Every year at playoff time, instant heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and often they’re some pretty unusual candidates.
Perhaps the most unexpected offensive hero in this year's postseason so far is Dallas Stars
defenseman Mattias Norstrom
, whose blue-line blast deflected into the San Jose net 4:37 into overtime of Dallas' 2-1 victory against the Sharks in Game 3 of their Western Conference Semifinal series.
"I don't know how to describe the play, except that it took a long time getting there and it didn't wind up on the same straight line it started on," he said. "It wasn't pretty."
Sounds like a reluctant hero, right?
When the 36-year-old Swede was asked where his goal would rank on his list of memorable moments list, he replied, "It's a short list ... a very short list."
Pressed to name a single individual achievement, Norstrom, who had no goals and just two assists in 38 playoff games in his 14-year National Hockey League career before contributing on both overtime goals by Dallas in the first three games of this series, had to readjust his assessment of that list.
"Never have I been a part of one play that made so much impact," he said. "No kidding. Not when you've scored or assisted on as few goals as I have."
If you had the daily double on the Dallas defense, you would have won a big purse because fellow defender Sergei Zubov
netted the other Dallas goal.
"Their 'D' just play their positions," Sharks defenseman Craig Rivet
said. "They sit back there and wait and wait ... and then they pounce on the opportunities you give them."
Norstrom has scored only 18 goals in 903 NHL games. But ask any opposing forward what it's like to face the reliable, stay-at-home, in-your-face defenseman and you find Norstrom’s true worth.
"He's the most underrated player in the League, bar none," said Jeremy Roenick
, once a teammate of Norstrom's in Los Angeles. "He's tough as nails to play against. He never lets up. Physical? He's in your face every time you step anywhere near the goal crease."
Norstrom began his career with the New York Rangers
in 1993-94, but he spent the bulk of his career in Los Angeles. He was traded to Dallas on Feb. 27, 2007, along with forward Konstantin Pushkarev
, and 2007 third- and fourth-round picks for defenseman Jaroslav Modry
, the rights to Johan Fransson
, 2007 second- and third-round picks plus a 2008 first-round selection.
Not only did the Stars think they had gotten a prime puzzle piece for a long playoff run last spring, but so did Norstrom.
"I was thinking about carrying the Stanley Cup around the ice in June," he said. "But it didn't happen.”
Dallas lost to Vancouver in a seven-game series in the first round.
Norstrom, a physical defenseman, has been a linchpin on Sweden's blue line for many international tournaments. And his play hasn't been completely overlooked around the NHL, either.
His job of deflecting shots and roughing up skilled forwards began to gain notice during the 1997 World Championships, when he was chosen to the all-tournament team. He was also invited to play in the 1999 and 2004 NHL All-Star Games.
The reluctant star is one of the most cliché stories of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Norstrom fits the role perfectly.
"He was the captain of the Kings for a reason," said St. Louis coach Andy Murray, who named Norstrom captain of the Kings when he coached in L.A. "At every crucial point in a game, he's the guy I wanted on the ice."
On the ice, Norstrom uses his hands to carve up opposing forwards. At home, he's always hammering away at something. In fact, Norstrom said he probably would have followed his father's trade and been a carpenter if he wasn't so good at hockey.
Norstrom just finished a deck at his home in Sweden.
"I've always been good with my hands,” said Norstrom. “In fact, I think my dad had me playing with nails before I had a hockey stick in my hands."
Clearly, Norstrom is a throwback to the kind of player who brings skill and an attitude to the rink every night. Some say it was a curse that he came to the NHL in New York, when players like Brian Leetch
, Sergei Zubov
, Kevin Lowe
, Jeff Beukeboom
, Doug Lidster
and Jay Wells
made up the Rangers’ defense.
But Norstrom wouldn't trade his experiences there for being brought up in another organization that might have put him on the ice more.
"I was just a kid from Sweden and Mark Messier
and Adam Graves
and Kevin Lowe
and the rest made be feel a part of the team," Norstrom said. "Sure, I wanted to play more. But I got the on-the-job training from some great defensemen that I wouldn't have somewhere else.
"I remember Kevin Lowe
telling me no matter how skilled, how much talent, you can never work hard enough. That from a guy who won five Stanley Cups in Edmonton and one more in New York."
Norstrom played in nine games for the 1993-94 Rangers, "And I dressed for two warmups in the (Stanley Cup) Final," he said.
Maybe that's why Norstrom looks so much at home in this year's playoffs. He simply is a passionate veteran piece on a team of veterans and kids who just happen to have clicked this season and will be tough to beat from here on in.
"I thought about something like this and more when I got traded here last February," he said. "That feeling of being so close, that roller-coaster ride. That's what makes all of this so much fun."
And Norstrom is one of those fun, feel-good stories we find out about so often at this time of year.