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|14 ноября 2007
Ozolinsh still a blue-chip player on the blue line // Mercury News
By Mark Emmons
Sandis Ozolinsh is 35, a seven-time All-Star and a man who has played in nearly 1,000 NHL games dating to 1992. And yet, when he returned to the ice for the Sharks this month, Ozolinsh also was something else.
"I didn't know what to expect," he said. "I didn't know how I would react. It was just a case of, let's see how it goes."
So far, so good.
It's a much different Ozolinsh than the guy who ended a forgettable tenure with the New York Rangers last December, amid boos and personal problems, by refusing a minor league assignment. Rangers Coach Tom Renney summed up Ozolinsh this way: "You have to wonder how much is left."
Apparently something is left in Ozolinsh's tank. His first six games have been promising. He's averaging 21:30 of ice time, demonstrating a take-charge presence and giving the Sharks a legitimate blue-line scoring threat.
In other words, he's doing a pretty fair imitation of the Ozolinsh who was one of the franchise's first stars and still holds Sharks single-season records for goals (26 goals) and points (64) by a defenseman.
"If I was coming back, I was going to try to play the way I know I could,
or not come back at all," said Ozolinsh, who has a goal and an assist.
"I don't really want to remember the recent past, but I didn't want to
be out there again, squeezing the stick so hard that I could see my fingerprints
in it, or sitting back and worried to death about making a mistake. If
I wanted to
Ozolinsh, a native of Latvia, was with the Sharks for parts of four seasons before being traded to Colorado for Owen Nolan in 1995. After five seasons in Colorado, and stints in Carolina, Florida and Anaheim, Ozolinsh landed in New York, a poor fit for him. He had only three assists in 21 games last season with the Rangers. He also had a DUI charge in 2006 that sent him back into the NHL's substance-abuse program for a second time.
That's why it was a surprise when Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson announced in training camp that Ozolinsh was getting a tryout. After all, the team had just traded Mark Bell, whose brief tenure in San Jose had included a highly publicized DUI.
Ozolinsh was the second late-summer addition - the other being Jeremy Roenick - by Wilson that raised eyebrows. But although Roenick and Ozolinsh both arrived with baggage, the two gambles have been paying dividends.
Roenick is second on the team with 10 points and scored his 500th goal last weekend. Ozolinsh's contributions have been less obvious on the stat sheet. But he has been vocal on the ice - "The guys look at me like I need a muzzle out there" - and isn't shy about slapping his stick on the ice to demand the puck.
"I wasn't sure when Doug suggested him," Coach Ron Wilson said. "On the other hand, some nights our defense looks inexperienced. But you've got a guy who has won a Stanley Cup and scored a lot of goals. We've lacked a mentor type of defenseman for offensive-minded guys. No one can ever say that Sandis doesn't try to score every time he's on ice. I love that."
Just as Roenick has assumed a role of team elder and advised younger Sharks such as Torrey Mitchell and Devin Setoguchi, Ozolinsh is someone whom San Jose defensemen can emulate. He's paired on the ice with second-year player Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
"He's been exactly the kind of defenseman we needed, someone with poise to run the point on the power play," Ron Wilson added. "Sometimes it's too much to ask a young guy to do that. It's mayhem out there. But now young guys can watch Sandis and say, 'Wow, that's how you do it.' "
Yet early in the first game of Ozolinsh's return engagement with the Sharks - Nov. 2 against the Los Angeles Kings - his new teammates noticed that bad case of nerves.
"But after about the third shift, you could see him settle down and he looked relaxed," defenseman Kyle McLaren said. "He was great right off the bat. Now it's just going to take time for the rest of us to get used to how he plays."
Ozolinsh is the first to caution that six games is just, well, six games. But after a summer of soul-searching, he seems reinvigorated.
"As long as I can just play, I'll be all right," he said. "Sometimes we all get carried away and think this is something beyond a game. But it's still just a game. You have to work hard, but enjoy it, too."
And see how it goes.