About Time: a Stanley Cup for Dainius Zubrus

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After 19-seasons in the NHL, San Jose’s Dainius Zubrus truly deserves to have his name on the Stanley Cup (Photo Credit: AP Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez).

With the Los Angeles King now safely eliminated by the hands of the San Jose Sharks, and with no obviously imminent playoff disaster in sight, I feel that I can safely say who I am personally rooting for in the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs – veteran Dainius Zubrus of the Sharks. I am a hockey traditionalist, and with less and less ties to the NHL’s game of the 1990s and prior, I always get a pang in my heart for seeing long time veterans getting their name on the Stanley Cup for the first time. Last year for me it was Chicago’s Kimmo Timonen. This year, it has got to be Zubrus.

It is almost difficult to fathom that the 37-year old Lithuanian has been a regular in the NHL since the 1996-97 season. How time does fly. Zubrus actually was a part of a run to the Stanley Cup Finals as an NHL rookie with the Philadelphia Flyers, who would fall in four games straight to the Detroit Red Wings. In the 1997 Finals, the 18-year old Zubrus would go pointless in the series, and would finish a minus-4.

I first became enamored with Dainius Zubrus when he briefly joined my hometown Buffalo Sabres, coming at the trade deadline during the 2006-07 season in exchange for seldom used Jiri Novotny and a 1st-round draft choice. Though I had seen Zubrus play many times prior, even in person from time to time, I had never paid him much mind until he wore Buffalo’s blue and gold. I could then see firsthand what he brought to his hockey club from night to night. Zubrus is a very large man, standing at 6-feet 5-inches and weighing 225-pounds. He is incredibly strong along the boards and in the corners. Zubrus ended up playing 19-regular season games with Buffalo that year, recording 4-goals and 4-assists to add to his point totals from earlier in the season with the Washington Capitals who had traded him to the Sabres; he finished the year with a very solid 24-goals and 36-assists for 60-points across 79-total games between Washington and Buffalo.

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Dainius Zubrus swatting for a loose puck against Vancouver. (Photo Credit: Jeff Vinnick/NHLI/GettyImages).

But where I was most amazed with Zubrus that season was how fierce he played during the Sabres’ playoff run that saw them make it all the way to the Stanley Cup semi-finals for the second year in a row. In 15-playoff games that season, Zubrus seemed to hit everything that moved, constantly throwing his imposing frame at the opposition, especially when fighting for the puck around the net. Despite knowing that Zubrus had immense size, I never had realized previously that he was the furthest thing from being a soft player. By no means did he fit the European stereotype that I immensely hate and am often infuriated by its implications. Zubrus is a prime example of how false that stereotype is. While he did not score a goal during Buffalo’s playoff run, he did put up 8-helpers for his team that postseason; third most on the Sabres behind Danny Briere and Tim Connolly. But he also played inspired, devil-may-care hockey, and that seemed to make an enormous difference for Buffalo’s push throughout the playoffs. I had greatly hoped that Buffalo would recognize how much of a positive difference having Zubrus on their roster would be and that they would decide to keep him in the offseason, but it was not to be. Dainius would end up signing with the New Jersey Devils that July, and would remain with them for 8-years.

Fifteen years after his rookie run, Zubrus would have a second shot at winning Lord Stanley’s Cup, this time with New Jersey. The 2011-12 Devils were led by the explosive firepower of sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, as well as veterans Patrik Elias, Zach Parise, David Clarkson, Petr Sykora and Zubrus, all of whom hit double-digits in goals. 33-years old at the time, Dainius Zubrus appeared in all 82-regular season games that season for the Devils (17-goals, 27-assists, 44-points) and all 24-playoff games as well (3-goals, 7-assists, 10-points). Despite the strong push from New Jersey’s offense and their ageless goaltending tandem of Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg, the Devils would lose in the Cup Finals to the Los Angeles Kings, falling 4-games to 2. In the 6-game Finals series, Zubrus would finish with 1-assist and as a minus-1. In 15-years, he would fall significantly short in both Stanley Cup Finals appearances.

After the 2014-15 season, his last in New Jersey, I had feared that Dainius Zubrus’ career was over. In July 2015, the Devils placed Zubrus on waivers, with the intent of terminating his contract. Then, after being invited to a late-October tryout with the St. Louis Blues, he would fail to earn himself a contract after the Blues decided to sign another veteran instead, Martin Havlat. Fortunately though, San Jose Sharks’ General Manager Doug Wilson, who is well-known to be a willing participant in giving veteran players the opportunity to extend their careers (i.e. Sandis Ozolinsh, Claude Lemieux), decided to offer Zubrus a tryout of his own on November 16th, 2015,and then signing him to contract a mere 8-days later.

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After being released of opportunities to play with New Jersey and St. Louis since this past summer, an opportunity to win the Cup with San Jose is maybe Zubrus’ final chance to do so (Photo Credit: Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports).

In 50-games this current 2015-16 season with the Sharks, Zubrus has recorded 3-goals and 4-assists; the lowest point total of his 19 NHL seasons, although he would finish the season as a plus-4. And while he was also a healthy scratch for the five games of the Sharks’ opening round defeat over the Kings, I feel content in knowing that Zubrus played enough games during the regular season to qualify for having his name engraved on the Stanley Cup should the San Jose Sharks finally get the monkey off their back and win it all for the very first time.

And that’s what I want. For I believe that if a player like Dainius Zubrus devotes 19-years to playing in the greatest hockey league in the world (it would have been 20-years if it were not for the lockout), then he deserves to finally have him name placed on the Stanley Cup. It would be a storybook ending, both for Zubrus and for the Sharks. San Jose has three players – Zubrus, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau – who having been playing in the NHL since the 1990s. I suppose that I could have even highlighted Marleau or Thornton instead of Zubrus, but Marleau and Thornton have also won Olympic gold medals and neither really had to worry about not being on an NHL roster this season. Zubrus on the other hand was close to going three strikes and out since the summer after failing to gain a spot with either New Jersey or St. Louis previously. He instead had demonstrate his workhorse capabilities once more, despite having 37-year old legs, in order to garner a spot on the Sharks roster. And now, he has earned himself one more, possibly final, opportunity to win the Cup. So as these 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs continue, and with the first round underneath their belts, I finally feel comfortable announcing that I want the Sharks to win it all. For San Jose. For Marleau and Thornton. And for Dainius Zubrus.

Remembering: The “OV-Line”

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From left to right, Sergei Makarov, Igor Larionov, and Johan Garpenlov combined for one magical season in San Jose to lead the Sharks on an improbable run.

In the game today, when hockey fans think of “OV” everyone immediately envisions the great number-8 of the Washington Capitals, Alexander Ovechkin. But long before Ovechkin lit up the rinks of the NHL, the “OV” nickname was applied to a trio of three star players for the San Jose Sharks who were combined together for one magical season. Two were wizard-like Soviet legends who had been linemates for over a decade together in Communist Russia; arguably they were the two best hockey players in the world who were not in the NHL for many, many years. The third was a Swede, nearly 10-years younger than the Russians, who found opportunity to be a top-line winger after coming to the Sharks via trade from the Detroit Red Wings. The last names of this trio all happened to end in the letters “ov”. Their style of play possessed an entirely high-speed, puck-on-a-string, weaving-in-and-out, European flavor to it. And for the 1993-94 NHL season, Sergei Makarov, Igor Larionov and Johan Garpenlov would combine to lead the San Jose Sharks on a playoff run for the ages, and still one of the most exciting sagas in San Jose Sharks’ history.

The San Jose Sharks were an NHL expansion team that first saw action during the 1991-92 season. Their first two years in the NHL were abysmal, going 17-58-5 in their inaugural season, followed by a second season in which they registered a mere 11-wins while going 11-71-2 in a bitterly long 84-game season. Yes, expansion had not been kind to the Sharks. And after two years with one of the worst records in NHL history, finding success in a third season would have been inconceivable to practically all hockey minds. The “OV-line” was about to show otherwise.

The first to arrive in San Jose was Johan Garpenlov, who came over via trade with the Detroit Red Wings in March of 1992 in exchange for original Shark, Bob McGill. Garpenlov had been a 5th-round 1986 draft pick of Detroit’s who had had a decent solo season with the Red Wings the year prior when he rattled off 18-goals and 22-assists; his only full season with Detroit. After the trade, Garpenlov found immediate success in San Jose, quickly becoming the team’s top winger. Garpenlov would finish up 1991-92 with 11-points (5-goals, 6-assists) in 12-games with the Sharks, and then followed up with a 66-point campaign (22-goals, 44-assists) in 1992-93, finishing second overall in Sharks team scoring. Garpenlov would merely need the right linemates to further accentuate his production. The Russians were coming.

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Johan Garpenlov was the first member of The “OV-Line” to arrive in San Jose coming over via trade with Detroit in 1992.

Igor Larionov would be claimed off of waivers by the San Jose Sharks in October 1992 from the Vancouver Canucks, but would not arrive in San Jose until late in 1993 after choosing to play a season in Switzerland to avoid losing a portion of his salary to the governing sports body, Sovintersport, in his homeland, who had allowed their Soviet players like Larionov to finally play in the NHL. Sergei Makarov, the 1989-90 Calder Trophy winning Rookie of the Year, came to the Sharks in August 1993 in a trade with the Hartford Whalers as part of compensation that saw the Sharks trade their 1st-round 1993 draft choice to the Whalers which had landed them Chris Pronger. Once Makarov arrived in San Jose, it was easy for Larionov to join his former linemate with the Sharks and return to the NHL from Switzerland.

Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov are two of the greatest hockey players in the history of the game. They represent two-thirds of the famous Soviet “KLM-Line” that led the Soviet Union to what seemed like endless international championships. Before either player arrived in the NHL, Larionov and Makarov won Olympic gold medals in 1984 and 1988, as well as numerous medals in the World Championships, including bronze in 1985, silver in 1987, and gold medals in 1982, 1983, 1986 and 1989.

Larionov was known as the “Russian-Gretzky”, and if you ever saw him play, it was easy to see why. Larionov would win three Stanley Cups during his NHL career, while having registered 204-goals and 230-assists for 434-points in only 457-games with the Soviet Union, to go along with his 169-goals and 475-assists for 644-points in 921-NHL games. Larionov would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2008, and is currently a member of the Hall’s selection committee.

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Igor Larionov, a 2008 inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame, was known as the “Russian Gretzky” before he had even played a game in the NHL.

Sergei Makarov was the sniper of the two Soviet-born players, and did he ever put up numbers! In 519-games for the Soviet Union’s CSKA Moscow team and Traktor Chelyabinsk, Makarov scored 322-goals and 388-assists for an uncanny 710-points. During the 1980-81 season with CSKA Moscow, Makarov scored 42-goals in 49-games and added 37-assists for 79-points. Coming to the NHL as a 31-year old rookie, Makarov was named Rookie of the Year, which led to an age limit being added to the trophy. In addition to the international medals that Makarov won as a teammate with Larionov, Makarov also won Olympic silver in 1980, and World Championship gold in 1978, 1979, 1981, and 1990, as well as another bronze in 1991. It is unfathomable to me that Sergei Makarov has not yet been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame himself.

Even though they were 35 and 32 years old respectively for the 1993-94 Sharks’ season, when you look at what Makarov and Larionov had accomplished all those years prior, it should be no wonder that they still had some magic left in their tanks. Combining both Russians with Garpenlov, the San Jose Sharks suddenly had one of the best first lines in the NHL. With the “OV-Line” lighting up the goal lamps, the Sharks jumped to a 59-point improvement from their horrendous 11-win 1992-93 season. And garnering a record of 33-35-16, the Sharks finished third in the Pacific Division behind the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks, and earned their first playoff birth in only their third year of existence.

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The 1989-90 NHL Rookie of the Year, Sergei Makarov led the 1993-94 San Jose Sharks in scoring with 30-goals and 68-points.

The “OV-Line’s” regular season numbers were certainly impressive. At 35-years of age, Sergei Makarov led the San Jose Sharks in team scoring with 30-goals and 38-assists for 68-points in 80-games. In only 60-games played, Larionov who would turn 33 in March of that season, finished fourth overall in team scoring with 56-points (18-goals, 38-assist), averaging nearly a point per game. Garpenlov would finish in sixth place by registering 18-goals and 35-assists for 53-points. While those are all pretty good scoring numbers, it would not be until the playoffs that the “OV-Line” would be at their finest.

The opening round of the 1993-94 playoffs would feature a match up between the 82-point Sharks and the 100-point Detroit Red Wings. The Red Wings had the all-time greatest hockey coach, Scotty Bowman at their helm, and were fueled by the likes Sergei Fedorov (56-goals, 120-points), Ray Sheppard (52-goals, 93-points), Steve Yzerman (28-goals, 82-points in only 58-games) and Paul Coffey (63-assists, 77-points). Not to mention that the Red Wings had seven other players on their roster who hit double digits for goal scoring. The vast majority thought that the rocket-powered Red Wings would make short work of the upstart Sharks. The total opposite would happen.

The Sharks would take the Red Wings through the complete 7-game series. The “OV-Line” would combine for 21-points as a unit in 7-games. Larionov led the way with 10-points (2-goals, 8-assists), while Makarov blasted away 6-goals in the series to total all of his points for the opening round, and Garpenlov would tally 2-goals and 3-assists. The “OV-Line” put the Red Wings “to bed”, completely stunning Detroit who were poised to make a legitimate run at the Stanley Cup that season. No one would have surmised an outcome such as that. The Red Wings actually outscored the Sharks in the series, registering 27 markers while San Jose put up 21. The difference seeming to be the Sharks tenacity and relentless play, especially led by the worldly experienced Makarov and Larionov.

As they moved into the second round of the playoffs, the San Jose Sharks seemed unstoppable. Next they would scare the living daylights out of the Toronto Maple Leafs. And while the Leafs would win the series, it would take another 7-games to stifle the Sharks, and Toronto would escape amongst the narrowest of margins, needing a 3-2 overtime victory in Game Six to come from behind in the series, and then a hard fought 4-2 victory in Game Seven to finally be rid of San Jose; the Sharks having at one point been ahead in the series 3-games to 2. The “OV-Line” would continue to score in abundance in the second round against Toronto. Larionov would lead the way again with 8-points in 7-games (3-goals, 5-assists), while Garpenlov would tally another 5-points (2-goals, 3-assists) and Makarov would be kept to 4-points (2-goals, 2-assists). While Larionov and Garpenlov would score with some regularity, the difference in the series may have been the Maple Leafs shutting down the goal scoring of Sergei Makarov. Although Makarov registered 2-goals and 2-assists, all four of those points came in Game Five of the series, while the Leafs kept Sergei off the board for the other six games. Regardless of the second round loss, the San Jose Sharks did their damage against the Leafs. Meeting the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup Semi-Finals, Toronto was gassed from their seven game battle with the Sharks and would fall to Vancouver in 5-games.

All in all, the “OV-Line” tallied an astounding 38-points as a line in 14-playoff games. Though they did not make it past the second round of the playoffs, Sergei Makarov still finished 10th place overall in playoff goal scoring for the 1994 playoffs, while Igor Larionov would finish tied for 7th place in playoff assists and 9th for points. In fact, through his first two rounds of the playoffs, Larionov would tally the same amount of points (18) as eventual playoff scoring leader and playoff MVP, Brian Leetch, would have through his own first two rounds.

Sadly, the “OV-Line” would be very short lived. Though San Jose’s playoff success would be repeated the following season in 1994-95, the line would be broken up permanently after a March 1995 trade saw Johan Garpenlov sent to the Florida Panthers. 1994-95 would be Sergei Makarov’s last season in San Jose, becoming an assistant coach for the Russian national team for 1995-96. Igor Larionov would have many more superb seasons in the NHL, playing until the age of 43 and winning Stanley Cups in 1997, 1998 and 2002.

Though they played together for only one full season, the “OV-Line” should not be forgotten. They brought excitement, history and winning ways to a brand new franchise in a non-traditional hockey market. They were pure fun to watch; plain and simple. And they demonstrated one of those enjoyable rarities in sports; the aged underdogs rising up and defeating the heavily favored powerhouses. Makar-OV, Larion-OV, and Garpenl-OV – they were truly a line for the ages.