Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Remember the Finnish Flash ... Patrik Laine is the latest

By Larry Wigge

Give it to Patrik Laine for honestly stating that he was the No. 1 player in this draft.

Maybe yes. Maybe no he wasn't. But he had the nerve to state it out loud.

"I want to be No. 1 because I want to show people that I want to be the best player in this draft and that's the thing that I wanna be," Laine explained. "The first one."

He continued, "I would be lying if I said I couldn't go first. That's always been my goal. After this season, I think it's really possible to go first."

That second part of the story is Laine saying that Toronto, you had it, and you messed up.

The Maple Leafs bypassed Laine for center Auston Matthews as the No. 1 pick the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.

Marc Scheifele, now a teammate, got to face him in the World championship's.

"He's a really good player," Scheifele said. "He’s got an unbelievable shot. You know, he thinks the game well. He's got a lot of skill to his game and he's going to be a special player."

Starring as a teenager for Finland's silver-medal winning squad at the world championships last month, he tied for the tournament lead with seven goals and was fourth among all players with 12 points in 10 games.

During the regular season, playing for Taprara Tampere Laine came up with 17 goals and 16 assists in 46 games in the Finnish league regular season.

Laine is the flashier, more explosive of the two top prospects, an exciting goal-scorer capable of wowing a crowd. Matthews has the size (six foot two, more than 200 pounds), skill and speed.

The way he sets up in the high slot and waits for the one-timer is straight from the Alex Ovechkin playblook and Laine has the shot to pull it off. That's going to be a nightmare to deal with for the Central Division.

Here's another Ovi-type goal from the World Championships. This is what he does. Try and stop it.

Comparisons have been made to fellow Finn Teemu Selanne as well as minted snipers Alex Ovechkin and Brett Hull. He makes reporters laugh and loves to smile. When he wears his hair long he looks like a rock star.

Laine has a powerful confidence. It's hard to look away from him when he's in the room or on the ice. He draws your attention. When Team Canada tried to give him a rough go at the recent World Championship -- a late and dirty hit from Corey Perry and lots of chirping -- Laine revelled in it.

"I like it when the other team loses its focus and does bad and dirty things to me," Laine said. "When they start talking at me it means they've lost their own game.

"If they focus on me like that, it makes it easier for my teammates to make plays. I keep my cool and play mine and our game. I like it when the other team tries to get me. It makes me play better and it means they're distracted."

Take it from the draft of 1980, when Jari Kurri was the 69th pick by the Edmonton Oilers and in 1988, when Selanne was the 10th pick overall by the Jets for the Finnish invasion into the NHL to begin.

"He's a powerful kid who probably doesn't realize yet what he has in his toolbox," said TV analyst Ray Ferraro. "Right now it's all about his shot. Why not? If you popped him into the NHL right now on this day, he's got a top-five shot in the entire league. His shot is unreal. And it's not just the one-timer. It's his wrist shot too. His mechanics and his release are elite.

"You know how some guys just hit the golf ball farther than anyone else and you don’t know why? Well, that's this kid and his shot. But he's going to figure out he has more than just the shot. He's almost 6-5 and his reach is Mario Lemieux-like. When he puts his body between you and the puck and extends his arms, you're seven feet away from the puck. It's impossible to take the puck from him. I'll say this: He really won me over at the worlds."

So, the pure, elite goal-scoring winger can be just as cherished in the recipe of a champion. If not for Jamie Benn, Ovechkin, Vladimir Tarasenko, Perry and Patrick Kane, where would their teams be?

He's listed as 6-foot-4, but he says he's bigger.

"Six-foot-4.7," Laine said, careful to make sure the decimal is heard. He wants to wring every inch out of his height and prodigious talent.

Dressed in a blue suit with no tie, he's got the last few pimples of his teenage years and a beard that is little more than a patch of light blonde scruff here and there.

His hair is neatly cut -- not the stringy flow that leaked out of his helmet late this past season.

"That's my tradition. I let it grow all season and then cut it down," Laine said.

"From the moment we won the lottery, we knew we were going to have the opportunity to get a very special player," said Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff. "Being able to continue some scouting and watch him play at the world championships, it only went to confirm how excited we were to have the opportunity to draft him.

"Meeting him at the combine, his personality is fantastic. We had some great conversations, some good laughs and it's going to be a really great fit for the City of Winnipeg and certainly for our franchise."

For the Winnipeg Jets franchise, it has been since 1991 when the Jets took Dale Hawerchuk No. 1 overall in the NHL Entry Draft and to the selection of Selanne -- never did the quality rise to the front.

"Those are the things that separate the good players from the very good players ... and the fact that the bigger the stage, the better he played," Cheveldayoff said. "When you talk to players of that kind of caliber, you expect those kind of answers. But I think it's how you deliver it and the context of everything, so when you're sitting in the confines of the meeting, that's what you're looking for, you're looking for how it's delivered and how it's handled.

"When you're asking those kinds of questions, you see a kind of humility when he's saying it. It's like, 'Look, I know I'm a good player, but I just want to play hockey. I want to be the best and the best at everything I do and I'm driven towards it.' I would venture a guess that within the confines of a lot of meetings over the course of time, the good players probably said that as well."

Laine's sense of humor also stood out.

"There are lots of little things you talk about and he's quick to answer," Cheveldayoff continued. "He's got a good command of the English language, so he understands and he's thoughtful in his answers. There's always that dry sense of humor."

Selanne broke into the NHL as a dynamic rookie of the year.

"It would be nice to play in the city where he played. They city is crazy about him. And he's coming back to the outdoor game," said Laine. "They have the smallest rink and the best fans in the NHL, I've heard. It's a cold city, which I'm of course used to."

Will he be the next Finnish Flash or a flash in the pan?

For Patrik Laine, he of the booming shot, being compared with Alex Ovechkin or Brett Hull, their must be some Flash to his game.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Auston Matthews, No. 1 with a bullet

By Larry Wigge

Scottsdale, Arizona and this little kid who wanted to play hockey: Who wouldn't say no?

Auston Matthews has followed a road not travelled. After skipping major junior and U.S. college hockey, an 18-year-old kid from the Sunbelt known for its cacti, golf courses and desert nightlife, chose Zurich in Switzerland to become the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft.

"Zurich is a really good fit, a good place to develop," Matthews explained.  "The skill level is very high. It's a pro atmosphere."

While in Switzerland, Matthews put up 24 goals and 22 points in 36 games, won the league's Rising Star award and was second in voting for Most Valuable Player.

One year earlier, playing for the U.S. National Team Development Program, Matthews registered 117 points, shattering the program record of 102 set by Kane in 2005-06.

Matthews became the first No. 1 overall pick to come out of the Southwest, but he was first seventh American-born player selected first in the draft since Patrick Kane to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007 ... but also the first player starring in Europe to go No. 1 since Alex Ovechkin to the Washington Capitals in 2004.

The 6-2, 205-pound Matthews became the first No. 1 pick by the Toronto Maple Leafs since Wendel Clark in 1985.

Like Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh, Alexander Ovechkin in Washington, Kane and Jonathan Toews in Chicago, and, more recently, Connor McDavid in Edmonton, Matthews is that once-in-a-generation prospect capable of raising up a moribund franchise and banishing decades of futility and angst in the blink of an eye.

That is certainly the hope of long-suffering Toronto hockey fans.

On Friday night, Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock called Matthews an "elite player" with an "elite drive train."

"He can be Auston Matthews, a real good player who is going to be a dominant center for the Leafs playing with or without the puck," Babcock said. "He'll be a championship-style center."

"Coach Babcock's resume speaks for itself. Olympic champion. Stanley Cup champion ... I think I can learn a lot from a guy like him," Matthews said of his new coach.

There have been four great Leafs centermen in my lifetime: Dave Keon, Darryl Sittler, Doug Gilmour and Mats Sundin. All in the Hall of Fame. And now a new day. A new name. A new possibility to build around.

"At times Auston reminds me of Anze Kopitar and at times, Jean Beliveau because of his reach and seemingly effortless stride," said Marc Crawford, the Zurich coach who held the same job in the NHL for 15 seasons. "His puckhandling skills are off the chart. I'm always amazed at the things he can do. And it really translates in a game. His short-area game is at an NHL level for sure ... and it's at an NHL elite level.

"I believe that's a lot of what the game is becoming. Those little plays that you make when you’re getting checked. People are pinching up so much more now and there's so much confrontation at the bluelines that you've got to be able to make plays in that five-foot area. You've got to be able to protect the puck and get by people. He does those things exceptionally well."

Matthews says his game compares to Kings center Kopitar and Chicago's Toews. Both players have five Stanley Cups between them.

And now comes the best part of this story.

Auston comes from a very athletic family ... not just hockey.

"I was really into baseball because my dad and grandpop played it growing up," he remembered, telling me that his father was a former college pitcher. "I really enjoyed hitting the most and that was really my strong suit. I enjoyed catching as well."

His uncle, Wes Matthews, played for the Miami Dolphins in 1966 where he finished the season with one catch for 20 yards. Auston's 14-year-old sister Breyana is one of the top 14-year-old golfers in the state.

This, you must remember, was a kid who wanted to learn about everything.

As a two-year-old he attended his first NHL game with his Brian, his father, and his uncle, Billy Matthews, a Coyotes season-ticket holder.

The young fan was captivated by the Zamboni machine that cleaned the ice during intermissions.

"I remember it being really loud," Matthews recalled.

Shortly after his sixth birthday, Matthews surprised his father by stating a desire to play hockey. His father has videotape of Auston's first trip around the ice.

"He had a very big grin on his face," Brian Matthews said. "I remember seeing that smile and thinking, Dang! This is going to be an expensive sport."

"I think he loved baseball," Brian Matthews said, "but there was too much standing around for him. If he could have batted every 15 seconds he would have loved it. Waiting around for the pitcher to throw the ball, it wasn't active enough for him."

Growing up in Scottsdale, Auston's favorite players were Shane Doan and Daniel Briere.

Matthews first expressed a desire to play hockey shortly after his sixth birthday and began playing with the Arizona Bobcats minor hockey program.

"When I was young, we were always traveling to Detroit, Chicago or Canada to find competition," Matthews said.

Brian is the chief technology officer for an east-coast firm, and Ema, his mom, is a former flight attendant from Hermosillo, Mexico, who has also worked in real estate and education. The two met at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and Auston was born a bit north in San Ramon, just outside San Francisco, though he was raised in Scottsdale.

Brian Matthews met his wife in college while working for an airline in Los Angeles. He didn't want the assignment that day -- a Mexican airline needed a hand with something -- but then the plane door opened and there she was.

"She spoke no English," Brian Matthews said of his wife, who grew up in a family of nine on a ranch in Mexico, before becoming a flight attendant. "I spoke no Spanish. I got fluent in about six months."

Matthews himself said he didn't go to Switzerland to be any sort of pioneer. He just wanted to play and get better.

"I felt like I was ready for the next step in pro hockey and in my development ... to prepare for the NHL," he said.

Under the terms of his work visa, he couldn't play until he turned 18, so he watched Zurich's first 12 games from the stands. On September 17 a Swiss television crew came to Zurich's practice rink with a birthday cake with 18 candles. Ema Matthews and the stadium crew whipped up a Mexican dinner for the team.

"I love mom's chicken tortilla soup," said Matthews. "She made it for the team for my birthday in Zurich, and afterwards the wives of almost half the players were asking for the recipe."

Emma served as the parent-figure for Auston in Switzerland. When Auston isn't playing hockey, he's on his computer taking classes online, spending a few hours each day in the evening.

"Alex (his sister) helps tutor Auston with some of his classes he takes online," Ema Matthews said. "She didn't take the entire semester off, so she has some college classes she's taking online as well. When she's not tied up with Auston, she'll help me around the house."

Ema never thought twice about packing her bags and joining her son to help live out his dream. At one point, she worked two jobs – at Starbucks and as a waitress at a high-end restaurant – to help pay for Auston's hockey.

"The whole family felt it was important for Auston to have family support in another country," she said. "It was a relatively easy decision for all of us. We understood the sacrifices we were making, and any of them would have done the same for the others if asked.

"I cook every day ... typically breakfast and dinner. I don't have to make lunch that much as Auston will go out with teammates after practice.

"Every now and again we'll go out to eat, but mostly I'm cooking to make sure he gets the nutrition he needs."

The trip to Switzerland became an accounting trip. How could the Matthews make hockey work?

"It was difficult," Brian Matthews said of making the costs work. "There were times where it was like, 'How are we going to do this?' But you find a way. Our son had a passion and one way or another we found a way to get things done."

Matthews exploded for 55 goals and 100 points in 48 games with the AAA Arizona Bobcats, gaining the attention of the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Lou Lamoriello, Toronto's GM, says, "He looks fast and strong. He's not your typical franchise centerman who can do everything. He competes at both ends. He has the size and strength to play a 200-foot game."

Auston Matthews has made a long journey to be the No. 1 pick in the draft -- from Sunbelt to Toronto.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Kris Letang from 5-8 to the Stanley Cup

By Larry Wigge

He carried the puck down the left wing, looking to make a play. Then he continued on, circling behind the net. Always surveying for the best scoring chance.

In less than a minute early in the second period of Game 6, Kris Letang went from playmaker extraordinaire to settling into one of those famous holes that goal scorers find.

He got in position to take a feed from Sidney Crosby behind the net and banged in a one-timer at 7:46 for a 3-1 victory over San Jose.

"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."

Letang scored the winning goal for the Pittsburgh Penguins in their Stanley Cup-clinching victory over the Sharks. This is the third consecutive year that the Stanley Cup-winning goal was scored by a defenseman. The Kings' Alec Martinez scored the Cup winner in double-overtime in 2014 and the Blackhawks' Duncan Keith scored the Cup decider in 2015.

Defensemen scoring the winning goal in the clinching game of a Stanley Cup Final series had been a rarity. In fact, before this three-year streak it had happened only four times in the previous 40 years (1973-2013), with those goals scored by Paul Coffey (1985 Oilers), Ulf Samuelsson (1991 Penguins), Uwe Krupp (1996 Avalanche) and Frantisek Kaberle (2006 Hurricanes).

What's more, Letang managed to have a hand in all four of his team's game-winning goals in the Cup final. He becomes only the fourth player to accomplish this feat, the other three are among the greats of the game, Milt Schmidt in 1941, Jean Beliveau in 1965 and Wayne Gretzky in 1987.

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.

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.

This season started out as one to forget for the Penguins. On December 12, Pittsburgh stood in 12th place in the Eastern Conference. The Penguins also replaced coach Mike Johnston with Mike Sullivan.

After a slow start under Sullivan, Letang finished with 16 goals and 51 assists -- the highest point total in his nine-year career. He then scored three goals and 12 assists in 23 games of the playoffs.

He averaged 28:52 per game, taking on top forwards such as Rick Nash of the New York Rangers, Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Joe Thornton, all the while getting hit by opposition forecheckers every time they got the chance.

"Tanger is invaluable," Sullivan said. "He just plays so many important minutes for us and in so many situations. He's an elite defenseman. I think he's one of the top defensemen in the league."

Letang is perfectionist who is notorious for watching and re-watching game tape to figure out what he did wrong on plays where goals were scored.

"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."

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."

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.

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."

After taking his turn to hoist the Cup, Letang carried his son in his arms on the ice and took a moment to reflect the journey he has made since first hoisting the Cup with the Penguins as a kid himself in 2009.

"Second year I won the Cup, so I thought it was a guarantee, you know?" Letang said. "Seven years without it. I enjoyed this one. It's a hard accomplishment."

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Matt Murray got his name on the Stanley Cup

By Larry Wigge

Matt Murray has put up some pretty good numbers over the years. But no team he had ever been on ... until now has ever won.

Now, his name will be chiseled into the Stanley Cup.

Murray peeked at the clock several times throughout the third period of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. He wasn't looking upward in hopes that time would fly. His mind was still in game mode and with the Pittsburgh Penguins clinging to a 2-1 lead over the San Jose Sharks, this was no time to get ahead of one's self.

"After we got that empty-netter they still had a minute left, so I knew they were going to make a push," Murray reasoned. "I knew we had to stay on our toes there for the last minute ... and that's what we did. They only had one or two shots the whole third period. What an effort by everybody. It was unbelievable."

Murray finished with 18 saves and could finally disengage from game mode once the clock read 0.0 and the Penguins were Stanley Cup champions.

"I probably won't believe this is real until at least ... I don't know, who knows, but I'm just enjoying the moment right now like I was trying to do all playoffs long," he said. "This is when you really get to enjoy things."

The Thunder Bay, Ontario, native's name will be in the NHL record books for most playoff wins by a rookie netminder -- 15, along with Cam Ward, Ron Hextall and Patrick Roy.

Murray also becomes the seventh rookie goalie to win all four games in a Stanley Cup Final.

Yet, Murray, who turned 22 years old less than three weeks ago, is the second-youngest goaltender to record the clinching win in a Stanley Cup Final since the NHL took exclusive possession of the legendary piece of silverware in 1927. The youngest was Patrick Roy, who was 20 years old when he won the Cup with the Montreal Canadiens in 1986. Three other 22-year-olds won Cup-clinching games, though each was an "older" 22 than Murray: Detroit's Terry Sawchuk in 1952, Edmonton's Grant Fuhr in 1985 and Carolina's Cam Ward in 2006.

Forty minutes later, Murray was asked: "I can't even remember ... how many minutes has past ... I do remember going through the handshake line, but ..."

Gone are the bus rides in the American Hockey League, which have turned into charter flights in March when Murray was recalled from Wilkes-Barre. He was brought up in December for four starts, but for this late-season call up, he wouldn't be going back down.

"I think this playoff run goes to show you, you can never predict what's going to happen," Murray said of his 9-2-1 regular-season record with the Penguins that included one shutout, a 2.00 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage and his playoff run of 15-6-2, which included a 2.08 GAA, .923 SPct and one more shutout. "My mindset has been this whole time to stay in the moment, take things as they come, focus on being in the present and taking things one shot at a time. I think that's been working for me. Like I said from day one, I'm just trying to have fun through all this. It's been an absolute blast so far. I'm going to look to keep that same mindset going forward."

After dropping his first game back in net, Murray would help the Penguins win his next seven starts before his status on the organization's depth chart would change.

A concussion felled Marc-Andre Fleury following his start on March 31, opening the door for Murray to take the starter's reins just two weeks before the playoffs arrived.

Following that seventh straight win, Murray himself suffered a concussion during a game against Philadelphia, putting the Penguins in the precarious position of having their No. 1 and No. 2 goalies injured with the first round days away.

Jeff Zatkoff would start the first two games of their series against the New York Rangers before head coach Mike Sullivan turned to Murray for Game 3, one of his many wise decisions this season.

There were nerves during that first playoff start at Madison Square Garden, but Murray overcame them and made 16 stops en route to a 3-1 victory. Nearly two months later, he's now a Stanley Cup champion.

"As a kid you grow up thinking about this stuff, getting to raise that Cup. It was a lot heavier than I thought it was, to be honest," said the 6-4, 178-pound netminder. "What a moment. I'll never forget this moment for the rest of my life, that's for sure."

Still, the number that stay with Murray until the 3-1 series clinching victory over San Jose in Game 6, was 6-0 with a 1.65 goals-against average after a loss this postseason, allowing two goals or fewer in five of those six starts.

"He's really calm in there," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "He shows a lot of poise. Every night it's the same thing, no matter what happens. And I think that's really important for a goalie.

"I'm sure every goalie wants to have that type of demeanor. I think it comes very easy for him to be like that. That's naturally the way he is. But deep down inside, I think he's very competitive, and I think the fact he's that competitive allows him to compete like he does every night."

Matt Murray was selected in the third round, 83rd pick, in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.

Used to be the goalies were seen as like the oddballs before
games. Seems there's a new generation of goaltenders that aren't like
that. Have you seen more of a change into what you just described?

"Certainly with Matt, he's a pretty composed kid," coach Mike Sullivan said. "What I've really grown to admire about him is just his professionalism. He comes to the rink, he controls what he can, he works hard every day, he prepares the right way.

"There isn't a whole lot of drama surrounding him. He doesn't really get on an emotional rollercoaster, so to speak. He just controls what he can. I think that's one of the reasons why he has the ability to endure some of the challenges that this league presents.

"I think one of the things that young players have to learn when they
establish themselves in this league is how to handle the emotions
associated with wins and losses, highs and lows, when you're feeling really confident, when maybe your confidence gets shaken and how do you get it back. Those are all human emotions that players, athletes, have to deal with.

"I think Matt has shown a great ability to navigate through those

Even as Murray took on the role as the team's No. 1 from Fleury over two months this spring, the long-time Penguins netminder provided plenty of wisdom and encouragement to his young partner.

"He's been unbelievable. I don't know where I would be without Fleury's mentorship, his advice," Murray said. "There was a couple of times where I was struggling throughout the playoffs and even during the season and I think that's normal for a rookie. This is my first time in the league and first time going through this.

"Of course I had some ups and some downs. He was there all the way through to help me through the downs. I'll remember our friendship forever."

Despite the multigenerational gap, Murray knows all about former Montreal goalie Ken Dryden, one of the game's great intellectuals as well as a Hall of Famer.

"He's more than just a hockey player. He's a very smart man," Murray said of Dryden. "I read a little bit of his book, 'The Game,' when I was younger. I know a lot of stuff about him."

Murray was asked to name the two goalies he looked up to the most while he was growing up. His reply: Roy and Martin Brodeur.

Do you remember your first set of pads?

"Like, ever?" he questioned. "I remember that the first time I played goalie, I used a rental set. And because I didn't know how to get dressed, my parents put them on the wrong way. I could hardly move. I was basically just lying on my side the whole game. That's what I remember the most.

How old were you?

"Oh, man," he said. "I would have been like 7, probably -- 6 or 7."

What made you want to be a goalie?

"It was probably that I used to love playing catch when I was a kid," he reasoned. "So I think the glove -- and that chance to catch pucks -- definitely had a lot to do with me wanting to be a goalie. As I got older, I started to watch Patrick Roy. He was one of my favorites. And Marty Brodeur. The way they played, they looked like they were having so much fun out there.

Did you always play goal?

"No. When I was 10 years old, we had the double-A house league and you had to sign up for tryouts," he said. "The two years leading up to that I would switch every game, so I would be a goalie one game and then play defense the next game. We had another goalie on our team, so we would just switch like that every game -- and I kind of liked playing both.

"So when I was 10, I tried to apply for both, but they said, 'No, you have to pick one.' So I don't know what it was that swung me toward being a goalie, but I chose goalie and stuck with it. And here we are."

Did your parents have any influence? Because sometimes parents are like, 'Goalie? Oh no.'

"My parents were unbelievably supportive. I can't thank them enough," he said. "You can't even imagine how much money it costs to play Triple-A hockey in Thunder Bay, because it's a 100 percent travel team, so you have to pay for all the flights and all the hotels -- and that's kind of combined into one lump payment at the start of the season. It's a crazy amount of money. My parents paid that. I played five years of Triple-A, so my parents paid that for five years in a row and never once complained about the equipment. Never once complained about paying so much money for me to play. It's crazy how supportive they were."

What do your parents do?

"My dad, Jim, is a lawyer. He has his own law firm in town," said Murray. "My mom, Fenny Seinen, does bookkeeping for a bunch of businesses around town."

"Every little thing that happens you can learn," Murray said, "and that's what I try to do."

Said Sullivan, "One of the things we love about him is his demeanour. He really has a calming influence on the group and he's done a terrific job in such a high-stakes environment all season for us."

Matt Murray got his name on that big Stanley Cup as a rookie.

What kind of future will he have?

Sidney Crosby now has two Stanley Cup rings

By Larry Wigge

They say that Sidney Crosby was like the compass of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

You know, nowhere to go and ...

The Penguins were 12th in the Eastern Conference on December 12 and has just replaced coach Mike Johnston with Mike Sullivan. Six months later to the day, you're a Stanley Cup champion. What was the big difference?
"After a coaching change, I think everyone takes that personal, puts the responsibility on their shoulders to be better," Crosby explained. "I think individually and as a group we had high expectations, we knew we needed to be better.
"Mike came in and made it pretty clear how he wanted us to play, what he expected from each individual guy. I think guys just welcomed the opportunity, welcomed the challenge, tried to get back on track.

"It took some time. Didn't happen overnight."

Compass. A device or gadget -- something, a navigational device, that helps a person make choices about what is right or effective.

You can see it in Sid the Kid's face. He knows how hard it is to get to where they're at right now. And he’s playing out of his mind. He's got a side to him that I think you have to be born with. He's like Michael Jordan. They wanna stomp on your throat. That's what makes them great.

Crosby, who had six goals and 19 points in the playoffs, did not lead the Penguins in scoring. In fact, he did not even score a goal and had just four assists in the Cup final. But he was hardly a passenger.

He dominated in the face-off circle, blocked shots and took hits.

As Pittsburgh head coach Mike Sullivan said, "Sid has been a force every game."

He had 29 goals and 37 assists after Sullivan took over ... plus.

"I give Sid a lot of credit. He's the ultimate competitor," Sullivan replied. "I don't that I've been around an player that has a work ethic like Sid's.

"He comes to the rink every day. He's got an unsatible appetite to be the best. I thought did a tremendous job as being our leader. The calming influence he brought to our bench was incredible.

"He's a complete player. He plays at both ends of the rink. He's a great faceoff guy. He kills penalties when we need him to. He plays in all the key situations.

"I don't think his point production indicates how well he played. He may not have scored, but he certainly is a handful out there regardless of who they put out on the ice against him."

Said GM Jim Rutherford, "He does things quietly. Sid's a great leader. It really gets overlooked.

"Everybody judges Sid on his points and how many goals he gets and things like that. But he's really an all-around player. He plays in all zones on the rink. He plays hard. He leads his team. He leads by example and he does things quietly. He's a quiet leader but a really good one."

The 28-year-old Crosby has now two Stanley Cups 2008 and 2016, won two Conn Smythe awards, won two Hart Trophies (league MVP), won two scoring titles, won two straight junior titles and won two Olympic gold medals. Only Joe Sakic accomplished the feat.

The only other forward to win the Conn Smythe Trophy without scoring a goal in the Stanley Cup Final that year was Chicago's Jonathan Toews in 2010. Toews scored 29 points in the playoffs that year but he notched only three assists in six games in the Final series against Philadelphia.

Sid is the ninth player in NHL history to win the Stanley Cup twice and two Olympic gold medals.

Crosby joins Igor Larionov, Viacheslav Fetisov, Peter Forsberg, Martin Brodeur, Scott Niedermayer, Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews and Drew Doughty.

All of the above brings us back to the Genius Factor of Crosby.

Crosby, in a motion so effortless it is unclear even after replays how he did it, reached to the puck and, without a millisecond of hesitation, passed it back through his legs. The puck obediently slid to the right of the net, just out of Andrei Vasilevskiy's reach and onto the stick of Pittsburgh’s Patric Hornqvist who -- holy cow, where did he come from? -- was all alone at the net's doorstep.

"Sid's a great leader. It really gets overlooked," said Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford, who surrounded Crosby with some new talent this season. "Everybody looks at how many points he gets, but the fact of the matter is he's become an all-around player. He deserves the Conn Smythe, and he's become one of the great leaders of the league."

"That's the character he's had," Penguins left wing Chris Kunitz said. "The guy has been in the media since Day One, and the guy has never changed. He had to grow up through all of this and always take it on his shoulders. That's the role he has in the media. He does it every single day.

"The expectation is always above and beyond everybody else."

Crosby's dominance was evident throughout the final game as Pittsburgh spent most of the time when he was on the ice in San Jose's zone. His pass from behind the net to Kris Letang put the Penguins ahead 2-1 just 1:19 after the Sharks tied the score. Crosby then blocked a shot from Marc-Edouard Vlasic late that helped set up Patric Hornqvist's empty-netter that sealed it.

Offense. Defense. All wrapped into one. The Penguins were 33-16-5 under Sullivan in the regular season and rolled into the playoffs as the NHL's hottest team.

There's more ...

The Cole Harbour native did something similar, delivering a message to his teammates that helped spearhead their overtime victory over the Capitals that propelled them to the Eastern Conference Finals.

"It was quiet," Ian Cole said. "We were all sitting around, not saying much at all. And, you know, it started with Sid. He was the first one to stand up and say something."

Crosby felt it was time to speak up after watching his team surrender a three-goal lead.

"He said, 'Boys, let's raise the energy level in here right now. Let's do it right now. It's too quiet in here. We're in a good spot here. We're playing the best team in the league. We are one goal away from ending this series.' "

"You can't say enough about him," said Hornqvist. "He's always on the ice in the big moments of the game. He was our best player ... by far."

"He wears the 'C' for a reason. He's our leader," said winger Conor Sheary. "I know the Conn Smythe means the best players and he's been our best player and he has been all year."

Oh, yeah, Conor Sheary.

Kris Letang had Sheary to move from his normal position on a faceoff in the left wing circle and ...

Crosby won the draw, got it back to Letang from where he would pass it to the rookie up the middle of the ice, where the Sharks weren't going to expect him to be.

Sheary took the pass and wired it high into the net for a 2-1 OT win. The goal at 2:35 of overtime was another of the famous Genius Factor tags in Game 2.

So how does the second Stanley Cup fit into your legacy when you take a look at the arc of your career?

"I think the best way I can describe it is, like I said, I have a greater appreciation this time around," Crosby reasoned about 2008 and '09 Cup visits. "At a young age, going back-to-back like we did, you just think it's going to be an annual thing.
"With the core we have, you think everyone's going to stay together, the team's not going to change. But it does. That's kind of the reality of playing hockey."

Crosby continued, "You don't know if you're going to get that opportunity again. You just kind of try to be the best cheerleader you can be in that situation I guess, try to be supportive and hope they get the result.

"I wasn't really thinking about '09 that much. I was just thinking about how hard it was to get to this point and just trying to enjoy every second of it. It's not easy to get here and having won seven years ago at a young age, you probably take it for granted a little bit. You don't think you do at the time. But it's not easy to get this point, so just try and enjoy it as best as I can.

"I have a greater appreciation this time around."

And the rest of the NHL has a greater appreciation of just how well Sidney Crosby can do things.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Joe Pavelski keeps on adding to his unusual talents

By Larry Wigge

When is a throwaway empty-net goal a reward for a guy who has everything?

When that guy is Joe Pavelski and he has scored zero points in the first four-plus games of the Stanley Cup finals, after leading the NHL in goals in the playoffs with 13.

This is the same superstar who in Game 7 of the St. Louis series, we were marveling at all the ways this little guy Joe Pavelski normally scores goals in so many ways -- slap shots, wrist shots, wraparounds, on breakways and on ... tip-ins.

And we all know that this go-forward-and-take-no-prisoners approach that got him to the NHL won't stop because of the pedigree he's established in big games leading up to this year's playoffs.

Unlike Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos, known for scoring in one or two prominent ways, Pavelski scores in bunches every which way.

A look at Pavelski's tally of 13 post-season goals reveals the variety: six slapshots, two tips, two wrist shots, one wraparound, one backhand and one snapshot.

It should be pointed out that only Ovechkin has more goals since 2013-14 than Pavelski 154 goals over the last three season to 116 -- 41, 37 and 38 -- than Pavelski.

Yet ... here we were in the last minute of Game 5 talking about Pavelski being scoreless in the series against Pittsburgh.

Let's take you back to what St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock called the killer goal for the Blues with 1:27 left in the second period of a game tied 3-3.

"That third goal was the killer," Hitchcock said after the 6-3 loss.

"Sixteen seconds into the third period, he takes the juice right out of us right away," said St. Louis goalie Jake Allen. "He's one of the best in the league in front of the net and he has been for the last five or six years. He gets his stick on everything. It was one of those ones where you just hope it hits you."

Pavelski's hand-eye coordination is perhaps second to none in today's NHL. It was once Detroit's Tomas Holmstrom who was the best in the NHL at deflecting shots. Now Pavelski is the Duke of Deflections, the Ruler of Redirection.

"He's practiced that for years," Joe Thornton said of Pavelski's tip-in prowess. "If you put work in like he does, like tipping pucks, knowing his body and where to put his stick, results happen like that all the time. We're used to seeing that so much. He just works so hard in practice on those little things. He and Brent Burns, those two are always working together. It's beautiful to watch."

"He's good with that. He's one of the best players in the world and he’s good at a lot of things in this game,” Sharks forward Logan Couture said. “(Joe Thornton) finds him and finds exactly when Pavs is getting ready to shoot the puck and delivers it in a perfect spot. Usually it ends up in the back of the net. We’re lucky to have those guys.”

Also, ever the cerebral student, Pavelski remembered a mistake from an earlier opportunity when he had the puck in front of Allen and couldn’t bury it.

"Maybe took a little bit too much time, didn't make the right choice, didn't get a stick on it," he said. "You just keep working for those opportunities. I think I was a little fortunate it rolled, bounced a little bit. Catch a break with him leaning, it goes the other way. You need those."

Said Tomas Hertl, "He works on that almost every day. Every time he practices it, he never misses it. It's unbelievable. I've never seen before someone practice so hard on that. He's great. He scores almost every game on those goals. He's our leader. Again tonight, a winning goal."

It's a skill, yes, but one that is honed in only one fashion: workmanlike repetition. In the heat of summer in Wisconsin, during the dog days of the season in February and even now during the rare postseason practice days, Pavelski has worked on his tipping ability again and again and again. That's where Jake Allen got his first look at Pavelski -- Allen was there with Brian Elliot and Ben Bishop working out a goaltender's camp held in Madison, Wisc.

"It's incredible," Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer said of Pavelski's tipping ability. "You think back to some of the best scorers ever. His ability to get his stick on pucks in the offensive zone, in front of the net, different angles, is as good as anybody I've ever seen.

"But it's a great lesson. He works at it. He works at it every day. He gets Burnsy or one of the other D, gets them to fire 100, 200 pucks. I'll watch him from the boards with the other coaches. He'll get a piece of every single one. It's something that he has worked at.

"It's a great lesson for kids out there that want to play. You have to work at those things to become really good. He's got some God-given ability too. His biggest asset is he works at it."

The NHL scouts parading through Waterloo, Iowa, usually said the same thing about Pavelski.

"He can't skate, he's not big enough."

While intrigued by Pavelski, the Sharks didn't even use their first (of two) seventh-round picks to take him, opting instead for a French-Canadian forward who never played an NHL game. They instead chose him with the 205th pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.

"He's a finisher," Thornton explained. "Probably within that 10 to 15 foot range, he just knows what to do with the puck."

"There's certainly no one in the league better at scoring timely goals, finding quiet ice, playing under the radar," Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau said.

Said Nashville GM David Poile, "It's his persistence ... and he's getting better all the time. He was a little bit of an underdog. Not a high draft pick, not the biggest guy. You can pick apart and have things to say why he wasn't going to make it. But a lot of us would like a do-over again with that draft."

In that 2003 draft at Nashville, Pavelski was selected in featured several key NHL players chosen within the first two rounds that still play huge roles in the NHL to this day. Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf were selected by the Anaheim Ducks. Eric Staal went to the Carolina Hurricanes. Zach Parise to the New Jersey Devils. Players like Patrice Bergeron and Shea Weber fell to the second round.

But no one, except for the Sharks, had Pavelski on their radar. But despite several notable players selected well before him, Pavelski still finds himself well ahead of several players in production. Pavelski has the sixth-most goals at 252 in that draft class and he has the eight-most points with 273.

Pavelski is the very definition of an underdog hitting it big.

But his competitive zeal, which includes golf, baseball and hunting and fishing, has led to a standout NHL career that's lasted nine-plus seasons.

"I started watching the draft that year," Pavelski recalled. "But some friends came by my house ... and we played some baseball.

"It wasn't until I got home that I found out I was drafted by the Sharks."

His first feelings about being drafted were: "I was excited. Seventh round, I knew it was going to be a long road. I wasn't worried about that ..."

Like growing up.

When you talk about the size of the fight in the dog, Little Joe has a heart the size of the Pacific Ocean -- and that makes him man in motion and a man of action every year when the playoff season comes around.

Pavelski, you see, has the knack of winning over everyone eventually.

Big game, big player?

"He's just a hockey rat," Sharks GM Doug Wilson observed. "He's highly competitive, passionate and plays to win. He's in on every play at both ends of the rink, which is exactly what we look for -- players who can be used in all situations.

"It doesn't take long for you to see that he's a leader, a competitor. I remember going to see him at Madison (U. of Wisconsin) for the first time and it was clear to me that he was the heartbeat of that team."

Joe Pavelski learned about hockey by watching his dad, Mike, a wall paperer and painter in Plover play, as well as his older brother, Jerry, who is into home improvement. Mom, Sandy, works the books and runs the office for the company that the Pavelski's all work for.

"I don't know what it is about this game, but I've always loved to practice, loved to shoot pucks and loved to play in our driveway," he said, laughing at the fact that there was this Sharks mini-stick at the house. He didn't know who it belonged to. It was just there.

On his driveway, Joe tried moves like his favorites -- Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull and Steve Yzerman. He played for the Flames when he was really young. Later, it was the Blues, because he was enamored with Brett Hull's one-timer.

"I loved winners," Pavelski laughed. "I liked Detroit, Colorado -- they were always battling, always fun to watch. They would bring it every night, could connect the dots, pass, snap the puck around, score goals and win a championship. That's kind of fun. I grew up liking the Dallas Cowboys. I would jump on the bandwagon, I guess you could say. But there's something about winning that draws me to it."

Still, Pavelski knew that his dream of playing in the NHL was a long, long way off.

"It was always my size and strength," he said of the obstacles he had to overcome to get to this level. "When I got to the USHL, my goal was to get to college and get my education. But I also began to see players I was playing against making their way to the NHL. Same thing at the University of Wisconsin. That's when I began to say to myself, 'He's there. Can I do this?' "

"I always looked at those game, those tournaments as my Stanley Cup," he said, looking me straight in the eyes.

Serious. Confident without being cocky.

"Before I got here, I had been the go-to guy the last few years," he said. "It's funny but I think the more you play in big games the better you are going to get. Playing in those big-time moments, you take so much away and put it in your back pocket. Being on a winning team, knowing what it takes to win, knowing that nothing comes easy."

Said Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves, "He may be one of the best pros I've ever seen because he plays to his strengths, works on his areas of improvement, and he's gotten better each and every year. Those six inches between his ears make up for any deficiency that he may have physically, and even then, he's working on those."

Pavelski added, "When you have to fight the obstacles and perceptions I have over the years, you learn to never give up."

Todd McLellan takes it one step further. "If I was part of some of those playoff office pools and drafts, he would be one of my picks."

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Logan Couture ... the next Bobby Clarke

By Larry Wigge

There's a confidence that oozes out when a young player competes against the best ... and the best of the best.

During a 13 minute, 43 second span of the first period, Logan Couture collected one goal and two assists to give the San Jose Sharks a 4-2 victory over Pittsburgh in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final, staving off the brink of elimation.

The Guelph, Ontario, native, set up Brent Burns and then tipped in a shot by Justin Braun before breaking a 2-2 tie with the Penguins when he set up Melker Karlsson.

With certain players backs to the wall, certain elite players -- step forward and are counted on.

Couture is the fourth player in the expansion era to post three points in a period with his team facing elimination in the finals.

The other players to achieve the feat are Stan Mikita (for the Blackhawks in 1973 in Game 5 at the Montreal Canadiens), Dirk Graham (for the Blackhawks in 1992 in Game 4 vs. the Penguins) and Pavel Bure (for the Vancouver Canucks in 1994 in Game 5 at the Rangers).

"Great players have that ability," coach Peter DeBoer said Friday. "I put him in that category. ... I think Logan has the ability to raise his level of play when the chips are down. I think he's done that for us the entire playoffs. It's a great gift to have. Not everyone has that ability."

Added DeBoer, "This is the time of year, your backs are against the wall, people have to step up with big-game performances. We got a couple last game from those guys. We've got to get a couple more in Game 6 here to give us a chance in Game 7."

Couture embraces the leadership role, when he became completely convinced that he had arrived as a player in the NHL. That happened in a second-round series against the Detroit Red Wings in 2111, when Logan contributed seven goals and seven assists.

"That series I lined up a lot against Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg and I realized I could play against those guys and contribute offensively," he explained. "I think I had four or five goals in that series and that was the point where I said I can be a good player in this league and took it into last year and had a good year and have grown a lot this year as well."

Couture said he has also benefitted greatly from playing with the likes of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.

"It has helped me ton," he said. "I have been fortunate to be here for so many years and come to the rink every day and learn something new from those guys. They have been through a lot as players, whether it is in the NHL or internationally, they have experienced a lot. I picked up little things from them and took it to my game and it has helped me."

In his seventh year with the Sharks, 27-year-old center had 15 goals and 21 assists in 52 games. In the playoffs, Couture has nine goals and 20 assists in 23 games -- which includes 11 points and broke a 22-year-old single-season franchise record set by Igor Larionov's, coming against Nashville.

Passion and desire come through each and every shift each night.

I'll never forget talking about Couture on draft and having one scout say, "He reminds me of a Bobby Clarke. He's gritty. He's in your face. He's just a good solid player."

That high praise indeed. But, others heaped praise on Couture.

The Sharks have always drafted on the basis of character players first. Couture oozes that. In fact, San Jose moved up from 13th to ninth in the first round with St. Louis in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft to pick Logan.

Obstacles to overcome? Logan list many, including mononucleosis his draft year, which dropped him in the draft rankings.

"When Logan Couture didn't make the World Junior team, he used that as a motivator," GM Doug Wilson observed. "He dominated the AHL. He's a young player that has earned his ice time."

Added Wilson, "He's a kid who can play with high-end players. He plays the game fast because he thinks the game so well."

Best advise for Couture came from his Ottawa 67s coach Brian Kilrea, who recalls, "Personally, I'd take a team of Logan Coutures. He never puts himself first. It's all about the team with him."

Couture's 29 points are the most in the NHL in a single postseason since 2010, when Philadelphia's Danny Briere had 30 and Chicago's Jonathan Toews posted 29.

Couture has been a key to San Jose's success all season. He broke his right leg in practice after three games and missed nearly two months. He played just two games when he came back before internal bleeding in the leg forced him to miss three more weeks.

The Sharks were 32-15-5 with him in the lineup. Without him, they were 14-15-1.

"It's been a difficult year throughout the regular season," Couture said. "Missing games is never fun, injuries that are tough to get over. An ankle injury is difficult, I've never had something like this before. Mentally and physically it was difficult, but it makes it worth it now."

Said Couture, "The first thing I noticed about NHL players is that I had to get stronger. I was no longer player every night against kids -- it was a game against men. I had to be smarter, more mature, in every way I prepared for the game.

"I'm still learning the league. I'm still young and I'm learning all the stuff that comes along with being young player. I'd be lying if I would have said I'd have this many goal at his at this point in the season, but I've always been confident in the way I can play."

He plays a full 200-foot game, both sides of the puck, power play, penalty kill, faceoffs.

Thornton was willing to be a little more blunt.

"Logan, this is his team," Thornton said. "He's going to be a great player for a long time."

Former Sharks coach Todd McLellan says, "The way he's been playing lately, he's been driving our bus right now. He's the head guy and he's making it happen and we're happy for him."

Part of that inner strength comes from Chet and Lori Couture -- who continued to take 3-year-old Logan out to stake, even though he cried all the way home.

"My dad always said, 'Have fun at the game. If you don't have fun, you shouldn't be playing,' " Couture said.

Couture shadows are lengthy in hockey and lacrosse. Chet Lemon, his grandfather, is a member of the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame. His dad played hockey and refereed in lacrosse for 13 years. His uncle, Brian, also spent time the lacrosse, and another uncle, Bob, was a famous softball pitcher. Currently, his father, Chet, is a firefighter, and his mother, Lori, a graduate of Brock University, is a physical education teacher. Logan grew up a fan of baseball and lacrosse in favor of hockey. He was a fan of the Buffalo Sabres and goaltender Dominik Hasek and Pat LaFontaine.

That varied background Logan grew up a strong-willed, mentally strong young man.

"I know what I expect out of myself," says Couture. "That's what I care about. I don't care what other people expect from me."

"He just really wants to win," said teammate Joel Ward of Couture. "He's so tenacious on the puck, battles so hard."

"He's been great -- in the playoffs, especially," Joonas Donskoi said. "He's kind of the brains of our line. He's very good defensively, too. I know he has many points in the playoffs, but he can defend as well. It's fun."

Said Marleau, "If you sit down and watch his game, he works nonstop out there. He does all those little things well and he's an extremely high-end, talented player. He should definitely be talked about."

Which leads us back to playoff hockey and consistency.

"There's nothing like NHL playoff hockey -- the talent and the parity is unbelievable," Couture said. "You look at other leagues like the NBA and you already know Cleveland is going to play the Warriors.

"With us, you don't know what's going to happen. Any team can win. You have (triple) overtimes. It's incredible."

Friday, June 10, 2016

Martin Jones ... one more down -- next up

By Larry Wigge

Sidney Crosby. Evgeni Malkin. Phil Kessel. Nick Bonino. Carl Hagelin. Patric Hornqvist. Conor Sheary.

Not a one was spared in the 44 save effort by Martin Jones as the San Jose Sharks defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-2 in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals Thursday night.

Pittsburgh leads the best-of-7 series 3-2 with Game 6 at SAP Center in San Jose on Sunday.

"Life's on the line," said captain Joe Pavelski.

"This team hasn't quit all year and we're not going to start now," Jones said on the ice after the game. "There's still a long way to go, it's going to be an uphill battle, but we're going to fight till the very end."

Several of the Penguins' chances were Grade-A opportunities, but Jones was equal to every one after Carl Hagelin tied the game at 2-2 at 5:06 of the first period.

Forty-four saves later, only two other goaltenders in the NHL's expansion era (i.e., 1968 to date) made 40 or more saves while winning a Stanley Cup Final game in regulation time. In 2011, Boston's Tim Thomas turned aside 40 shots in his 8-1 win over the Canucks in Game 3 and in 2014 Henrik Lundqvist made 40 saves as the Rangers avoided elimination with a win over the Kings in Game 4.

"Just unbelievable," Sharks center Joe Thornton. "He's been big for us all year. He's been our backbone."

The second question of coach Peter DeBoer afterward had to do with Jones.

How long did it take you to notice Jones?

DeBoer said he first became acquainted with Jones before he was even hired to coach the club at the World Championships last May.

"I spent a month with him at the world championships last year. He backed up Mike Smith," said DeBoer, an assistant for Team Canada. "It was mostly practices, not games for him. I got to know him as a person and right away, you recognized his composure, even in that situation.

"I think right away you recognized his composure, how calm and cool he was even in that situation. Then the big question was whether there was a competitive edge there with that composure.

"That's always the million-dollar question. We started the season, it didn't start as smoothly for any of us as we wanted. I mean, we were winning one, losing one, including him. He just kept battling and battling. I kept throwing him out there, he kept finding a way. I think we all recognized then that he had that competitive edge too. That is critical."

Just after that world championship, DeBoer was named head coach of the Sharks and slightly over a month later, after Jones had first been traded by the Kings to the Boston Bruins, the Sharks picked him up for a first rounder and a prospect.

"I think if you spend any time with Martin Jones, you realize that nothing rattles this guy," continued DeBoer. "Calmness, efficiency in net. No wasted movements. Just gives the whole team a comforting feeling."

Chris Tierney said, "He bailed us out a couple of times ... he has stolen games for us all year."

"He's an awesome, awesome teammate," Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick said of Jones. "He was well-liked in the locker room and he would do anything for any of his teammates.

"That's a guy who, you know he's worked hard. You watched him kind of come up the ranks and work his way up. Guys like that, you want to see them get opportunities and you want to do well. Maybe just not against us."

"We're pretty different," Jones said of the comparisons to Quick. "But I just watched how he competes. He elevated his game in the playoffs, and that’s something I’ve tried to emulate."

"He's not overly busy in the net," said King goaltending coach Bill Ranford. "He sucks pucks in. Just plays a real simple, quiet, positional game."

He was UNDRAFTED!!!!

With his father, Harvey Jones, overseeing the construction of and then running Rogers Arena in Vancouver, Martin grew up with no shortage of technical goaltending instruction. He played minor hockey with the son of then-Vancouver Canucks coach Marc Crawford, who would later play a role in bringing him to the Kings as an undrafted free agent. It wasn't uncommon to see them taking shots on the NHL ice from the elder Crawford long after Canucks practice was over. They were joined by then-Canucks goaltending coach Ian Clark and sometimes his son, Morgan, who ironically was picked by Vancouver instead of Jones in the seventh round of the 2008 NHL Draft.

"When he got to Manchester in the American Hockey League," said Ranford. "There are nights you have to compete, you have to come outside of the box and I think that's an area that he's really developed and we've learned he does have that in his game. He had to learn it a little bit and work at it, and he's done that."

Said Jones, "I was focused on learning the other aspects, like reading the play and making saves outside the box if you have to and just battling and competing."

Then came the trade. Milan Lucic for Jones, Colin Miller and a first-round draft choice to Boston.

"I've never been traded before, so this is all new to me," Jones remembered. "It's exciting. It's pretty sad when you're leaving a place like L.A. where I formed a lot of good relationships, but I'm looking forward to taking on a bigger responsibility and playing in San Jose."

Then, four days later, Jones was traded again for Sean Kuraly and San Jose's first round pick in 2016.

"That was still a shock," said Jones, who said he couldn't think straight for a few moments until he got the phone call from San Jose GM Doug Wilson.

"We obviously feel very strongly about him," Wilson said. "If you see something that you really want, we have no problem paying full value and going up and getting him. That's what we did.

"Martin was at the top of our list of players that we had targeted."

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.

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 the 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."

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.

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

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.

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."

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Evgeni Malkin puts Penguins one win from the Cup

By Larry Wigge

Now you see him. Now you don't.

Evgeni Malkin has taken that magical mystery that some stars have -- you know the disappearing and reappearing in the nick of time for a great scoring opportunity.

Malkin parked himself at the side of the net and put his stick down for a target for Phil Kessel to hit on the Pittsburgh power play at 2:37 of the second period en route to a 3-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks, rediscovering his scoring touch putting the Penguins one victory away from winning their second Stanley Cup championship in eight years.

A simple strong first pump was used for emphasis by Malkin.

With only one goal in his last 15 games -- and no points in the Stanley Cup final, Malkin's 10 career game-winning goals in the postseason rank third in Penguins history, trailing only Jaromir Jagr (14) and Mario Lemieux (11).

Malkin explained, "My goal is like Phil, give me empty net."

"Geno is a world-class player," said Penguins defenseman Ian Cole, who scored the first goal. "He's been going through a rough stretch, but contributing in ways other than on the scoresheet. Obviously you saw how good he is when he turns it on. When he contributes like that, it's huge for our team."

"I thought he was really good, not only because he got on the scoresheet," Sullivan said. "I thought his overall game was really good. He played at both ends of the rink and when he plays that way, he's so hard to defend. It seems like the puck follows him around.

"Geno wants to win. He's a competitive guy. He cares about this team. And he knows hes a big part of this team having success. He's a self-driven guy. He wants to be on the ice. He wants the puck in the crucial situations."

He contributed one goal and one assist in this game, giving the brilliant Russian five goals and 12 assists in 21 playoff games after he scored 27 goals and 31 assists in 57 regular-season games.

"I think he's one of the most exciting players I've seen in a long time," said Mark Messier. "I love his skill level. I love the amount of ice he covers. I love the way he forechecks. I just think he's a tremendous hockey player."

How good is Malkin? Dallas Stars Coach Lindy Ruff said, "He's a modern day Jaromir Jagr."

"They both have that big stride that makes them look like they aren't going as fast as they really are," says Boston Mark Recchi says in using the Jagr comparison as well. "But really, it's the agility and vision, too — it's the whole package."

"He's one of those guys who, when you're down by a goal, two goals or even four goals, they're not cashing it in. He has a great will to win," said former Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero, who is now with the New Jersey Devils. "Malkin can create things of nothing and he's got that attitude and desire to make plays and score goals, no matter what the score is."

Washington coach Barry Trotz offered this response to a question about Malkin: "He's like Alex. ... Everyone knows his talent, but when you throw in his size and toughness, it makes him just like Alex."

It's been a long way since Draft Day 2004, when Malkin was second only to Alex Ovechkin and English was new to him.

When pressed on the subject of language and which English words he knew, Malkin said, "Mother, father, brother ... and thank you."

"Clearly, hockey is an international language ... it's like love," laughed former Colorado Avalanche General Manager Pierre Lacroix on the draft floor in Raleigh, N.C., in 2004.

All kidding aside, that's comment by Lacroix is true ... to a point.

The fact of the matter is that it's true that there is a language in hockey that supersedes all tongues. Put the 50 best players in the world on the ice and come back a half hour later and you would see magic -- players making plays that would lift you out of your seat.

And though a scout's checklist usually begins with size and speed, skill and instincts, character and a passion for the game, the strengths and weaknesses of a prospect doesn't stop there. Not in a such a special team game like hockey, where split-second decisions and game plans are more than instinctual.

Language is an essential.

And, while it's still a work in progress for Malkin, he's clearly making his marvelous sense of humor and outgoing personality work for him with his teammates ... on and off the ice.

In the first 10 games after returning from Sochi in 2014, Malkin scored just one goal. So what finally helped Malkin snap back into form? Oh, just a conversation with a longtime friend.

"I wasn’t playing good after the Olympics. Talked a little bit with Sidney Crosby," Malkin said. "Sid helped me a lot because he understands my problem."

Crosby knows all too well about the pressure that comes with the weight of an entire country on your shoulders. Crosby helped Canada win the gold medal in the 2010 Winter Olympics when the games were held in Vancouver, Canada. Crosby had the same pressure in Sochi as captain of Canada.

But the outcome was different for Crosby, who ended both tournaments in wearing gold.

"I can definitely relate to having pressure and expectations and I think Malkin puts a lot of pressure on himself," Crosby said. "You care about your teammates and you want to see them happy. You want to see them having fun out there. So I think that’s the important thing."

Malkin has topped the 100-point mark in scoring three times in 2008, '09 and 2012. And Crosby and Malkin have shared a Stanley Cup title in 2009.

"I was not scared to come to America," Malkin remembers. "I was scared what my friends would think of me. I love Russia. It is my country, my home. It was a tough time. But I had a dream, and that was to play for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL."

The comment came a year ago. Same time, same place, Stanley Cup on the line. Then-Penguins Shero was admiring the development of Malkin as a player and person and he wondered what his big, strong, talented young center might look like in two or three years.

He made this observation, "A lack of English sometimes holds him back. But Geno has a great personality -- and it comes out more and more all the time."

A second later, Shero came up with the ultimate sound bite, "When you look at his play, you don't need audio. You just need video."

A retired Russian steelworker, Vladimir, Malkin's father, said parts of the Pittsburgh area ("Aliquippa, a lot") remind him of home, Magnitogorsk.

Vladimir and Natalia Malkin raised their two boys, and the humble slab of ice on an adjacent street where the father taught his sons to play a simple game after he came home from the factory, you can sense a certain resolve.

Evgeni didn't have to be encouraged. He had always been captivated by hockey. When he was a toddler, Natalia once visited his bed and saw him sleeping in a goalie mask. At 11, he broke his leg during the summer and was on crutches. Vladimir assumed that meant Evgeni would not play in the first hockey tournaments of the fall, and he was shocked when a friend asked him why he wasn't at the game that day to see Evgeni play.

That leads us to a funny little story that Malkin covets about Evgeni's first pair of skates.

"Yeah. I don't remember, but my father says that when I was little and I didn't have skates, he gave me his," Malkin recalls. "His size was way bigger than mine: I was five and he was 30 (he laughs). He gave me his speedskates and I tried them and I remember they were huge. My feet were moving inside. After that they bought me new ones."

He is asked, you make skating look easy.

"No, it's not easy (he laughs once again)," Malking said. "It's all practice. You work hard on your game, so sometimes it looks easy, but it's not."

We see skill. We see grace. We see size and speed. And we wonder how much more there is to come.

"One Cup," Malkin said of 2009. “I think it's a good career for me. Just good. It's not great. The great thing for me is to win Cup No. 2.”

Evgeni Malkin. One Hart Trophy (MVP), two Art Ross (scoring titles, 2008 and 2012) and now just one win away from two Stanley Cup titles (2009, 2016).

Clearly, hockey is an international language ... it's like love and Malkin's making the most of it.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Marc-Edouard Vlasic is a terrific shutdown defenseman

By Larry Wigge

Dreams. Even when you're a little kid in Montreal, you have them. Some of them are funny.

Defenseman Marc-Eduoard Vlasic remembers dreaming of someday he might play with the skills of Pavel Bure, his favorite player.

"I'd skate down the driveway and in my dreams I'd score the winning goal in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final," Vlasic confessed.

That like dreaming you'd hit a home run in Game 7 of the World or score a touchdown to win the Super Bowl.

Vlasic was not a fan of the Montreal Canadiens or the Detroit Red Wings. Still, he became a shutdown defenseman, not a high-flying scorer like Bure.

Shutdown. Vlasic has filtered through the muck and shut down Los Angeles winger Tyler Toffoli, Nashville all-star Filip Forsberg, St. Louis' Vladimir Tarasenko and on to Pittsburgh center Sidney Crosby.

Toffoli, who led the Los Angeles Kings during the regular season with 31 goals, had one assist in the five-game opening round series against the Sharks. Forsberg had a team high 33 goals in the regular season and was an All-Star selection, but had just one goal and was a minus-9 in seven games for the Nashville Predators against San Jose. Tarasenko climbed to 40 goals this season, but he managed two goals in Game 7 against the Sharks and has no other points. Crosby had 36 goals and after he sparked the Penguins to a pair of victories with two assists, he was shut out in Game 3 by Vlasic.

We’ve talked a lot about the intangibles that make Vlasic special. That mental toughness and intestinal fortitude is a part that only Marc-Edouard can speak to. Regardless of all the superlatives we’ve given you an idea of what makes Vlasic tick, there was once -- in fact twice -- the thought that this talented, young defenseman would never make it.

"You learn to challenge yourself because of what some people say about you," Vlasic said, shaking his head a little. "I remember when I was 14 ... a midget ... I heard some people say I wasn’t offensive, I wasn't flashy, that I didn't do this and I didn't do that. They used that against me.

"I kind of laugh at it now, because the same things came up when I was getting ready to play junior hockey and no one wanted to draft me. One of my old coaches had to twist a lot of arms to get a team interested in picking me."

"What happens with goal-scorers when they get frustrated is they look to hit home runs," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock. "I know that's a funny thing to say. The guy he's playing against Vlasic.
Goal scores feel that anxiety to try and score and help the team. They're looking to try to catch fastbreaks."

"What a fan is watching for is the spectacular," said Toronto coach Mike Babcock, who also has coached Vlasic on Team Canada. "What the coaches are looking for is: Do you do it right every single time? And, when your team is on the ice, are you always in the offensive zone? The way Vlasic plays the rush, the way he brings the puck out, the way he skates, the way his stick is on the puck, the way he sees it first ... . He's an elite thinker and he makes his partner that much better.

"You're always looking for players who make the players around them better and he's one of those guys," added Babcock. "The elite thinkers, the guys who have high hockey IQ, they do that. And he's one of them."

Steve Yzerman, GM of Tampa Bay, said, "He's just extremely efficient. A very intelligent player. The Nicklas Lidstrom-type, where he doesn't blow you away with big, open-ice bodychecks or end-to-end rushes, but he defends really well, he moves the puck really well, positionally he's extremely solid. He just goes about his business every single game. He can play against the best players and he can play with the best players."

The Lidstrom comparison, though lofty, is based, as Yzerman said, on how Vlasic makes the quiet little plays to go so unnoticed by many. Nothing flashy, just steady. You're not talking SportsCenter material on most nights.

Vlasic accounted for eight goals and 31 assists in his 10th season with the Sharks. The 29-year-old has gotten one goal and 11 assists in 21 playoff games. The 11 assists ranks fifth in the NHL in the playoffs.

"It's tough to say how important he is for us," Sharks coach Pete DeBoer said of Vlasic. "He's one of the few guys who, I can re-watch a 60-minute game tape and he won't make a mistake. That's very rare. I don't think his value can be overstated."

"It's just a calming effect," said Sharks forward Chris Tierney. "He never seems to panic."

Ed Vlasic is now an engineer for a company called Pratt & Whitney, a Montreal firm that designs airplanes. He was an All-Star defenseman at McGill University from 1976 to 1981. His mom, Marie-Josee, is a physiotherapist. He met his future wife when he was coaching her intramural hockey team at McGill. She was also a defenseman.

The hard work ethic for Vlasic clearly came from Marc-Edouard's parents. It also got me to wondering what the youngster would be if he wasn't a star rookie defenseman in the NHL.

"I'd still be in school, probably taking a bunch of courses in science, working toward being an engineer," he recalled, when I interviewed him as a rookie. "My father taught me how important an education is."

Ron Wilson was his first coach in the NHL.

"The first thing you notice about him the way he uses his stick. That’s an art," Wilson said. "You also notice what a great skater he is. He’s one of those defensemen -- sort of like Sergei Zubov (Dallas Stars veteran defenseman and offensive quarterback) -- who always seems to be in control and goes only as fast as he has to. That’s why he can play 35 minutes in a game and hardly break a sweat.

"Somewhere along the line, he learned the important little things."

The real truth about Vlasic is that he is a real smart player.

Vlasic was drafted in the second round, 35th overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. Oddly, Sidney Crosby was picked first in that same draft.

"Just smart. Really smart," Crosby said of Vlasic, whom he played against as a junior in the Quebec League. "He's not the most physical guy, but he's really good with his stick. He can block shots when he needs to. But I think, just with his hockey IQ, he doesn't need to work hard necessarily. He works smart."

Crosby continued, "I was 16 or 17 when we first met, he played in Quebec. He's very steady -- kind of really good offensively, but really smart defensively. I remember playing against him a lot, we were in the same division.

"He always did everything well."

One of Vlasic's talents is shot blocking. It's an art form in a way. He's second in the NHL playoffs, with 55 of them, and led the Sharks in shots blocked per game during the regular season. Shea Weber once cracked one of Vlasic's shin pads with that heavy shot of his. But there was Vlasic in the second round, putting himself in front of more Weber shots. He's fearless.

"It takes guts," Vlasic said of shot blocking. "It's easy being in the lane without being in the lane. It takes more guts to block shots, yeah. At this time of year it's courage. In order to win, you have to block shots. ...

"I do take a lot of pride in it," added the Montreal native. "It's part of shutting people down. A big block for me is just as big as a scoring chance going to the other way."

In the summer, Vlasic works on his offensive skill set in Quebec with his trainer, Raymond Veillette, and a handful of NHL players such as Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins, Antoine Vermette of the Arizona Coyotes and David Desharnais of the Montreal Canadiens.

In Quebec, Vlasic works on offensive skills such as stickhandling, and he spends a significant amount of time after practice honing the accuracy of his shot and the quickness of his release. Vlasic also practices his shot at home by firing tennis balls at a net with a cardboard goalie.

"It's the quickness. The quicker you get it off, the harder you shoot it," Vlasic said. "You see guys like (Tyler) Seguin and (Patrick) Kane, it's on their tape, off their tape, and it's right where they want it."

Said Vlasic, "I'm here to play my game, help the team win. If I get credit or I don't I'm not worried about that. I get it from the players, the coaches, the GMs throughout the league. That’s the No. 1 thing. In order to make teams (like Canada) the GMs have to like the way you play and that’s where I get my credit."

The first GM he got on his side was Doug Wilson.

"We knew how good he was because he was excellent at training camp," Wilson explained. "Then we watched him play 30 to 35 minutes a game in the Memorial Cup. Still he's so young. But it's funny. At the end of training camp, I remember a meeting we had with all of our people -- scouts and coaches. We asked them all to submit a list of players they thought should make our season-opening roster. It was no surprise that Vlasic's name was on all of the lists."

Wilson continued, "Those experiences have really fast-tracked his growth as a player. He's got an amazing amount of poise. He does the right thing just about every time he's on the ice.

"He's got an advanced, very mature hockey mind. He's mature beyond his years. His mom and dad are former defensemen. Maybe that's where all his brains come from."

A little defensemen humor.

But in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, when the pace is frenzied and the stakes are at their highest, defensemen are asked to make split-second decisions. In their own end of the rink, they face physical challenges against the most powerful and skilled players in the world. Up the ice, they are asked to move the puck and create offense.

That’s all.

It's certainly even more clear that Marc-Edouard Vlasic finished is smarter than his 20 years and finished Hockey 101 many years ago.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The stories about Conor Sheary are simply legendary

By Larry Wigge

It was Sid's idea.

It was almost like little kids diagramming a play in the mud. Hutt, hutt, hutt.

According to Conor Sheary, Kris Letang told him that Sidney Crosby was going to get the faceoff back to him. Then, Letang would slip a pass to Sheary ... and he should SHOOT.

What Crosby didn't say was Patric Hornqvist would screen the goalie.

In real life ... Sheary's shot from just inside the left circle zipped by Martin Jones' glove and into the net 2:35 into overtime to give the Penguins a 2-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks on Wednesday night and a 2-0 lead in the Stanley Cup Final.

"It's pretty surreal," said Sheary, who couldn't believe how it worked.

Sheary is the unheralded, undrafted 23-year-old playing and producing on Crosby's left wing. He scored the second goal of the Penguins’ series-opening win on Monday night after receiving a brilliant feed from the Pittsburgh superstar.

"I don't know what it is, but he does makes it pretty easy to play with him," Sheary said of Crosby. "He has got some great vision. He can find you almost anywhere on the ice. That pass from his backhand, he is really good at that. He is deceptive.

"You just have to be ready to get the puck anywhere on the ice. You have to focus on where he is on the ice and know that he can get the puck to you at any time."

It might simply be that great players -- or at least players with great pedigree and star potential -- are used to having the puck more, while lesser lights more easily defer to Crosby. It was the third goal and eighth point of the playoffs for Sheary. The lowest-paid player on the team roster is, for the moment, lining up with the arguably the game's top talent on the biggest stage possible.

"His speed automatically pushes guys back," Crosby said. "On top of that, he can hold on to the puck. If he needs to create some time and space, he can hold on to it and delay and allow guys to help him out. That’s important."

Sheary, a five-foot-eight 175-pounder, was undrafted out of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where he played for four full seasons. The native of Winchester, Mass., led Pittsburgh's AHL at Wilkes-Barre this season with seven goals and 29 assists in 30 games.

Most clubs were only offering amateur tryouts. Pittsburgh, Sheary said, was one of the few teams seriously interested in his services.

"I think being overlooked a few times just makes that a little easier for to have that chip on my shoulder," he said.

"Just being an undersized guy, there's always going to be criticisms," Sheary said.

And he carries that chip into every game, right?

"Exactly. You gotta play that way."

For your information: Crosby, who won 71 percent of his draws in Game 2 (17/24), made short work of the overmatched winger and sent the puck cleanly back to Letang. The defenseman quickly found Sheary in the high slot, where he launched the game winner.

Sheary became just the fifth rookie in Stanley Cup Final history to score an OT winner. The others: Montreal's Brian Skrudland (Game 2, 1986, vs. Calgary), Montreal's Jacques Lemaire (Game 1, 1968, vs. St. Louis), Montreal's Jimmy Peters (Game 2, 1946, vs. Boston) and Alf Pike of the New York Rangers (Game 1, 1940, vs. Toronto).

Mike Sullivan being promoted from the AHL to replace Mike Johnston as coach in early January was Sheary's ticket to the NHL.

"It's been a bit of a whirlwind since the coaching change," said Sheary. "I got my chance to come up a week after. I think that change really helped a lot of our young guys, especially myself, to come up and already having the trust of our coach. And getting an opportunity to play in 40-someodd games and to get my first Stanley Cup playoff experience all in one year."

The speedy left winger has skated in 44 regular season games, potting seven goals and 10 points. He potted a pair of goals in a crucial 5-3 win against the Rangers, March 13 at Madison Square Garden.

In 18 postseason games, Sheary has remained sharp, scoring three goals and eight points.

"It seems like a lot," Sheary said. "And you have to try to take it all in and experience as much as you can, but also play the moment, play to your strengths and play as best as you can."

"I didn't have to go through the learning process because I watched these guys play for 20-something games," Sullivan said. "I was able to see what they were able to accomplish at the American league level. I think that experience certainly helped me with utilizing those guys in the most optimum way."

The rookies didn't have to worry about getting benched if they made mistakes.

"He trusted us and we also trusted him," Sheary said. "We had a good record down there and we knew his system works. The transition coming up here was pretty easy for us."

What a difference a year makes.

Entering the 2016 Stanley Cup tournament, these youngsters appeared to be no more than the supporting cast for a star-studded Penguins team featuring big names like Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Now, six weeks later, the fill-ins are occupying front and center roles.

"They've been playing great," Kessel said. "They're great players."

During a practice day in the first round series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers, a bespectacled, well-groomed kid who didn't look a day over 17 stepped to the podium in the interview room and began fiddling around with the microphone.

"I don't recognize him," said one reporter. "He must be some P.R. intern."

Try again.

More like Sidney Crosby's winger.

You can't tell the players without a program, obviously. Or at least a phone with a Google search engine.

The baby-faced chap up at the podium was, in fact, Conor Sheary who, along with forward Bryan Rust and goalie Matt Murray, have stepped to the forefront for the Penguins in Pittsburgh’s march to a Stanley Cup.

During the course of this playoff run, we have learned that as a ninth-grader Sheary, was barely 5 feet tall and like 100 pounds.

Talk about this as a tall tale ... or simply one of the most delicious stories to come out of the playoffs.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

More than Mr. Irrelevant -- Nick Bonino

By Larry Wigge

There was a slight interruption in the time Nick Bonino waited just outside the goal crease and when the perfect passing pass from Kris Letang was coming.

Then it came. From Letang to Bonino, the interruption could be construed as a tick on the clock while Bonino readied himself for his lob wedge shot as Bonino lifted the puck high over the right shoulder of San Jose goalie Martin Jones.

With 2:33 left, Pittsburgh had taken the lead, 3-2.

"Tanger put it right on my stick," Bonino explained. "It was a shot that wasn't my hardest shot by any means ... but I kind of found a way to flip it over him."

“He’s a terrific player in every aspect of the game,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan of Bonino. "We use him in so many key situations, offensively and defensively.

"He has high hockey IQ and sees the ice well. The way he uses his stick to take away passes is impressive. He blocks shots. Good faceoff guy. He’s done so much for our team to get us to this point."

One sidelight to this miraculous finish -- Bonino was originally drafted in the sixth round, 173rd overall, in the 2007 NHL Entry draft.

Bonino was traded by the Sharks to the Anaheim Ducks on March 4, 2009, in a package for Travis Moen and Kent Huskins.

"I was in school. In a class. I couldn’t really concentrate because I knew I was going to be traded," he said. "So I went to a 3 p.m. practice and I hadn't been traded yet. And then when I got back to the room, I had a bunch of calls and texts."

Fast forward seven years later and has now found greener pasture in Pittsurgh, after being sent to Vancouver with Adam Clendening and a draft choice for Brandon Sutter and a draft choice July 28, 2115.

Bonino is attracting more attention his way during the playoffs, playing on the HBK Line -- Carl Hagelin, Bonino and Rick Kessel. Known more for his hard work, Bonino now has four goals and 12 assists in 19 playoff games after getting just nine goals and 20 assists in 62 regular season games. His career high was 22 goals with Anaheim in 2011-12.

"I think I found a home for sure," Bonino said. "I enjoy the guys. The organization is first-class. It definitely feels nice to be in the Cup Final playing with these two guys."

Said Matt Cullen, "He's had some huge goals in the playoffs, come up really big. Obviously playing in the middle of that line, he's been huge for us all playoffs. It just brings another element of depth to our team.”

But, Bonino has 12 career postseason goals, five of which have been game-winners. The past four of those have come in the last three minutes of regulation or in overtime.

In fact, Bonino’s big-time heroics date back to his days at Farmington High School (Connecticut), where he scored the game-winning goal against Trumbull in double-overtime of the CIAC Division II championship. In college, he scored the tying goal with 17.4 seconds left in regulation in Boston University’s remarkable, late-game comeback victory over Miami (Ohio) in the 2009 national championship game.

There's more, before this goal against the Sharks, Bonino previously scored two series-clinching overtime goals. He had one in 2014 for the Ducks against the Stars and one against the Capitals in the second round this postseason.

Born in Hartford, Bonino was a Red Wings fan until the day in 2007 when he was drafted by the Sharks. Brendon Shanahan was his favorite player. Shanhan also is the man who traded Phil Kessel from Toronto to the Penguins last summer. Rutherford, who left owner Peter Karmanos for Pittsburgh in 2014 after more than two decades running his hockey empire, is the man who acquired Bonino from the Vancouver Canucks last July.

"I was so shocked by the trade I really don't remember much of what Jim Rutherford said to me," Bonino said. "I know he wanted me to be the third-line center and to give some depth to the team to work with."

And that plays to Bonino's competitive fire. How competitive? After he was stopped on two breakaways in overtime of a state semifinal loss to Hand-Madison, his mom Joanne once said he didn't talk for a week. A week!

He's a pretty good all-around athlete, played soccer and lacrosse at Avon. Because of that, people think, oh, he is just all natural ability. Forget that. His skating is what has improved the most through the years. He has absolutely worked his tail off. I'm so happy about his success.

The collection could make an impressive display, with a World Championships medal and NCAA national championship hardware included, but Bonino hopes it isn't complete yet.

He wants at least one more trophy.

"One of those little miniature cups would be nice," he said.

A small, replica Stanley Cup, that is.

First he needs to win a real one. This is the fifth NHL postseason for the 27-year-old forward from Connecticut, whose Cup-carrying chances likely improved with his July trade from Vancouver to Pittsburgh.

"An NHL career can't be disappointing if it's a long career," Bonino said, "but it's definitely a way better career if you win the Cup and you have that to your name."

The collection could make an impressive display, with a World Championships medal and NCAA national championship hardware included, but Bonino hopes it isn't complete yet.

For now, Bonino represents a small faction on the team that works -- big-time.

He is part of the depth of the Penguins.

"They've been a big part of this team for so long now that it doesn’t surprise us," Sullivan said. "They’ve stepped up and made big plays for us ... and not just scoring goals.”

"They’re first- and second-line players right now. They have big roles," Letang said moments after Bonino buried his pass for the winning goal with 2:33 left. "[Rust] has scored a lot of big goals for us. Sheary is playing on Sid’s line. Bonino has been a big part of his line with [Carl Hagelin] and [Kessel]. That’s not depth. Those guys are some of our top players."

Even more important is that Nick Bonino is scoring big-time goal at big moments.

More than you would expect from the 173rd pick in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft.

NOW -- that a story.