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In hockey, one man can make a difference

by Larry Wigge /
There's this theory in a team sports that one trade, one draft, one free agent can't make a team.

Didn't Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin in the draft make the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals playoff contenders? Didn't Roberto Luongo in a trade make Vancouver a growing concern? How about Edmonton and then Anaheim becoming Stanley Cup contenders with trades for Chris Pronger?

What I'm saying is that at every trade deadline, every draft, every free-agent period, there is the sliver of hope that one piece can make a team whole.

The thought started to bounce around in Wigge's World the other day when Mats Sundin and his agent announced that they had narrowed their search for a new team to just two -- Vancouver and the New York Rangers.

You couldn't blame a lot of teams for being interested in Sundin. Didn't Pittsburgh think Marian Hossa could push them over to the Stanley Cup theater in a trade last February at the deadline? And didn't it almost work? Didn't Detroit win it all with that perfect addition of defenseman Brad Stuart being a final piece to the puzzle at the trade deadline?

Granted Mats Sundin is 37 (going on 38 in February) and he didn't come close to putting the Toronto Maple Leafs into Stanley Cup contention in recent years. But you can't blame that all on Mats.

What I'm trying to say is that Sundin, as a point-per-game player (78 points in 74 games) and a plus-17 on a minus team, can be a difference-maker with the right team concept.

To me, you could easily flash back to 1994 and see the Canucks or Rangers adding that final piece that eventually took them to the Stanley Cup Final. In this case, the Canucks won the Sundin Sweepstakes and can now line up Henrik Sedin, Sundin, Ryan Kesler and Ryan Johnson as strength up the middle that can compete for a Cup.

It was just last week that Canucks General Manager Mike Gillis told us, "Every team wants a big, dominant center-ice man. Other than a goalie, it's probably the most coveted position in our league."

Now the Canucks have that dominant center strength and will soon have Roberto Luongo back in goal.

Chemistry 101 -- To bond or not to bond. That is the Hockey 101 question we kick around each season. Put all of those wonderful hours of scouting each team does before the draft, before trade deadline and prior to free agency and you hopefully come up with players with great character and passion to play the game and the will to win. That character was obvious to most of us last season in Chicago when we saw the way Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews helped turn around the Blackhawks franchise.

That feeling of being right that it takes to being a success on the ice was never more evident recently when the contending Blackhawks voted to a man to give a couple hours of their time to sidetrack from a six-game road swing through North America on Nov. 22 and share in the mourning with their general manager Dale Tallon for the death of his father, Stanley, in Gravenhurst, Ontario.

That's right, the whole hockey team got on buses after a game in Toronto to get to Gravenhurst.

"I'm looking at these young people walking into the funeral home and thinking, 'Hey, that looks like Pat Kane. There's Patrick Sharp. Am I back in Chicago?' " recalled Tallon. "Before I know it I see all of the guys. I couldn't believe it.

"It makes you feel good about the character of our team and the homework we've done as a staff in drafting and getting these players. We thought they were great kids when we were scouting them and ..."

A teary Tallon recalled how Stanley Tallon was 47-years-old when he was diagnosed with cancer, how doctors gave him six months to live, but his drive and courage enabled him to beat cancer and live to see Dale play 10 NHL seasons and become a general manager. Stanley was 80 when he died.

"My mother was having such a hard time with it. We all were," Dale continued. "Then I remember looking over at her and there in the funeral hall and mom's hugging and kissing Pat Kane. Dad would have loved every minute of it. It's a day I'll never forget it."

Said Sharp, "It was really something to see all of the pictures Dale's mom had of him and his dad around the funeral hall."

Added Kane, "We talk a lot about respect for the game, respect for people around you, well, this was just a small part of that."

It was hockey's version of Chemistry 101 at its best.

More chemistry -- There were a lot of experts ready to say that Rob Blake was playing out the string to a fine career last season in Los Angeles. Voila! He gets traded to San Jose and he's re-made into the hitting and shooting machine that helped the Colorado Avalanche with the 2001 Stanley Cup.

"You kind of question things (if you can still play), but I talked to (GM) Doug Wilson. He told me he came here at the end of his career and kind of understood where I was coming from. He talked about me challenging myself," Blake said recently. "I look at this the same as when I went to Colorado. I'm just trying to fit in. When you're older, you're looking to be in a spot where you can win everything."

Blake has helped the Sharks to 52 points after 30 games -- the best 30-game mark by any team in NHL history.

The comeback kid -- In this, the year of the comeback in the NHL, no one has been better at chipping away at a lead when the chips are down than Pittsburgh center Evgeni Malkin. Three times the Penguins have bounced back to win games in which they trailed by at least two goals, and Malkin had seven points in those three games. … I'll bet you were wondering who was the last player to put up 100 or more assists in one season? Answer: Wayne Gretzky, 1990-91, when he had 122 assists for the Los Angeles Kings. ... Thomas Vanek scored 2 goals in Buffalo's win in New Jersey on Dec. 13. His 24 goals in the Sabres' first 30 games is a team record. The previous high was 23 goals for Dave Andreychuk in 1992-93. ... The record for one player having the most two-goal games without having a hat trick finally stopped, when Petr Sykora had 3 goals and 1 assist in Pittsburgh's 9-2 rout of the New York Islanders on Dec. 11. The hat trick came after 38 previous two-goal games. The previous record was 31 by Dennis Hull, who got his first hat trick with Chicago in 1972. Now, the record for most career two-goal games among players who've never had a hat trick belongs to Phoenix's Shane Doan at 30. ... If Jeff Carter can keep up his goal-scoring pace, he will become the first Philadelphia Flyer in more than three decades (or since Reggie Leach in 1974-75 with 61) to win the NHL goal-scoring crown. ... Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood, never one to sweat the small stuff, isn’t worried about his sorry goals-against average (3.19) and save percentage (.876) because it hasn’t affected his winning percentage -- 12-1-4. "I’m 36, not 26," Osgood explained. "I know how this season works. When it comes down to it in April, nobody cares what happened in December."

The best present -- When Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson turned 36 the other day, he was asked about feeling young and the best presents he could get. He replied, "One of the best things about being a pro athlete is you're among young guys. So I get to jab the 19- and 20-year-olds, and they get to jab me. It keeps you young. Present? I asked my son Hugo for a drawing. Other than that, the usual. Shirt and tie, or something like that." Did you notice Daniel didn't ask for that elusive Stanley Cup ring? ... Who wouldn't think that getting Marian Gaborik back on the ice was a great present for the Minnesota Wild after missing 27 games with more injury woes? In that return, Gaborik played 20 minutes, had four shots, 1 goal, 1 assist and helped the Wild gain their first point in six games in a 3-2 overtime loss to Calgary on Dec. 17. ... Vancouver's Daniel Sedin made sure Trevor Linden Night was a memorable one for the Canucks on Dec. 17, registering 2 goals and 1 assist in a 4-2 win against Edmonton. ... Talk about equal distribution. After 31 games, New Jersey's line of Travis Zajac, Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner had 31 goals and the line of Dainius Zubrus, Patrik Elias and Brian Gionta had 29. ... Let's start talking about Columbus goalie Steve Mason in terms of Rookie of the Year. A 47-save, 2-1 overtime win against San Jose on Dec. 17 gave him a 9-5-1 record, with a 1.91 goals-against average and .929 save percentage.

Loui's landing -- Apparently, Dallas' Loui Eriksson learned how to play in the traffic in front of the net from watching captain Brenden Morrow score those hard-earned goals, as Eriksson leads the Stars in goals with 14. ... It's funny how players show you more than you might expect when put into a pressure position and succeed -- like Boston's David Krejci, who got more ice time than expected last season with the concussion to Patrice Bergeron. Now he's blossomed into a force offensively. Ditto in Pittsburgh, where defensemen Alex Goligoski and Kris Letang are really showing something with the opportunity to play with Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney out of action. ... Look out in Edmonton, where shifty moves aren't all you're going to see from talented winger Ales Hemsky. He's shooting more, posting 20 shots in a recent four-game stretch. ... Great news from Nashville, where Steve Sullivan, who had 158 points in his first 150 games for the Predators, is beginning to show signs that he might return from back surgery to play later this season. ... The only goalies with as many shutouts as Nashville Dan Ellis' eight shutouts over the last two seasons are Roberto Luongo with 11, Henrik Lundqvist with 10 and Pascal Leclaire with nine. ... Simeon Varlamov's NHL debut win for Washington on Dec. 13 was a memorable one -- he became the first goaltender since the Rangers' Hardy Astrom to debut in Montreal with a win since Feb. 25, 1978. ... Jaime Sifers may be only 5-foot-11, but Toronto will soon learn about the rookie defenseman's toughness and strength. Oddly, Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson went down to watch Toronto's American Hockey League club to see one player and became intrigued by Sifers, an undrafted free agent who played at the University of Vermont. ... I wonder what you think. Did Jason Blake stop his forward motion before doing a 360-degree spin-o-rama for his shootout goal against New Jersey on Dec. 16? ... Troy Brouwer, taken in the seventh round of the 2004 Entry Draft, is showing some staying power for the Blackhawks on a line with Martin Havlat. ... Stephan Weiss had decisive goals in three straight games for Florida and is showing signs he was worthy of that high first-round pick the Panthers used on him in 2001. ... Here's an eye-opening number for you: The Atlanta Thrashers were 1-12-2 against teams in the top seven spots in the Eastern Conference prior to a meeting against Pittsburgh on Dec. 18. ... It's great to hear that hard-working forward Jeff Halpern is back in action for Tampa Bay after sustaining a ruptured ACL in his knee while playing for the U.S. team in the World Championships last spring. He made his season debut for the Lightning on Dec. 18 vs. Colorado. ... In shape and void of injuries for a change, Michal Handzus is showing that big body and production Los Angeles likes at center in his contract year. ... Wojtek Wolski is flashing his skill again for in Colorado and giving the Avs some important scoring away from the top line of Paul Stastny, Ryan Smyth and Milan Hejduk. ... If I asked you who leads the League in shifts per game, I'll bet you would never guess the answer is Minnesota center Mikko Koivu (29.3 per game). Philly's Mike Richards is second at 28.5. ... The Hurricanes are starting to get with new/old coach Paul Maurice's No. 1 gripe -- controlling the puck defensively and starting the offense from your own zone. ... We talk a lot about that great 2003 draft. The Flyers have four of the top 47 players in that draft playing regularly for them -- Braydon Coburn (No. 8 by Atlanta), Jeff Carter (No. 11), Mike Richards (No. 24) and Matt Carle (No. 47 by San Jose). ... The signing of free-agent defenseman Steve Montador was one of Anaheim's best last summer. Not flashy, Montador is a plus-18 over his last 25 games. ... Mike Komisarek's absence from the Montreal lineup has been more than just a little noticeable. The former first-round defenseman plays with size and was becoming more and more comfortable with the skill assignments before injuries forced him to miss 16 games. ... That old theory that a perfect player can't tolerate mistakes as a coach is being poked with holes by Phoenix's Wayne Gretzky. Said The Great One, "The reality is, seeing the eagerness and the desire to want to get better and to want to succeed and to want to win in these kids makes it all worthwhile for me."

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