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| Kuilikov reaching potential.
24 октября 2014 года. Fialkov, Harvey; Davis, Craig. South Florida Sun - Sentinel
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- With much of the preseason conversation revolving around the Panthers' baby-faced corps of talented defensemen throughout their organization such as teenage rookie Aaron Ekblad, it's easy to forget that six-year NHL veteran Dmitry Kulikov is still six days shy of his 24th birthday.
While it's only six games into an 82-game marathon, it's quite evident that Kulikov is playing the best hockey of his career and has fully gained the trust of his new coaching staff, something that hadn't been the case since the Panthers selected him 14th overall in the 2009 draft.
Kulikov would be the first to admit that partnering with veteran defenseman Willie Mitchell just before the season began and being coached by assistant Mark Morris -- the developer of most of the two-time Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings' defensive crew -- has helped him approach his potential.
"I look up to Willie," Kulikov said.
"He's been playing in the league for a long time and knows how to play defensively. I look at how he does things that I like and just try to copy him and do the same things.
"He knows where I am and I know where he is, so I can expect him to be there which makes it easier for me to play."
Kulikov and Mitchell are the Panthers' top-two pairing on the penalty kill while being asked to shut down the opposing teams' top lines all game. They have given up just one even-strength goal in the first six games while keeping goal-scoring machines like Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos of the Capitals and Lightning respectively off the scoresheet.
Kulikov credits Morris for sage advice and for allowing him the freedom to play instinctively and not be afraid to make the occasional mistake.
"Hockeys a game of mistakes, and we all make them. But you want to minimize them as much as possible. Thus far, he's been very consistent and that's what you aim for," Morris said.
The soft-spoken Russian, who led the team with 47 turnovers last season and a minus-26 ice rating, has just three giveways and a minus-0 rating.
"[Morris] always talks about how some times less is more and if you do less the puck will come more on your stick and you don't always have to move too much," Kulikov said.
"And to always be in position to be ready to receive or pass the puck."
Kulikov is averaging a career-high 24 minutes of ice time while leading the Panthers with 161 shifts. He's been on the ice just 25 seconds less than perennial team leader Brian Campbell, who he's also second to in power-play TOI. While Kulikov has been on the ice for four of the Panthers' eight power-play goals allowed, two came when skating 3-against-5.
The preseason pairing of Mitchell with the 18-year-old Ekblad got off to a shaky start in Nashville, so Morris decided to put him with Kulikov and the top overall draft pick with Campbell. The goalies and top-four blueliners are major factors for the team's defensive turnaround. They have gone from 29th in goals allowed last season (3.20 per game) to No. 11 (2.17), and are ninth in shots allowed per game (27.7).
"He was extremely explosive and his puck skills were excellent," Morris said.
"The first thing I wanted to address was his decision-making and he seems to have bought in.
"We talked about settling his game down and you got to give credit to Willie, and who's better than one of the best defenders playing alongside you to remind you to keep your game simple and be a good support partner.
"I just nailed home the point that it's hard to stay still and we want you to be predictable back there for one another. ... Then you can make intelligent plays and hit singles rather than home runs."
Mitchell, 37, the Panthers captain, won his two rings out west with the Kings, so he said he hardly had heard of Kulikov until this summer.
"I had no idea how good he was until I got here. Right off the bat we had real good chemistry," Mitchell said.
"We've done a fairly good job breaking pressure and that's what this league is all about, cutting down the time in your defensive zone."