Right away, Michal Rozsival
says the Pittsburgh Penguins
are just another opponent. But even the New York Rangers
’ top defenseman can’t deny that this second-round series has an altogether different and personal meaning for him.
Pittsburgh is where Rozsival started his NHL career. It’s also where it nearly ended, too.
“It’s not the best way to leave a team that you started with, with the injuries, the lockout and at the end to find out they don’t want you because of your health,” Rozsival told NHL.com. “Any other scenario would be better than what happened.”
Rozsival’s bumpy past as a Penguin seems so long ago now that he has become the Rangers No. 1 defenseman and has missed only four games in the last three seasons. But his journey to the top of the Rangers’ depth chart is one he’ll never forget even if he readily admits; “I don’t like to look back.”
Rozsival was jumping hurdles on his last training day in the Czech Republic in the summer of 2003 when he landed awkwardly and felt his right knee buckle. He was set to board a plane bound for Pittsburgh the next day anyway, although now he was coming in for a doctor’s visit instead.
“I came to Pittsburgh, had a couple of MRIs, and they thought it was a meniscus tear so I went and had my meniscus repaired,” Rozsival said.
OK, not so terrible. Two months of rehab and he’d be back on the ice.
If only that was really the case.
Rozsival sat out the expected two months and when the Penguins felt he was ready they sent him down to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL for a conditioning stint.
That lasted all of two periods.
“My first game there, in the third period, my knee gave out on me again,” Rozsival recalled. “It just started swelling up. We went back to see the doctor and they found out the ACL was torn as well. So, I had to go and get my ACL repaired.”
Rozsival, who now seems OK with the original misdiagnosis, had to miss the rest of the season. By the time he was ready to make his return to the NHL there was no NHL to return to as a result of the lockout. He instead stayed home in the Czech Republic and played a full season, plus playoffs, 67 games in all. But because he missed the entire 2003-04 season no one had seen Rozsival play in North America in two years.
He was left as a free agent hoping someone would give him one more chance to make it in the world’s best hockey league. The Penguins weren’t going to be that team, but the Rangers decided to take a flyer on him.
“I guess the Rangers were looking for another defenseman that would maybe play, or maybe not,” Rozsival said. “I was thankful just to come here, just happy to land on a team.
“I knew I didn’t want to stay in Europe, but nobody had seen me play in the U.S for two years. If I didn’t show up in the third year I may not have gotten another chance to play here. I told my agent just get me a job, I don’t care how much money I’m going to make. I just want to play, to take another shot. That was my mindset coming here.”
Rangers coach Tom Renney, who took over behind the bench in 2005, said the team signed Rozsival based solely on his potential. He put up 75 points in 237 NHL games spanning four seasons before his knee troubles of 2003-04.
“We thought the potential was there recognizing injuries had stunted his growth a bit,” Renney said. “We were familiar with his assets. We weren’t real familiar in how he could put that into game play, but we also the worse we could do is find out.”
It’s a good thing they did, because Rozsival has become one of the League’s formidable defensemen and a fixture on the Rangers power-play. He’s also been extraordinarily durable.
Playing in 242 of the Rangers last 246 regular-season games Rozsival has wracked up 108 points and a plus-45 rating. He had a career-high 40 points last season and scored a career-high 13 goals this past regular season. He was plus-35 two years ago, which was tied for first in the NHL in that statistical category.
“He’s a top defenseman in the League,” Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist
said. “He’s the veteran back there. He’s very solid in areas with the puck and without the puck, and I think his positioning is his strong suit. Of course he’s fast, but his positioning is really good so he doesn’t have to skate to the puck that fast.”
Added Martin Straka
, who played with Rozsival in Pittsburgh: “We all knew what kind of skills he had. He gained confidence here and went from there. It has worked out perfectly for him here.”
He never really got the chance in Pittsburgh, but the Steel City and the Penguins still holds a great place in Rozsival’s heart, which is why the Rangers second-round foe is hardly just another opponent for Rozsival.
“I was there for five years and my kid was born there,” Rozsival said. “I have lots of good memories. The team still has a nice place in my heart. They gave me the opportunity to play in the NHL, but now I’m with the Rangers.”
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com