"The day before, he had been in Illinois, where the Texas Stars were playing against the Rockford IceHogs," he explained. "Faksa had even finished his pregame skate for that afternoon's tilt before he learned he'd been called up."

Sometimes you bring along a prospect at their pace, it means more to a young player ... something they will remember always.

Jim Nill's way of promoting players the right way works. Just like it has for so many years in Detroit.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Tyler Johnson: The little engine that could for Lightning

By Larry Wigge

Paying the price to win is exactly the procedure that Tyler Johnson follows him. Each game.

He's like a whirling-dervish. Flitting around. Beating the other team to loose pucks. Always being the most active player on the ice.

A teammate once told me that Johnson has a mouse running the wheel inside his head. Get the picture ... from that point on he does a good job of hiding his feelings. But he's got a real good attitude for a little guy.

No, this is a real-life fairy tale. Johnson, 5-feet-9, was passed over by every NHL club in three years he was eligible for the draft. He was cut by a team in the United States Hockey League, the country's top junior league for players age 20 and younger.

He considered giving up hope on the NHL.

"I don't ever look at myself as never been drafted. I don't look at myself any differently," explained Johnson. "It doesn't matter if you're a first rounder, third rounder or undrafted.

"Everyone is going to have the same opportunity. You just have to e-a-r-n it."

Johnson thought about not being drafted. Nobody ever thought his heart has never been measured by height.

Tyler Johnson is from Spokane, Washington. Last year, he helped lead the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup final against Chicago -- scoring 13 goals and 10 assists in 25 playoff games. He became the first player in the NHL with four multi-goal game in the same season since Jamie Langenbrunner in 2003.

"Tyler Johnson. The bigger the game ... the better he plays," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "In the greatest league in the world on the biggest stage, in the world's most famous arena, it's pretty impressive. It doesn't get any bigger than that."

Johnson had 29 goals in 2014-15 season and then added 13 goals and 10 assists in 26 playoff games for Tampa Bay.  

This season started off the same way for Johnson ... until injuries limited his ice time to 14 goals and 24 assists in 69 games.

Johnson tied the Tampa Bay franchise record for most points in a playoff game when he scored two goals and assisted on two in a 5-2 win in Game 2 of its series against the Detroit Red Wings. The only other four-point game in the playoffs for the Lightning was posted by Vincent Lecavalier with one goal and three assists in Game 2 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Final versus Boston.

He's the first NHL player to tally six points in his team's first two games of a playoff year since 2014, when Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon and Paul Stastny each scored seven points in the first two games of the Avs' first-round series against Minnesota in Game 1 -- won by the Lightning 3-2 over Detroit.

His first goal in the second game game where big men wander in the blue paint. Johnson was cross-checked to the ice by Dylan Larkin and then he was buried by three or four other Detroit players in the goal crease -- paying the price -- for the first of his two second period goals.

"There's something to be said about this guy's rise to the occasion and for Tyler it's been a small sample size to show that last year playoffs was no fluke," admitted Cooper. "He's definitely an impact player."

Cooper said, "You walk into that kid's house and you look at the trophy mantel and all you see is trophies of where this kid has won. Winning follows that kid."

The little engine that could ...

Defenseman Victor Hedman said, "He never takes a night off. You always know what he's going to give when he's on the ice."

"He's one of those guys that when the lights come on the biggest the stage, the better he plays," said Carolina Hurricanes Bill Peters said.

"Just his speed, and his skill, it all makes him very relentless," Ryan Callahan said. "How much he works on the ice can really frustrate a lot of people."

Johnson was American but Lightning Director of Amateur Scouting Al Murray kept noticing him at games and events where he was scouting Canadian players in 2007.

Murray couldn't help but focus on the undersized American, who played with a tenacity few possessed.

"I noticed three things about Tyler, and I'm not sure in what order exactly,"  Murray said. "He's tremendously competitive, he's very highly-skilled and he's an elite skater. The only thing he was lacking was height."

Ken Johnson could sense the frustration in his son’s voice. He encouraged Tyler not to worry about the draft snub, to focus on getting better as a hockey player and, most importantly, to enjoy himself out on the ice.
The suggestion was exactly what Tyler needed.

His mom, Debbie, taught kids in the area how to skate. Ken coached hockey and would later coach his son in the years leading up to his junior days.

Johnson began skating at 18 months. When he was four, his parents convinced local organizers to allow him to play in a league where the minimum age was six.

"My parents are kind of influential in the hockey world back home," he says. "It's a smaller town. My mom taught basically all the kids in my area how to skate.

"I started skating when I was really young, so it was just one of those things that was bound to happen."

"There are trends in hockey, it used to be if you were 6-foot-4, 6-5 you were going to be drafted early. The game has changed, speed and hockey IQ are definitely more important," former NHL forward Brendan Morrow said. "Everything is done at a very high pace and when people get to speed, their hands or feet can't keep up. Tyler makes plays while his feet are still moving. Their whole line is that way, but Tyler is the guy in the middle moving the puck."

In Tampa, Johnson had Marty St. Louis as one of his heroes to help him break into the NHL.

"It’s just one of those things that the smaller guys, even Marty St. Louis, kind of opened doors for the smaller guys to get into the league," Johnson said. "You see guys growing up that have the size and kind of the pedigree and everything. A lot of those guys aren't playing anymore. I just always had to work hard."

"I think you're just watching a little bit the changing of the guard," Cooper said, "of maybe Marty looking in the mirror 15 years ago and seeing Tyler Johnson."

Cooper paused, "It will be really a storybook if he's lifting a 35-pound trophy over his head."

Now, that would kind of be a real, life storybook end -- a Stanley Cup for Tyler Johnson.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Duncan Keith ... the perfect defenseman

By Larry Wigge

Six games without hockey.

That is like being locked up and having the key thrown away for Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith.

Keith's six-game suspension for high-sticking Minnesota's Charlie Coyle March 29 put the Chicago Blackhawks All-Star defenseman for the final five games of the 2015-16 season and Game 1 of the first-round of their St. Louis playoff series.

The two-time winner of the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman rails at the suspension, though he decided not to appeal it. He felt six games was a little hard ... but he is honest to himself.

You see, the tenacity and fearlessness are a part of Keith's game.

"It's tough sitting out and watching games and not being a part of it," Keith explained. "I compete hard. I'm not going to go change," Keith said. "It's not the first big game I've played in.

"It's a game and we want to get the win, so do what we can to find a way to get that win. But as far as dealing with somebody trying to get a reaction out of me, I take hits all the time. That's all a part of it."

When he returned to the game Friday night, Chicago was down 1-0 in the series and trailed in Game 2 1-0. But ...

With a faceoff deep in the St. Louis end and the clock ticking down in the second period, Jonathan Toews drew it back to Patrick Kane, who sent the puck back to the blue line to Keith.

Keith unleashed a slap shot through a screen that deposited high into the net with just five seconds remaining in the second period.

Later Keith also set up an empty-net goal as the Blackhawks evened the series 1-1 after Chicago's 3-2 victory.

"He comes up big in those moments," Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "He can be quiet for 55 minutes in a game and all of a sudden he's putting one into the back of your net. He's a calm guy back there. He does a great great job of breaking them out of their zone. You notice when he's not in the lineup and it's something we have to be ready for because he's a big part of their team."

Keith has three Stanley Cups, two Norris trophies, two Olympic golds and one playoff MVP award.

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

Chicago's big-minute defenseman Keith 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, 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."

Keith's dad, David, is a bank manager and his mom, Jean, is a nurse's aid.

And even though he was a tiny kid, the diminutive youngster overlooked the barriers he faced and made it to the NHL. 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."

Blackhaws coach Joel Quenneville says, “His energy rubs off on everybody, he's just a complete player.

"What can I say, he’s a horse."

"He's all over the rink, jumping into plays. He makes the game easier for everyone," said Toews.

"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," 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."

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."

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."

You don't have to go far from Bobby Orr, Brian Leetch or Niklas Lidstrom to get to Duncan Keith ... watching him/them on replay ... or in your dreams.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Troy Brouwer takes on his second journey for the Cup

By Larry Wigge

When it comes to Troy Brouwer terms like versatility and dependability are the first words mentioned.

Good words.

He plays a gritty game. Sandpaper or a compete-level beyond compare. He had to be willing to go to the hard areas. Brouwer is a winner, having won a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010.

"If I try and play like T.J. Oshie or try and come in and win the fans over with skill or something like that, I'm not going to be as effective of a player," Brouwer explained. "I've got to stick to what I know. Something that's kind of stuck to me for a long time is when I was younger, I had a coach that told me, 'Dance with the broad that you brought to the dance,' and that just means be the player that you are. Don't try and be something else. It's a funny little saying, but it's always one that stuck with me."

The trade of T.J. Oshie for Brouwer and minor league goaltender Pheonix Copley and a third-round pick in July raised more than a few eyebrows around the NHL.

"Brouwer gives us a little bit of a different look," explained Blues GM Doug Armstrong. "I think in today's game, you can see the teams that can come with a different look are hard to play against.

"I just think it fits into what I think you need to have success. That size (6-foot-3, 213 pounds) is something you can't teach, and the ability to play a heavy game. You look at our conference, you have to play with size and you have to play with weight. I think this certainly makes us a more difficult team to play against."

The 30-year-old veteran said, "I'm an honest player. I'm a guy that works hard. I've got some skill to me. I can make some plays, been able to score some goals, but I'm a big body, big power forward. I like to play in front of the net, in the corners, play a hard-nosed game, I'll fight when I need to.

"We've got to find a way to be able to get past this little hump of losing in the first or second round ... and it starts with closing teams out and not being afraid to succeed."

Asked to explain, Brouwer added, "When guys haven't been past a certain point, mentally it can be fairly tough. You want to win, and all you want to do is win. But you can't be afraid to not move on."

Brouwer wound up scoring 18 goals and 21 assists -- his high 10 seasons in the NHL has been 25 with Washington in 2013-14. He was third on the Blues in hits.

To win the Stanley Cup, there's a roll for Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson.

The Blackhawks are the defending Stanley Cup champions, having won it all in 2010, '13 and '15.

For Brouwer, it never has been an easy road. There are no promises. No guarantees with any of these late draft picks in the NHL Entry Draft.

Only hard work made them into NHL prospects.

Take Troy Brouwer for example. Never. I mean never would scouts watching the power forward with the Moose Jaw Warriors have considered him an NHL gem. He might have even doubted himself.

But ...

There was Brouwer sprinting behind the Florida Panthers defense, adeptly snaring a seeing-eye pass from Nicklas Backstrom and going in alone on goaltender Scott Clemmensen for a 6-5 triumph for the Washington Capitals on February 12, 2010. Clemmensen stopped Troy's first shot, but he couldn't recover in time to stop Brouwer's quick-reflex rebound attempt 32 seconds into into overtime.

A solo dash. A breakaway. Unheard of.

When Troy Brouwer was drafted with the 214th selection in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft by the Blackhawks ... it was an afterthought. But, hey, someone on the Blackhawks had a vision ...

"I didn't know I had a chance to play in the NHL, even after I was drafted. It was just a dream that seemed so far away," Brouwer recalled. "They talk about obstacles you have to overcome. Mine was always skating."

In the years after the draft, Brouwer had lots of help.

"One year the Blackhawks sent me to Fargo, N.D., to a power skating camp. The next two years I worked with Dan Jansen (the former U.S. Olympic speed skater). The last couple of years I worked with a guy at home in Vancouver -- Derek Popke," he analyzed. "My work at skating is never finished."

It wasn't until 2006-07 that Brouwer turned pro and scored 41 goals at Rockford of the American Hockey League that suddenly a light went on for both player and team.

Said Brouwer, "It was like I was suddenly not under the radar. The Hawks started expecting offense from me."

No, he wasn't Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux, but the Vancouver native could hold his own in the NHL.

As a youth, Troy Brouwer played on the same Pacific Vipers team with current Chicago teammates Seabrook, Andrew Ladd and Colin Fraser. Coached by former Vancouver Canucks John Grisdale and Harold SnepSnepststs, the team was dominant. During one stretch they won 25 consecutive tournaments.

There was at least a pedigree of talent there by Brouwer at a young age. But ...

Brouwer told the tale of a lesson his father, Don, a retired electrician in the North Delta area in Vancouver, taught him while he was in the Atom ranks as a nine-year-old. Seems young Troy had a lot to say to the refs. Although this was junior hockey, Troy racked up several 10-minute misconduct penalties.

"My dad used to pack my equipment bag for me," said Brouwer. "I could always count on him for that. One day, after another game when I got a 10-minute misconduct, I get to the rink for my team's next game and something's missing. Actually, a lot of things were missing."

That the penalty that a father gives to a too-smart-for-his-own-britches son.

Don Brouwer has always been on the mind of Troy -- in good times and bad.

Troy skipped the final four games of the 2010 to be with his father, who underwent emergency surgery after a brain aneurysm that required emergency surgery the effects of the blood clot.

After the first game of the Stanley Cup finals, Brouwer remembers getting a rah-rah text message from his sister Nicki with tips from their father.

During the Western Conference Final, the mandate from dad was, "You gotta take the puck to the net."

"Oh, he finds a way to get word to me," Troy said with a wry smile. "He'll call my sister with his notes ... and she'll text me."

He'll never forget the message from father after scoring two goals in a 6-5 come-from-behind victory over the Philadelphia Flyers.

Nicki sat with Don at the rehab center and her text message to Troy was: They both had tears in their eyes.

"It was a special moment, as you could imagine," said Brouwer. "Just because Dad couldn't be here, it doesn't change anything. He's one of the people I play for. He's always going to be my Dad."

Brouwer was not without supporters. His mother Kathy, a nurse at B.C. Women's Hospital, is in town along with the parents of Brouwer's wife, Carmen.

When Brouwer left the United Center on that Sunday in 2010, he planned to phone his dad. That's something he tries to avoid on game days, even though his father is on his mind.

"I usually leave that alone because I want to focus on hockey," Brouwer said. "It's always difficult when I do talk to my dad because I'm not able to be with him."

All that was left for the Brouwer family was a visit by Lord Stanley. On July 15, 2010, the Cup was in North Delta, British Columbia, for a day with Troy and his dad.

"Somebody brings it right to your front door," Brouwer said. "They'll come as early as you want. You get a full day to do what you want."

How cool is that?

They don't talk about it as if it is an inanimate object. It isn't. It lives.

"That's how guys see it," Brouwer said. "It's not just a trophy that you win. I don't know, it's like a figurehead. It's like an ultimate goal that you want to be with and not just hold it once. You want to be with it as many times as you can."

Brouwer got the absolute maximum out of his day in 2010.

It started at 8 a.m., so Brouwer could have breakfast with the Cup.

From there, it was on to a very special moment for the Brouwer family. Troy's father Don had a stroke not long before the playoffs began and he was still in the hospital.

"He was up walking again," said Brouwer, who noted his dad is fine now. "He did a lot of good rehab to be able to be in shape to be up all day, to walk around, to be able to hold it, drink from it."

From there, the Cup got a tour of a fire station and a police station. Many of Brouwer's childhood friends are policemen and firefighters. Then came a parade and "about 10,000 people showed up," Brouwer said. "In a town of 30,000, that's pretty good."

Then it was on to the grand finale.

"We went to my parents' house. They have a big backyard," he said, "and we had a nice little party, about 200 people, late into the night."

Good news. Don attended the Washington-Chicago outdoor game on December 31,2014. His vision was affected. He lost a fair bit of movement on his left side. But he was there.

In terms of his nonhockey life, Brouwer’s marriage, the health of his dad, the birth of his daughter Kylie Marie in October 2012 are among the things that rank a bit higher. In hockey, nothing else comes close.

"I think the best moment other than that is when they bring the Cup out onto the ice," Brouwer said. "And you realize you get to hoist it, your name is going to be on it and you get to party with it."

Troy Brouwer vs, the Blackhawks.

For Brouwer this would be like the same long journey that he undertook in 2010. This time, however, it would be with this St. Louis Blues.

Shall we say, Stanley Cup or bust.

Monday, April 11, 2016

It's the NHL and Jarome Iginla at 39 is still young

By Larry Wigge

It rarely happens that you play 17, 18 years. But ...

Forty-four year old Jaromir Jagr and 37 year old Joe Thornton have made the older generation live again. Playing at 40 or above is the new rage.

Let's count Jarome Iginla, 39, in for next year -- the Colorado Avalanche power-forward said he's ready for all of the off-season training.

On the last day of the 2015-16 season, Iginla's goal against the Anaheim Ducks on Saturday afternoon marked his 611th career tally, which moved him to take sole possession of 16th overall in career NHL goals scored by surpassing Bobby Hull's 610 goals. He's nearing in on an Avalanche legend, as well -- with the 611th goal, Iginla is now just 14 goals behind Joe Sakic for 15th all-time in league history.

Iginla’s eye-popping resume includes gold medals, countless individual accolades and more goals than even the most pie-in-the-sky kid could dream of ... except a Stanley Cup.

"I have lots to be appreciative about," Iginla explained. "I've gotten to play 19 years. I've gotten to play on a few good teams and get to be in the Cup final (with the Flames in 2004) and get to play for Team Canada ... "

Iginla's second effort on scoring No. 611 tells me he's got lots more to give.

"I'd love to win. I'm still enjoying it and I want to still push for it and I still believe it can happen. But to play as long as I have and to play in the situations and with guys I’ve played with, it's been awesome.

"But, saying that, I would love to get the cherry on top. I'd love to be part of winning, there's no question."

Iginla's rebound of his own shot for his 22nd goals to go along with 25 assists this season. It was his 17th 20-goal season, though in his career 52 goals in 20001-02 was his career-high. He also scored 50 again in 2007-08 and topped the 40-goal mark twice.

"He's one of those special players that don't come along to often,” said Arizona's Shane Doan. "I can't say enough good things about him as a player. He's everything that I think every player wants to be. He's tough. He scores goals. He makes plays. He does everything for everybody. And yet, as a person, he's that much better. I'm a huge, huge fan.”

Who did you watch hockey with when you were growing up?

"I grew up in a city just outside of Edmonton, St. Albert. So I watched NHL games with my grandpa," Iginla said. "Whoever Edmonton played, I watched. So, the guys I looked up to -- Edmonton had great teams -- Mark Messier, Wayne Gretzky, those are two of my favorites. Also, Grant Fuhr. Being a minority, and not many black players in the NHL, it was a big deal to me to try to follow as many of the black players in the NHL.

"But Gretzky and Messier for how great they were, their on ice achievements and winning, and Grant Fuhr, being an All-Star. I loved goalies for a long time, debated wanting to be one growing up, so those are the guys."

Actually, Iginla was big into baseball as a youngster.

"I grew up wanting to be a two-sport star like Bo Jackson," Iginla said. "But the opportunities were better in hockey being from Canada."

Your full name is Jarome Arthur-Leigh Adekunle Tig Junior Elvis Iginla. How long did it take to write your name?

"It took a long time," he said emphatically. "Just pronouncing my name was hard enough. I got it down except for the Adekunle part, I still have trouble pronouncing it. It was fun growing up, people couldn't believe it, so I had to pull out my birth certificate."

Your father's from Nigeria. When he came to Canada, he changed his name to Elvis. Does that mean you grew up listening to a lot of Elvis?

"No," he laughs. "He thought Elvis was a common name, like Mike or Mark, and he just liked the name and gave it to himself. At the time, he didn't realize it was unique. His original name was Adekunle, and people had a hard time pronouncing it, that's why he changed it."

Your grandmother and your mother were music teachers, and at one time, your mother delivered singing telegrams. How much was music part of your life growing up?

"Music was a big part of my upbringing. My mum and my grandma are very passionate about music," he said. "As a child, along with my cousins, we went to a few music festivals. We were coerced into singing in front of everyone. It's hard to talk about it because people think I'm musical, but I'm really not. My grandma thinks everybody's musical, especially her grandkids."

Your parents were divorced when you were 2. That gave you a chance to live with you grandfather and grandma.

"To me, there's a lot of pride in where you come from," Iginla added. "I know I'm proud of my parents and grandparents. They brought me up to treat everyone the way you'd like people to treat you. What a great lesson, eh?"

Iginla 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.

"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. "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. 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 6-foot-1, 207-pound Edmonton native, who was the No. 11 pick by the Dallas Stars in the 1995 NHL Entry Draft, was only traded back in December 1995 because the Stars had an opportunity to acquire Joe Nieuwendyk, who himself scored 50 goals twice.

Individual accolades Jarome Iginla has. It's the last kick at the Stanley Cup can that he wants.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Scott Hartnell -- scoring goals the hard way for the Jackets

By Larry Wigge

It takes a knack to make a living out of working in the blue paint. It takes your whole being, tip-ins, deflections, rebounds to be deposited in the net.

Scott Hartnell has made a living out of what some people call the garbage goals.

In the final game of the 2015-16 season, Hartnell made news and history by scoring two goals and two assists as the Columbus Blue Jackets beat the Blackhawks 5-4 in overtime doing what he does best.

The 33-year-old veteran got in the way of Cam Atkinson's drive, deflecting in a goal at 2:32 of overtime to end Hartnell's 15-game goalless skid since March 4.

His first goal came when scored on a rebound. It was the 300th of his career and it brought Columbus within 3-1, and that's when this game started to turn around.

And it turned around quickly.

Hartnell was the sixth overall pick in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft by the Nashville Predators. The 6-2, 210-pound winger finished the season with 23 goals and 26 assists. His best season was 37 goals in 2011-12. However, he has been the model of consistency, reaching the 20-goal mark 10 times -- including 23 goals this season.

For history sake, Hartnell became the third player from the 2000 NHL Entry Draft to score 300 goals, joining Marian Gaborik and Danny Heatley.

Too know Hartnell ... is to love him.

"I didn't know him at all ... but I hated him," Blue Jackets left wing Nick Foligno said. "But once he got here -- now that he's on my side and I've seen him work day in, day out -- I really appreciate who that guy is.

"You know what it is? He loves the game of hockey and all it includes. Loves it. The way he plays the game, to get to 1,000 games is tough to do. That’s a lot of nights playing injured, playing hurt and doing whatever it takes to be out there playing. You admire a guy like that."

Hartnell has missed an average of six games per season throughout his career. After suffering a concussion in each of his first three seasons, he said he "toned my act down a bit."

"I was pretty reckless when I was younger," Hartnell said. "I had to change the way I played, had to stop putting myself in vulnerable situations. No way I make it to today if I hadn't done that."

Even at the age of 18, Scott Hartnell seemed to have attitude that was all grown up. The Nashville Predators rookie knew exactly who he was ... and who he was going to be.

Well, sort of ...

"Cam Neely from the Boston Bruins," he explained, talking about the Hall of Fame right winger. "I love that he could score and how physical he was."

The Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, native, had the power forward package. Now, he would have to produce up to form to meet such high expectations.

Neely, after all, was born in Western Canada as was Hartnell. But Cam's 13-year-career was boasted by some big-time numbers -- 55 goals in 1989-90 and 51 and 50. That 50-goal season came in just 49 games in '93-94 campaign cut short due to injuries.

"He is the epitome of the type of player we want in our organization," said Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen. "He is a talented, tough, hard-working player who brings valuable experience and leadership on and off the ice."

This man-child has always been ahead of the class in the aptitude department. Maybe that -- in part -- is because of the way Scott was brought up.

Bill and Joy Hartnell were the keys for the way Scott was brought up. They were both teachers of special needs children.

"Growing up, both my parents were school teachers and were involved with special needs kids -- integrating them into the classroom and activities during and after school," he said. "So I just was always around that way of thinking that everyone was entitled to a regular life.

"Some people are maybe afraid or don't know how to act around people that may be different than them, but to me everyone's special in their own way. That would be my first experience, not so much giving back, but seeing how much your time and effort means to people."

"You can look at everyone as unique," said Bill Hartnell.

He said that the father's trips through the years with the Predators, Philadelphia Flyers and Columbus Blue Jackets, allows him to talk to his son about "neat parts of his life and how things are going" and that it gives them "quality time" together.

"Even when he's at home, there's always a few more people around and it's not very often we sit down for an hour one-on-one," Bill said, "so this is good that way."

Kyla Hartnell, who just happens to be a physical therapist, says her famous brother was "very cuddly" while growing up, is one of four siblings in her family to play hockey. Her other two brothers, Chad and Kevin, played in college, and she still plays in two leagues. Kyla gets emotional when talking about Scott, the youngest of the siblings. She gets so emotional that she needs to pause for 30 seconds before she can get the words out.

She co-wrote a children's book called "HartnellDown."

"I brought it up at a board meeting for our foundation," says Scott. "I thought it would a good idea to create a children's book about when you get knocked down, you get right back up again. It happens in school, when you get a bad grade, you study harder next time. My sister and I spoke afterward and she said she thought it was a really great idea. So I had one believer in the group. I started writing things down, she got started as well, and we have this masterpiece!"

In March of 2009, the Flyers held "Hartnell Wig Night," where fans attending the game were given wigs resembling his hair. On October 23, 2010, Hartnell revealed he had cut his bushy hair off and donated it to Locks of Love.

"I had grown my hair out for a year and the next season I was like 'Oh, maybe I should just keep it going,' so I went the next whole season without cutting it," he said. "You've seen it, it's crazy, it's curly, it just does what it does and I don't have much control over it, so when it came time to cut it I was fooling around on the Internet and saw that George Parros from the Anaheim Ducks had donated his mustache for Locks of Love so I thought why not do the same thing?

"So I got it chopped off and donated it and a little money and hopefully some kid is the better for it. It made me feel good to know I helped out in some small way. At the end of the day, it's not like I'm looking for some award or anything like that; it's just something I'm privileged to be able to do."

What was that like, seeing as all the proceeds went to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, a charity that hits close to home?

"That was cool. My mom had a stroke over 10 years ago and lost most of her ability to walk and get around good, but she's healthy in her mind and gets around as best she can and is the same mom I had pre-stroke," he said. "When something like that happens you, it could be any family member, an auntie, an uncle, it really does hit home and you know how scary everything is and how fragile life is. It was very difficult for me and my family at the time and I'm just so grateful she got through it and it's great to now be able to give back a little as well."

When Joy's stroke sent her to the hospital 2 1/2 hours from home, Scott wasted no time in leasing an apartment nearby for himself. It was still hard for him to say goodbye when training camp began.

"I think it threw everyone in the family for a loop when Joy suffered the stroke," Bill recalled. " But I think Joy's strength has come through for Scott and his brothers and sister.

"Scott phones home often. He called every day after the stroke just to give her a pep talk. It's a way for him to give back. She was always his biggest supporter ... and now things have come back full cycle."

"She's not quite as strong as she was, but she's the same mom she used to be," Scott recalled. "If she'd lost her personality, that's what we would would have been scared about the most -- but she's doing good. Thank goodness it wasn't worse."

In early 2012, Hartnell founded the HartnellDown Foundation as a way to provide support to charities that support hockey, children and communities around the United States and Canada. It started as a Twitter following to keep track of the number of times Hartnell would fall down during the NHL season. When Hartnell himself joined Twitter, rather than taking offense, he embraced the catchphrase and began to sell merchandise that had it printed on it with the proceeds going to Hartnell's favorite hockey-related charities. At the 2012 NHL All-Star Game, Hartnell donated $1,000 to charity for every "hartnelldown" mention that was tweeted during the competition.

The 33-year-old, who leads the Blue Jackets in scoring with 43 points in 63 games, is proving he still has a lot left in the tank, too. He's one goal shy of 300 in his career and would love to earn it against his former club.

"We have to make this one count in Philly. I like playing there obviously," Hartnell said. "You get excited for those games. It will definitely be a big test for us."

Hartnell's also recorded two goals and six assists in seven matchups with the Flyers since the swap. Ouch.

"Scott's gone through he whole life growing up quickly," said Bill Hartnell. "I think his older brothers and sister expected mature behavior from him. And when he left home at a young age, he took on a lot of responsibility, making choices and decisions on his own."

What's the greatest thing in life you learned?

"Trust your instincts. You're going to make mistakes, but don't be afraid to live and learn. That goes in hockey, in life and in relationships. Just go with it and whatever happens love life and enjoy every day."

It's like dusting yourself off and getting back up from the ice. Then scoring another goal for Scott Hartnell.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Kris Letang is clearly one of the NHL's best defensemen

By Larry Wigge

It's playoff time and every team is looking for a game changer or a player who can literally change the complexion of the game. Be a difference maker. A quarterback.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can change the complexion of a game ... just like that. Kris Letang is a difference maker or a quarterback as well.

At 6-0, 201-pounds, Letang orchestrates the Pittsburgh Penguins offense.

In each game you can find several game-changing differences that this little defenseman can affect.

Let me take you back to about 3 minutes of the Penguins 5-3 victory over the Ottawa Senators April 5 or their 4-3 overtime decision at Washington two nights later.

As usual Letang was at his best against Ottawa with two assists, but it was his game-saving save on Alex Chiasson's shot near the goal line with the scored tied 3-3 and 6:10 remaining that turned a potential loss into a victory and against the Capitals it was Letang's long pass that sent Crosby in for the winning goal in overtime.

In truth, Letang changes the complexion of each game.

"Kris the best defenseman now in the league," Malkin explained. "He stars in the offensive zone. He makes our offense go."

Crosby adds, "You see how many minutes he logs a game and how important those minutes are --– he's playing power play, penalty kill, he does it all. I think everybody recognizes when he's on the ice and what he generates and the way he can control a game."

"I like to be dynamic. I like to be on the rush," Letang admitted. "Sometimes we're not winning or we're trailing or I don’t see our game creating chances and stuff like that, so I try to go and I try to do something more and I try to bring a little more to the table.

"You're not going to beat five guys on your own. You have to play the same way, the same game and things will open up."

All great playmakers ad lib improvising. Letang can often be found working his magic in and around the net, at the mid-boards or at either of the point positions.

Some have said Kris Letang was too small to play in the big man's game. Others criticize him for becoming a better game on defense to rival his offensive numbers. Others simply say the Penguins have unleashed their latest pit bull on the rest of the NHL.

To think, it wasn't until midget hockey that Letang grew from 5-9 to 6-0 feet tall and was switched from forward to defense. He was just developing on defense when when was the 61st chosen by the Penguins in the third-round of NHL Entry Draft in 2005.

"I was 5-9, 155 pounds when I switched to defense," the Montreal native explained. "I was still pretty small -- 5-10, 185 pounds when I was drafted. I worked out each year to build myself up. I don't want to be the small player."

It's the evolution of Letang's defensive game that has earned him a place in this team's core, making him a considerable candidate in the Norris Trophy race for the best defenseman in the game.  He's a very smart power-play quarterback and plays a clean, efficient, mistake-free game. He's a very subtle player, but very underrated. His poise under pressure, neat spin moves and great puck movement decisions give him a good shot to overcome the size handicap.

Going into the final game of the season, Letang had 16 goals and 51 assists -- career highs in goals, assists and points. To be more exact, Kris had 11 goals and 43 assists in 16 of the Penguins' victories and was a plus 22 in those wins.

Growing up, Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr were his favorite players.

"Mario came over and talked to me and gave me a lot of tips," Letang explained. "Even now that he’s retired, he still stops in our locker room all the time to make sure we’re never too nervous about a game."

Kris Letang has grown up a lot.

"When I was 5 my Mom (Christiane) was carrying me everywhere," Letang recalled with fondness. "I alawys had a passion for the game of hockey."

Stopping Chiasson's shot from crossing the goal line wasn't nearly as tragic as Letang brush with death on January 29, 2013, when his wife, Catharine, awoke to find her husband lying on the floor of their bedroom.

Catherine summoned her mother, who is a nurse and was visiting the Letangs, and they elected not to call 9-1-1.

When his condition was made public February 7, it was announced Letang would be re-evaluated in six weeks. Doctors also discovered a small hole in his heart that could have contributed to the stroke.

"The hole in the heart, actually, it’s not a problem because I’ve been living with it for 26 years. I’ve never had a problem with that conditioning-wise or anything like that," he said. "The symptoms that I'm experiencing right now are from that stroke, what it damaged or did to my brain. For now, it’s just worrying about my head."

Letang remained on blood thinners -- and the likelihood of him returning to the ice without some strong offseason training. Which Letang followed to a tee.

That was the decision making part of Kris Letang's future -- a moment in time, which gave him change ... or, at least, the designs in change.

You could put his decision-making as the best part of his job.

"Playing against the top lines. Going to Washington and knowing that I'm going to be matched against one of the best players in the league Alexander Ovechkin," Letang pictured.

He did it against the Capitals in the next to the last game of the season.

"We try to talk to him about playing within himself and being a little bit more calculated with his decision-making," coach Mike Sullivan said. "When he does try to do too much, it's usually the result of because he's trying to make a difference. But in some instances, and this has been my constant dialogue with him, sometimes less is more. When he recognizes that, we think he plays an efficient game."

Larry Murphy, Paul Coffey and Sergei Gonchar have preceded Letang as quality defensemen in Pittsburgh.

"In my opinion, he deserves to be a Norris Trophy candidate because of all the numbers that he puts up, because of his workload, because of how much better he's become as a player," said Gonchar.

Too often recently, the Norris Trophy has been given to only the best offensive defenseman. Ottawa's Erik Karlsson and Montreal's P.K. Subban have won. Ray Bourque, Chris Pronger, Al MacInnis, Nick Lidstrom and Duncan Keith and Zdeno Chara have been named. Kris Letang has grown into one of those offensive and defensive defenseman.

Letang was that one-dimensional defenseman when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009 ... but oh how he has grown.

" 'Gonch brought me clips of Nicklas Lidstrom, how he plays defensively," Letang said. "He's a guy that was not hitting a lot. He was just always in good position so we looked at that. Offensively, we look at a guy like Karlsson, who shoots the puck every time it goes on his stick and that’s how he creates his offense.

"We look at different players. Everybody brings different things to the table, so we try to pick and choose what to work on."

Copying the greats of the game is something new to Letang ... but it is not without criticism.

"The guys picked ahead of me were like 6 feet 1, 200 pounds," Letang said. "Now it's based on skating and skill, so I'd probably be drafted higher than the third round."

Former coach Dan Bylsma saw the bigger is better -- and much, much more.

"We've talked about how good he can be," said Bylsma "His development isn't a shock to us. Every time he goes over the boards, as far as we're concerned, he's now a shutdown defenseman. The great thing is, Kris still has a long way to go. As good as Kris is, he's going to get better."

New Jersey GM Ray Shero says he like Letang's progress better than when he was with the Penguins.

"I like what I see," Shero said. "He's a smart player. Really good footwork. One of those new-rules guys, obviously. They should be good for him.

"He's a puck-moving guy which, for us moving forward as an organization, we'll be looking for more guys like that."

Kris Letang clearly belongs in the Crosby-Malkin scenario of great players.

It's playoff time and every team is looking for a game changer or a player who can literally change the complexion of the game. Be a difference maker. A quarterback.