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Nikolishin Having Fun Again
[by Sean Broderick - 8 January, 1998]
WASHINGTON -- Despite the fact that he didn't score a point, Andrei Nikolishin's long road back to the NHL ended successfully Tuesday night.
After over seven months of rehabilitation, Nikolishin played for the first time this season in a Washington Capitals uniform -- and for only the third time at all -- since suffering a severe knee injury while playing for Team Russia in the World Championships last May. His other two games came last weekend in a brief rehabilitation stint with the American Hockey League's Portland Pirates.
"It was fun," a tired Nikolishin said after his 1997-98 NHL debut. "It's nice to be back. I missed it so much."
For the 24-year-old former Moscow Dynamo regular and CIS Player of the Year (1993-94), the injury and subsequent rehabilitation period was a new experience. Outside of a nagging back injury suffered last season and a broken jaw two years before that, Nikolishin's hockey career had been relatively injury-free. That all changed last May, and the next eight months changed him.
"When you play hockey, you never think about how hard it is, working out when you are not on the ice," Nikolishin said prior to his successful return. "Now, when I am working out doing some hard exercise, I know how important it is -- how I need to do it to get back on the ice."
As if being out wasn't enough, Nikolishin's injury caused him to miss the first half-season in what promises to be an exciting new era in Capitals hockey. Gone is defensive taskmaster Jim Schoenfeld -- the only coach Nikolishin ever played for in Washington before Tuesday -- and in is Ron Wilson and his more open, offensive, Euro-friendly style. After watching 40-plus games under the new regime, Nikolishin was more than ready to join in the fun.
"I'm so happy to see this team on the ice," Nikolishin said. "Everybody realizes that it's all new, with the new coaching staff and the young players. Everybody contributes; the defense joins the rush. It was lots of fun to watch them from behind the glass. Now, I will have some fun playing with them."
As if getting back into the Washington lineup was not fun enough, Nikolishin's role in Washington's 5-3 win made for even more excitement. Wilson, seeking to spark an offense weakened by both slumps and injuries, sent Nikolishin out at center on the team's first line. At his sides were two other Europeans, Slovaks Peter Bondra and Richard Zednik.
Unfortunately, a potential storybook return was reduced to just a good story. Besides going scoreless, Nikolishin was -1 and recorded just one shot, while Bondra and Zednik also failed to record points. In fact, the Slovak duo earned themselves some extra bench time during the game for failing to backcheck to Wilson's satisfaction.
Nikolishin, a former checking line specialist under Schoenfeld, had no such problems. Judging by the fact that his returning centerman played nearly 25 minutes in his first NHL game of the year, it's safe to say that Nikolishin, at least for one night, made a much better impression on his coach than his wingers did. In time, Wilson believes, Nikolishin will be able to do much, much more.
"It's going to be a process with him because Niko hasn't played much," Wilson said after the game. "I know he's good defensively, he's really strong on his feet, and he has an excellent shot, but it's going to take him some time to get his game speed back."
Considering what he's been through since last summer, that's the kind of time Nikolishin won't mind taking at all.
©1997 Glenwood Associates, Inc. and The Pro Hockey EuroReport