Sergei Zubov’s long-awaited return sparks Dallas

Dallas Stars defenseman Sergei Zubov returned to the lineup on Sunday night for the first time since January 27. Zubie missed the Stars’ final 33 games of the regular season and first 7 games of the postseason with a sports hernia injury related to surgery he had at the end of the 2006-07 season as well as a foot injury. While Dallas was able to prevail over the defending Stanley Cup Champion Anaheim Ducks in the 1st round of the Western Conference playoffs in 6 games, there is no denying the importance of Zubov.

Zubie is and has been regarded as one of the NHL’s top offensive defenseman for his entire 15-year career. He is a unique player in his ability to quarterback the powerplay and has a knack of making creative passes. Zubov always has his head up as he looks to make that “homerun” pass that can lead to a breakaway. On Sunday night in San Jose, Zubov decided to give it a go after he felt good in pre-game warm ups and almost immediately, Zubie’s impact was felt. With the score tied 3-3 late in the 2nd period, Zubov took the puck, spun around and put a nifty backhand pass right on the tape to Mike Modano who scored past San Jose netminder Evgeni Nabokov. Dallas added two goals in the 3rd period to secure a 5-2 win to take a commanding 2-0 lead in the Western Conference Semifinals. Last night’s Game 3 provided another opportunity for Zubov to make his presence felt as he tied the game early in the 2nd period with a power play goal.

Zubov is a 4-time All-Star, who was selected to play in this year’s All-Star game, but didn’t play due to injury. He began the year as an early candidate for the Norris Trophy for Best Defenseman and ranked among the top three in defensemen scoring for virtually the entire first half of the season. Though the Norris Trophy might be out of his grasp this year due to injuries, Zubie still remains a key component of the Dallas Stars’ attack. A win tonight in Dallas would clinch a spot for the Stars in the Western Conference Finals and move Zubov a step closer to winning his third Stanley Cup.
Apr 29, 2008, 10:00 AM EDT

Zubov makes Stars’ offense go

Larry Wigge Columnist

It was one of those quick-twitch, in-the-blink-of- an-eye decisions that not everyone can make.

The game is going at full speed, and yet some players have the ability and skill set to calibrate the angles the opposition is going to take and assimilate them to his advantage, like looking at a chess board and seeing seven moves ahead. Stars defenseman Sergei Zubov is one of those players.

Zubov is smart, patient, creative, productive and some think he’s the best pure passer in the game. And even though he was coming into Game 2 of a Western Conference semifinal series against the San Jose Sharks having not played a shift since Jan. 17, Sergei was able to shake off the rust and use his magical skills. After going nearly top speed, he stopped to draw attention to him near the right-wing faceoff circle to give his teammates time and space to get open, then spun and made a hard backhand pass through the middle of the San Jose zone for a quick wrist shot by Mike Modano for the go-ahead goal in a 5-2 victory. The win gave the Stars a 2-0 lead with the series shifting to Dallas for Game 3.

“What a way to welcome back an old friend,” Modano said.

When asked if he meant Zubov or the pass, Modano said, “Both.”

Then he continued, “With Zubie, you have to always be ready for the puck … whenever. You have to know it’s coming to you and to be ready for it.”

This is where we would normally have to explain the hand-to-eye, magical sleight-of-hand Zubov possesses. But the reputation of 15 NHL seasons, Stanley Cups with the New York Rangers in Sergei’s first full NHL season in 1994 and with Dallas in 1999, are proof enough of his Picasso-like artistic skills.
“No offense to anyone else who’s been here for a while, but Sergei is like our quarterback,” coach Dave Tippett told me. “Most of what we do here offensively and defensively starts with him. Yet he flies under the radar. His vision, his patience and those great puck skills are behind a lot of our creativity. First and foremost, he’s such a leader. He’s in the game to win, he can’t stand to lose.”

Today, there might have been some rust down here (touching his legs), but there’s no rust up here (pointing to his head).”

The 37-year-old Zubov clearly missed the game after being knocked out of the lineup first with foot and groin injuries in mid-January that were later re-diagnosed as his second bout with sports hernia since he missed the team’s last game in the playoffs last spring in Vancouver. With a player this valuable, the Stars made sure every stone was unturned to make sure he was back in the lineup when the team needed him the most in the playoffs. That meant a second hernia surgery called the Muschaweck procedure (named after Dr. Ulrike Muschaweck) that was supposed to be less invasive in Munich, Germany, less than a month ago.

“I struggled in the first half of the game, but felt better after that,” Zubov said. “I feel fresh, but I felt frustrated sitting out. I missed everything. This is the longest I’ve been out of the lineup in my career.”

“It makes me want to make big contributions right away.”

He normally plays nearly 26 minutes a night. In Game 2, he played a little more than 16 minutes. There was rust — he was partially victimized for the two Sharks goals. But when the Stars needed him the most on a third-period power play, the silky-smooth Sergei brought out his best skills. No one would ever dispute the importance of this 37-year-old defenseman from Moscow.

“He’s like having a great point guard in basketball,” Columbus Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock once told me. “He controls the flow of the game for the Stars.”

Zubov is a product of a Russian system that stressed puck control.”When I was growing up, we practiced at the same rink as the big team, and I often stayed and studied the style of Slava Fetisov and how Fetisov and Igor Larionov made the puck dance out there,” Sergei explained. “They always seemed to have the puck — and always knew what play to make.”

Sharks coach Ron Wilson might not admit it now, but in January at the All-Star Game in Atlanta, I asked him about Dallas rookie defenseman Matt Niskanen. Wilson praised the kid, but let it be known that Niskanen’s development was a testament to Zubov mentoring him.

“I’ve always felt that Sergei Zubov is the most underrated skilled defenseman in the game — and you can sure tell that he’s mentoring Matt the way he’s developing,” Wilson told me.

Niskanen, one of the young defensemen who were key to helping the Stars upend the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks in the first round of the playoffs, threw all the praises Zubov’s way, saying emphatically that, “Sergei makes it work. He’s so good at reading so many things that are happening at fast pace on the ice — and I’m lucky enough that he’s shared some of those little details on what to look for and when to go with the puck that he’s simply the master of doing.”
Smart. Patient. Creative. Productive.

Teammates and the coaching staff marvel at his knowledge of technical gadgets. Whether it’s a digital camera, pocket PC, home theater, camcorder and several computers are his toys, that part of Sergei’s curiosity. But that part of his life is a far cry from tinkering with the inner workings of tape recorders and televisions.
“Did you ask him about the gadgets he loves so much?” Tippett asked. “He’s always tinkering with something electronic. In fact, if something happened to my computer, Sergei is the first person I’d go to see.”

“He’s really into technology, but he’s no computer geek,” said Modano. “He’s that smart, that quick to pick up on things. He is literally just a click away from hearing his cell phone messages on his laptop. He’s got a world cell phone that allows him to talk or send photos to his family and friends back home in Russia any hour of the day and night. I don’t know how he does it. But it seems like he’s got something new each week to tinker with.”

And he’s quick to make a technical and skillful contribution to the Dallas Stars lineup too.

“It lifts our spirits to see him out there,” Stars captain Brenden Morrow said of Zubov’s return. “It’s like adding another player at the trade deadline or something.”

“We’re playing a great team game right now. But when you add the element of skill that Zubie brings, there’s no fear that it might mess with the chemistry this team has. It just enhances it.”