It was one of those quick-twitch, in-the-blink-of- an-eye decisions that not everyone can make.
The game is going at full speed, and yet some players have the ability and skill set to calibrate the angles the opposition is going to take and assimilate them to his advantage, like looking at a chess board and seeing seven moves ahead. Stars defenseman Sergei Zubov
is one of those players.
Zubov is smart, patient, creative, productive and some think he's the best pure passer in the game. And even though he was coming into Game 2 of a Western Conference semifinal series against the San Jose Sharks
having not played a shift since Jan. 17, Sergei was able to shake off the rust and use his magical skills. After going nearly top speed, he stopped to draw attention to him near the right-wing faceoff circle to give his teammates time and space to get open, then spun and made a hard backhand pass through the middle of the San Jose zone for a quick wrist shot by Mike Modano
for the go-ahead goal in a 5-2 victory. The win gave the Stars a 2-0 lead with the series shifting to Dallas for Game 3.
"What a way to welcome back an old friend," Modano said.
When asked if he meant Zubov or the pass, Modano said, "Both."
Then he continued, "With Zubie, you have to always be ready for the puck ... whenever. You have to know it's coming to you and to be ready for it."
This is where we would normally have to explain the hand-to-eye, magical sleight-of-hand Zubov possesses. But the reputation of 15 NHL seasons, Stanley Cups with the New York Rangers
in Sergei's first full NHL season in 1994 and with Dallas in 1999, are proof enough of his Picasso-like artistic skills.
"No offense to anyone else who’s been here for a while, but Sergei is like our quarterback," coach Dave Tippett
told me. "Most of what we do here offensively and defensively starts with him. Yet he flies under the radar. His vision, his patience and those great puck skills are behind a lot of our creativity. First and foremost, he’s such a leader. He’s in the game to win, he can’t stand to lose.
"Today, there might have been some rust down here (touching his legs), but there's no rust up here (pointing to his head)."
The 37-year-old Zubov clearly missed the game after being knocked out of the lineup first with foot and groin injuries in mid-January that were later re-diagnosed as his second bout with sports hernia since he missed the team's last game in the playoffs last spring in Vancouver. With a player this valuable, the Stars made sure every stone was unturned to make sure he was back in the lineup when the team needed him the most in the playoffs. That meant a second hernia surgery called the Muschaweck procedure (named after Dr. Ulrike Muschaweck) that was supposed to be less invasive in Munich, Germany, less than a month ago.
"I struggled in the first half of the game, but felt better after that," Zubov said. "I feel fresh, but I felt frustrated sitting out. I missed everything. This is the longest I've been out of the lineup in my career.
"It makes me want to make big contributions right away."
He normally plays nearly 26 minutes a night. In Game 2, he played a little more than 16 minutes. There was rust -- he was partially victimized for the two Sharks goals. But when the Stars needed him the most on a third-period power play, the silky-smooth Sergei brought out his best skills. No one would ever dispute the importance of this 37-year-old defenseman from Moscow.
"He's like having a great point guard in basketball," Columbus Blue Jackets
coach Ken Hitchcock once told me. "He controls the flow of the game for the Stars."
Zubov is a product of a Russian system that stressed puck control.
"When I was growing up, we practiced at the same rink as the big team, and I often stayed and studied the style of Slava Fetisov and how Fetisov and Igor Larionov
made the puck dance out there," Sergei explained. "They always seemed to have the puck -- and always knew what play to make."
Sharks coach Ron Wilson might not admit it now, but in January at the All-Star Game in Atlanta, I asked him about Dallas rookie defenseman Matt Niskanen
. Wilson praised the kid, but let it be known that Niskanen's development was a testament to Zubov mentoring him.
"I’ve always felt that Sergei Zubov
is the most underrated skilled defenseman in the game -- and you can sure tell that he’s mentoring Matt the way he’s developing," Wilson told me.
Niskanen, one of the young defensemen who were key to helping the Stars upend the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks
in the first round of the playoffs, threw all the praises Zubov's way, saying emphatically that, "Sergei makes it work. He’s so good at reading so many things that are happening at fast pace on the ice -- and I’m lucky enough that he’s shared some of those little details on what to look for and when to go with the puck that he’s simply the master of doing."
Smart. Patient. Creative. Productive.
Teammates and the coaching staff marvel at his knowledge of technical gadgets. Whether it's a digital camera, pocket PC, home theater, camcorder and several computers are his toys, that part of Sergei's curiosity. But that part of his life is a far cry from tinkering with the inner workings of tape recorders and televisions.
"Did you ask him about the gadgets he loves so much?" Tippett asked. "He’s always tinkering with something electronic. In fact, if something happened to my computer, Sergei is the first person I’d go to see."
"He’s really into technology, but he’s no computer geek," said Modano. "He’s that smart, that quick to pick up on things. He is literally just a click away from hearing his cell phone messages on his laptop. He’s got a world cell phone that allows him to talk or send photos to his family and friends back home in Russia any hour of the day and night. I don’t know how he does it. But it seems like he’s got something new each week to tinker with."
And he's quick to make a technical and skillful contribution to the Dallas Stars
"It lifts our spirits to see him out there," Stars captain Brenden Morrow
said of Zubov's return. "It's like adding another player at the trade deadline or something.
"We're playing a great team game right now. But when you add the element of skill that Zubie brings, there's no fear that it might mess with the chemistry this team has. It just enhances it."