By: Kevin Kinghorn
His name sounds like it was lifted from the sidewall of a winter tire, which is fitting since Mario Bliznak performs well on ice too.
He's fast, fiery, and the prickly Slovak's in the midst of a playoff crash-course with the Vancouver Giants.
"In the regular season everybody plays more forward, but now everybody plays defence," says Bliznak, the Canucks' seventh pick in the 2005 draft. "It's a harder game. There aren't many scoring chances, but it's better."
The Giants lead the Portland Winterhawks 2-1 in the second round of the WHL playoffs after bouncing Prince George in five games.
Bliznak has scored twice and provided a pointed punch from the third line, though he knows he's not expected to challenge Gilbert Brule for the scoring belt.
"I play on the third line five-on-five and always on the penalty kill," says Bliznak, who had just nine goals and 21 points in 69 regular season games. "Back in Slovakia I was like defensive, but everybody tells me more offence."
The personal points can wait. Right now Bliznak says it's all about getting past Portland and into the third round.
"It's everything to work hard for the team. It's not about the individual. You think about the team because then the team will be successful."
For Bliznak that means shutting down fellow Canuck draft pick Jannik Hansen. The Winterhawk wonderkid led all WHL rookies in scoring and potted two goals in a losing cause Wednesday.
"Yeah we played together in rookie camp," says Bliznak. "I know him."
That familiarity hasn't softened Bliznak's approach. The two locked horns over a crucial offensive-zone face-off late in game one with the Giants trailing 1-0. Bliznak repeatedly poked and chopped at Hansen till the two were tossed when the stick fight threatened to escalate.
Bliznak has quickly learned that animosity and fire are at the heart of every successful playoff run. That he's been such a quick study doesn't come as a surprise.
Bliznak landed in Vancouver for his first training camp this summer with cereal-box English. He still speaks in stilted, chopped sentences, but he chatted genially with reporters in press box Monday night as he watched the Canucks struggle in a 4-2 loss to Anaheim.
"It was a little bit hard, but now I know how everything goes," he explains. "I didn't know English when I came here this summer. Now I've learned."
If he continues to pick up playoff hockey as quickly as English, Bliznak will be sticking to the ice long into the spring.