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Inside The NHL

Oct. 28, 2002
Oct. 28, 2002

Table of Contents
Oct. 28, 2002

NBA Preview 2002-03

Inside The NHL

In Mario He Trusts
Playing on the top line with Mario Lemieux has brought out the
best in Pittsburgh's talented Aleksey Morozov

This is an article from the Oct. 28, 2002 issue

Skating alongside Mario Lemieux has made Penguins winger Aleksey
Morozov look like a superstar, but there was a time when playing
with Lemieux put knots in his stomach. "I was so nervous my
first game, wondering how I was going to play with him,"
Morozov, 25, says of his debut on Lemieux's line last January.
"It's tough mentally, but Mario gives me confidence. He tells me
not to look for him all the time, just to play my game. He
doesn't scream at me; he tries to help. And he always puts the
puck right on my stick." That's the biggest perk in having
Lemieux for a linemate. Morozov, who's been stationed on
Lemieux's right wing since the season opened, had five goals
(second most in the league) and five assists for the surprising
Penguins (3-1-1-0 at week's end). "This is my best time in the
NHL," he says.

A Moscow native, Morozov was the Russian league's rookie of the
year in 1995 when Pittsburgh made him its first-round selection
(24th overall) in the NHL draft. He was twice named to the
all-tournament team at the World Junior Championships, and he
scored 13 goals and 13 assists in 76 games as an NHL rookie in
'97-98. But with talented right wingers Jaromir Jagr and Alexei
Kovalev ahead of him, Morozov languished in a third-line checking
role. "I wasn't happy," Morozov says. "Playing 10 minutes a game,
flipping the puck all the time from the red line, that's not my
game."

After three mediocre years in which he scored a total of 26
goals, Morozov was given a top-line spot alongside Lemieux in the
middle of last season. (Jagr was traded to the Capitals in July
2001, and Kovalev has frequently changed forward positions.)
Morozov, who has soft hands and an accurate shot, enjoyed the
most productive stretch of his career, scoring nine times in
eight games before Lemieux was sidelined for the year with a hip
injury. Morozov finished the season with career highs in goals
(20) and points (49). Playing with Lemieux and Kovalev this year,
Morozov has picked up where he left off. "He's got more space to
operate," says coach Rick Kehoe, "and playing with Mario, he
understands that he could get the puck anytime, anywhere, so he
has to be ready. It makes him sharper."

With more precision than boom to his shot, Morozov is most
dangerous from inside the dots and, at Lemieux's urging, has made
a habit of going to the net. (All five of his goals came from in
close.) At 6'1" and 204 pounds, he's also bulked up over the
years (he weighed 174 when drafted), which has improved his
strength in the corners and around the cage. "He's finally
realized what to do with the puck," Kovalev says. "He takes it to
the net, or he goes in for rebounds. He's found that touch."

He's also become more patient with the puck. During Pittsburgh's
3-2 victory over Atlanta on Oct. 16, Morozov took a Lemieux feed
in the right face-off circle and waited for Thrashers goaltender
Milan Hnilicka to cover the near post before switching to his
backhand and shoveling the puck through the five-hole for the
Penguins' first goal. "Mario has given me a good push," Morozov
says. "I feel very good now, so even if I play without those two
guys, I still feel confident."

John LeClair's Strong Start
His Back Is Game, And His Game Is Back

Asked about linemate John LeClair after the Flyers tied the
Islanders 3-3 last Thursday night, right wing Mark Recchi smiled
and said, "He looks great, healthy and strong. He's got strength
back in his legs and his back, and he's so good one-on-one. It's
like the old John."

It's been two years since the 6'3", 225-pound LeClair has played
like this, pinballing off defenders on the forecheck and camping
in front of the net to create havoc and score on easy tap-ins. A
series of back injuries limited him to 16 games during 2000-01,
and last season he scored only 25 goals in 82 games. But after
getting his league-high seventh goal in Philadelphia's 3-1 win
over the Capitals last Saturday night, LeClair has regained the
dominant form that he showed as a three-time 50-goal scorer in
the mid-'90s. As a result, the Flyers were off to a 3-0-2-0
start and were one of two unbeaten clubs, with the Lightning.

LeClair's renaissance began in July, after minor surgery to
remove scar tissue in his lower back revealed a herniated disk,
which was partially removed. The disk had been pinching a nerve,
causing weakness in LeClair's legs. A diligent summer of
rehabilitation strengthened his lower body, a critical element
in his game. "I can move better," says the 33-year-old LeClair,
"and I'm more pain-free."

In the meantime LeClair, Recchi and playmaking center Jeremy
Roenick have been a pain for opponents. Put on the same line
against the Flames on Oct. 12, they sparked a three-goal,
third-period comeback as Philly won 5-4. Since then 10 of the
team's 15 goals through Sunday had come with all three on the
ice. Says coach Ken Hitchcock, "That line is dangerous,
especially when they're all working as hard as they're working
now. They're not playing just a skill game, they're playing a
hardworking game."

Effects of Rules Changes
Power Play Is More Powerful

Primarily because the NHL was making good on its off-season
pledge to call all obstruction fouls, teams were averaging a
combined 37.4 penalty minutes and 12.3 power plays per game
after the first two weeks of the season--a dramatic increase
over last season's numbers, 30.4 and 8.3. Also, the number of
power-play goals per game was 2.13, up from 1.30 in 2001-02.
(Not surprisingly, there were only five shutouts through the
league's first 76 games, compared with nine a year ago.) Says
Chris Chelios, whose Red Wings led the league in power-play
conversion rate (30.0%), "We're going to win and lose games on
our special teams."

While players adjust to the new officiating standards, teams are
taking measures to beef up their special teams. Last season the
Coyotes converted only 15.6% of their power plays, and in
anticipation of the effects of the crackdown, they hired as a
consultant future Hall of Famer Paul Coffey, who quarterbacked
some of the league's most prolific man-up units. The increase in
power plays is forcing clubs to use more players on their
penalty-killing units to avoid burnout and so they won't have
regulars stuck on the bench for long stretches.

"I think more teams now have almost three units of penalty
killers and try to keep them fresh," says Canadiens assistant
coach Guy Charron. "The challenge is to involve more people on
the special teams and to get some consistency."

Shorter Games
Time Is Money for the NHL's TV Future

Calling more obstruction penalties and instituting the hurry-up
face-off rule not only has increased scoring, but it has also
noticeably shortened game times. The season's first 76 matches
lasted an average of 2 hours, 21 minutes, compared with 2:37
through the same point last year. On Oct. 15 the Oilers and the
Stars, two of the NHL's better skating clubs, completed their
match in 2:05, at one point going nine minutes without a whistle.
What's more, pulling the average game time under 2 1/2 hours
significantly enhances the game's TV appeal, and with the
ABC-ESPN national broadcast package expiring after the 2003-04
season, the league's timing couldn't be better.

For more news and notes from Daniel G. Habib, go to
cnnsi.com/hockey.

COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA With Lemieux (66) as his center, Morozov (95) had 10 points in his first five games.COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHOCOLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO

Hall of Famer? Not a Hall of Famer?

G Mike Vernon
1982-83 through 2001-02
He never won a Vezina Trophy, nor was he ever a first-team
All-Star, but his 385 NHL wins rank seventh alltime, and he was
the netminder for two Stanley Cup winners (the 1988-89 Flames
and '96-97 Red Wings).

THE VOTE: His playoff achievements, which include winning the
Conn Smythe Trophy, put him over the top and into the Hall.

Whom Would You Rather Have?

Kyle McLaren
Bruins D
The 6'4" 230-pounder, who is sitting out after declining Boston's
$1.8 million qualifying offer, is a career .30 points-per-game
scorer. The 1995 first-round draftee missed 79 games over the
last three seasons and had a -13 rating in that time.

Brad Stuart
Sharks D
The 6'2" 215-pounder, who is sitting out after declining San
Jose's $1.1 million qualifying offer, is a career .37
points-per-game scorer. The 1998 first-round draftee missed five
games over the last three seasons and had a +26 rating in that
time.

THE VERDICT: McLaren bangs with the best, but he's brittle. We'll
take the durable Stuart, who has more offensive upside. --D.G.H.