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Capital Aims to Change. Defense-Minded Nikolishin Plans to Shoot More // Washigton Post.
By Jason La Canfora
Three words resonated through Andrei Nikolishin's head during the summer. Three syllables that have taunted him at times during his tenure with the Washington Capitals echoed loudest this offseason, leaving him no choice but to abide.
Shoot the puck.
It sounds simple and, for the most part, it is. But for Nikolishin, whose natural instinct is to focus on defense and passing to his wingers -- the traditional way Russian centers are trained to play -- the duty has been stressful. Nikolishin, who set a career high with 14 goals for Hartford in his first full season (1995-96), spent the bulk of his summer training on mental and physical exercises aimed at curbing his tendency to seek out a teammate when approaching the net.
After years of chiding from coaches -- including a long-running bet with assistant coach Tim Hunter based on Nikolishin's shots-on-goal total -- Nikolishin said he is steadfast in his determination to look for his shot more frequently this season and test goalies more regularly. So far, so good. Nikolishin has taken 16 shots on goal through the first eight games of the season and has two goals in the last three games; last season he scored in only one of his first 12 games.
"That's what I worked on all summer long," Nikolishin said. "I tell myself I've got to shoot more and work on my shot. I just concentrate on doing more stuff with my shooting, trying to change my mind from passing to shooting. Some drills, but more mental stuff.
"If I have a 50-50 opportunity to shoot or pass the puck, I'm definitely going to shoot right now. Years ago, I would pass it most of the time, but now I try to put more shots on the net. It's more dangerous and you can always get a rebound."
Thus far, Nikolishin, 28, has been a man of his word. A few weeks ago he appeared to make a breakthrough, as twice he held the puck on a two-on-one, firing at New York Rangers rookie goalie Dan Blackburn both times. The seeds of change began last season, when Nikolishin produced 145 shots on goal in 81 games (and 13 goals), up from a mere 98 shots in 1999-2000. While he lacks the potent scoring ability of Jaromir Jagr and Peter Bondra, Nikolishin is learning to think more like a scoring threat, an important step in his evolution.
"Oh, yeah, I think I can score more goals," Nikolishin said. "Peter always tells me to shoot, and if you shoot you will score. Look at guys like Peter and Jags, they average like three or four shots a game. That's the point; if you're going to shoot more you're going to score more."
The July acquisition of Jagr, winner of the last four scoring titles, gives each of the Capitals' two offense-minded lines a top weapon (Jagr and Bondra have scored more goals than any NHL players since the start of the 1993-94 season). Nikolishin has spent most of the last two seasons centering Bondra but has clicked lately with Trevor Linden and Dainius Zubrus, and is tied for the team lead with a plus-4 defensive rating.
Teams can no longer focus their defensive energies primarily on that line, with Adam Oates and Jagr teaming on another line. Thus, the opportunities for Nikolishin to create offense should be greater than ever. However, as is true of any center in Coach Ron Wilson's system, the priority is to aid the defensemen in the offensive zone while the wingers attack the corners and the net.
"We've asked him to shoot the puck more, but he also has defensive responsibilities," Wilson said. "With the way we play, it's important he moves the puck and gets it up the ice with speed, so we can play up-tempo. And he will continue to utilize one of his strengths, which is to play defensively. What his numbers are is totally up to Niko and him moving the puck around."
Nikolishin posted 38 points last season, his highest total in five seasons
with Washington and the most since 1995-96, his first full NHL season.
The Capitals acquired Nikolishin for defenseman Curtis Leschyshyn in November
1996 and he finally notched a double-digit season goal total with the team
in 1999-2000. While management realizes Nikolishin's worth is primarily
in his upper-body strength and ability to check the many huge centers in
the Eastern Conference, squeezing a bit more offense out of him would be
a pleasant bonus. Nikolishin knows it could happen. One shot at a time.