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Big Bert closes on 300-goal milestone

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
Red Wings forward Todd Bertuzzi is congratulated by teammate Ian White. Bertuzzi has enjoyed his role with new linemates Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen. (Photo by Getty Images)
DETROIT – The moves defy the principles of sport.

At 6-foot-3 and nearly 230-pounds, a player like Todd Bertuzzi shouldn’t be able to move with the grace of a figure skater while unleashing a laser of a backhand shot.

But that’s what we’ve seen recently, particularly in a few shoot-outs, from the Red Wings’ forward who is one-goal shy of becoming the 12th active NHL player to collect 300 goals while playing in at least 1,000 games.

Bertuzzi, in his 16th NHL season, is playing with a new found confidence, which is reminiscent of some of his huge offensive years in Vancouver.

He began the season – his fourth with the Wings – partnered with Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm to form a disruptive checking line. But after a six-game absence with a sinus infection, Bertuzzi returned to the lineup in mid-November and was packaged on the top scoring line with Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen.

And the move has worked out for everyone involved.

“I’ve obviously felt very comfortable, I’ve played in similar spots before with top end players and you have to play a certain way and be in certain places,” said Bertuzzi, who has played in 1,064 NHL games. “It’s a comfort zone that I’ve been comfortable with, and obviously with these two, Pavel is without a doubt in my mind the best player in the NHL, and then Mule has just been clutch; I think his (league-leading nine) game-winners speak for themselves. It’s been a good mix.”

A strong skater with terrific hands, Bertuzzi has been a perfect fit for the Wings, whether it’s as a threatening presence on the top line or going against opposing goalies in shoot-out battles.

Television analyst Pierre McGuire has seen Bertuzzi at his best, and says that the 36-year-old Sudbury, Ontario, native is playing like he did during his amazing 2002-03 season when he made the league’s postseason All-Star team with Naslund, Peter Forsberg, Al MacInnis and Nicklas Lidstrom.

“I’ve seen him play some unbelievable games when he was in Vancouver, but I think the biggest think has been confidence, he wants the puck on his stick,” McGuire said. “Cleary, he has great chemistry going with Datsyuk and Franzen, but the biggest thing is that he wants the puck, and when you want the puck as much as he does you can make a difference.

“He’s been making better decisions and he’s much more responsible, defensively. He’s playing unbelievably well.”

In 42 games, Bertuzzi has 10 goals and 15 assists with an impressive plus-23 rating – that would be a single-season career best. But since joining the top line, he’s come to life with nine goals and 13 assists in 28 games, which has delighted coach Mike Babcock.

“He’ playing well, he’s playing with good players and he’s skating good,” Babcock said. “You know, I think he’s been excellent, but I think he’s been excellent for awhile. He’s been good without the puck and he’s been good with the puck and the more physical he plays the more we like it and the better he likes it.”

Playing with Datsyuk and Franzen has been enjoyable, Bertuzzi said, mainly because he once again gets to compete against the top players in the league on every shift.

“It’s the competition part and it’s fun to play against some of the top lines, top D-pairings each and every night, it’s a big challenge, but actually it’s been a lot of fun,” he said. “You have to be up and ready every night and you have to be competitive against them.”

When it comes to shoot-outs, something the Red Wings haven’t had a lot of experience with this season, until recently, Bertuzzi brings a uniquely creative approach to the mano-a-mano challenge.
He’s been good without the puck and he’s been good with the puck and the more physical he plays the more we like it and the better he likes it. - Wings coach Mike Babcock on Bertuzzi

“I just learn with each shoot-out,” he said. “With how good the goaltenders are these days you have to be creative. I’ve been watching Jimmy Howard up close and how he’s shut the wall on everyone, and it seems that everyone just keeps shooting and shooting and shooting, but he takes away a lot of space. So for me, not having that wicked wrist shot that some of the guys do you have to come up with different things and get the goaltender moving in your favor.”

Howard doesn’t envy the opposing goalies for having to face the Wings’ Whirling Dervish and his unconventional techniques, like the spin-o-rama move that beat Phoenix last week.

“He comes in at that perfect pace,” Howard said. “I mean, he takes it out wide and now he’s opened up the variety of things that he can do – he can come in and pull you wide and shoot, he can do the spin-o-rama, he can pull off the between the legs. And he can fire the puck, too, he can really shoot that thing really hard and really accurate.”

Unlike the league’s snipers who skate down the slot and fire a shot, or try to deke the goalie as they approach the crease, Bertuzzi prefers to take the puck wide – almost reaching the half wall – before picking up speed, which keeps the goalies guessing more than normal.

“It gets your mind going, ‘What is he going to do? What is he going to pull off?’ ” Howard said. “If you don’t know his tendencies or what moves he likes to pull off then when he goes out that wide you’re thinking and this barrage of thoughts comes over you. Next thing you know, you go with the first move and he’s got you.”

And a lot of the time Bertuzzi is waiting for the goalie to make that initial move so he can ad-lib.

“Like the other night when I hit the crossbar(against Columbus), that wasn’t the move that I was going to do, but I had enough speed and (goalie Curtis Sanford) looked like he was going to stop and hold the post on the right side so I had enough speed to go quick on my backhand and unfortunately I hit the crossbar, but I think sometimes you have to adapt to what’s given.”

That’s also true for his approach to the overall season, which is the last of his current contract with the Wings.

“I wouldn’t say that I feel like a rookie,” Bertuzzi said, “but even practice, you don’t feel tired and sluggish. You don’t mind coming down to practice and it’s fun, and the guys make light of it.

“I’ve been enjoying every bit of it, especially with this organization. It’s been awesome to be a part of. The guys make coming to work very enjoyable and a lot fun. And when you’re having fun and the game is going well it’s a good place to be.”

Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @RooseBill

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