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сентября 2001 года.
Canes' Ozolinsh confident // The News Observer
Defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh was disappointed in his play at times last season, but he has taken a positive approach as a new season nears.
By Luke Decock.
There were times last season when Sandis Ozolinsh showed how he became known as one of hockey's truly dynamic players.
There were games when the defenseman showed why the Carolina Hurricanes signed him to a five-year, $25.5 million contract last summer after acquiring him from the Colorado Avalanche.
There were passes that set up goals so easy even the most ham-handed forward couldn't help but score.
Fans remember. Opponents remember. Teammates remember. But Sandis Ozolinsh does not.
What Ozolinsh, 29, remembers are all the things that didn't go right. All the nights he hung his head on the bench, berating himself for his latest mistake. The plus/minus rating of minus-25.
Those he remembers.
When Ozolinsh opened up the Canes' training camp guide, a small pamphlet with capsule summaries of each player's season, and got to his bio, he saw this:
"Ranked first among Hurricanes defensemen in goals (12), assists (32) and points (44). ... Started in the 2001 NHL All-Star Game, his fifth All-Star appearance. ... Registered his second career hat trick and earned an assist at Chicago ..."
When he came to the hat trick, he asked himself, "Did I have that?"
Last season is a dark cloud in the back of his mind, a memory to repress, not relive.
"I had such a negative approach to the game that I don't remember that stuff," Ozolinsh says. "All I have is the bad things -- minus-25, always disappointed in my game. Stuff like that."
His approach, he says, is different this year. He is comfortable, confident, healthy, happy. The ebullient Ozolinsh who never shut up in Colorado is becoming more apparent. He looks and acts ...
"More himself? I think so," says Arturs Irbe, Ozolinsh's old friend and Latvian countryman. "I feel that he's more settled right now, and I guess he has more perspective."
A little perspective can't hurt. Ozolinsh's season wasn't nearly as bad as he remembers. There were times Ozolinsh took over the game -- the afternoon in Chicago when he had a hat trick, one goal at even-strength, one on the power play, one short-handed; the night in Raleigh when he almost single-handedly beat the Atlanta Thrashers with a four-point night.
"The downside with him is that you have to suffer through the times when he doesn't feel like playing," Atlanta's Ray Ferraro said after Ozolinsh burned the Thrashers on Feb. 21. "Tonight, he felt like playing."
That Ozolinsh is the one the Canes signed to that huge contract after trading a first-round pick to the Colorado Avalanche for him.
There was another Ozolinsh, the one that struggled mightily with the expectations placed upon him as one of the team's highest-paid players. He tried to spring a breakaway with every pass, score a goal on every shift. When he failed, he took it personally.
That's what he's trying to change this year.
"I have maybe a little different mental approach to the game," Ozolinsh says. "Last year, I think I put way too much pressure on myself and basically tried to do everything by myself. Now I feel a lot more confident on this team and hopefully that will give better results."
At his best, Ozolinsh seems to float above the game, disappearing from the action only to appear in front of the net when everyone -- the defense included -- least expects him.
When he's playing well, the puck seems to bounce off his stick because he passes so quickly. He jumps into holes so small he didn't even see them. He just knew they were there, without thinking.
On the ice, he needs to rely on his instincts. Off it, he needs to rely on his sense of humor. Both are world class.
He lost his confidence in both last season.
"I think when Sandis came in last year he came in with so much fanfare that unrealistic expectations were placed on him based on what he was going to be able to do offensively for our team," says coach Paul Maurice, who never really seemed to figure out the best way to use Ozolinsh last season. "I think a lot of that pressure is gone now. I think we've had other defensemen emerge to take some of that pressure off -- Dave Tanabe is one of them. Sandis will really be able to come in and start from square one in a way he couldn't last year."
His health will make a difference, too. His season had barely started last year when a Randy McKay check along the boards bent Ozolinsh's left knee inward on Nov. 18.
He played for six weeks with undiagnosed torn cartilage in the knee, playing in terrible pain and without the quick first step that makes him so dangerous.
Surgery turned up the source of his pain and fixed it, but it hardly fixed Ozolinsh's season. In his first game back, on Jan. 20, he was minus-3 and on the ice for two Los Angeles Kings breakaways. Fans booed as they blamed him for the end of a nine-game home unbeaten streak.
Ozolinsh never recovered from that, or the trade talk that dogged him all season -- and will likely continue to surface periodically. It took a summer at home in Latvia for the cloud of gloom to pass.
And it has. Clearly.
A happy Ozolinsh is a loud Ozolinsh. After Wednesday's game in Atlanta, he feigned injury and ducked into the training room when the media were allowed into the locker room, only to pop his head out laughing. Tuesday, he stood behind the bench and critiqued trainer Peter Friesen's on-ice workout for injured rookie Igor Knyazev -- well within Friesen's earshot and laughing every time Friesen glared at him.
"There's not any more worrying about what's going to happen," Irbe says. "He just is ready to enjoy the game and run with it. That's why he's more relaxed, and I'm glad to see that. I'm glad to see that, but I'm not always glad to hear that because you know what that means."
Irbe may have known Ozolinsh for more than 10 years but he's not immune
from Ozolinsh's needling. He may, in fact, bear the brunt of it. But he
bears it cheerfully, because the more Ozolinsh is pestering Irbe, the better
the chances Ozolinsh will have a season worth committing to memory, not
another to forget.