Thursday, May 29, 2003
Tverdovsky shedding high-risk rep
By Chris Stevenson Special to ESPN.com
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- No light went on.
Devils defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky has stayed in the lineup by taking care of his own end first.
Not one that you could see, anyway.
It was different, because usually when defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky found himself in that situation, a light usually did go on -- usually red and at which end of the ice it would shine would be anybody's guess.
But a light, a figurative one, certainly did go on in that moment in the third period of the New Jersey Devils' 3-0 win over the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim Thursday night, the kind that indicates Tverdovsky, the riverboat gambler, finally is starting to get it.
"I saw it," said Devils captain Scott Stevens, the embodiment of sound decision making. "He had a chance to join the rush. He could have gone to the net, but he dropped back. We were up 2-0 and that's something you can't afford. It might be called sacrifice, but that could have wound up being a goal for them and if they get one there, it's a different game."
In that moment, it was like Tverdovsky realized sometimes it is more important to keep the other team from getting their first goal than for your team to get its third. It's an important distinction and one Tverdovsky had struggled to comprehend in his nine years in the NHL.
Tverdovsky had helped the Devils get that 2-0 lead, firing a pair of shots from the blue line that were tipped home by Devils forwards Patrik Elias and Scott Gomez as the Devils have blown the Ducks off the pond in the first two games of this series.
Tverdovsky, 27, is high-risk. He tantalizes with his skill, his great skating and strong shot. But his decision-making was not on the same level and that explains why he has been traded three times in his career, twice by the Mighty Ducks. The last saw him join the Devils, along with Jeff Friesen -- the hero of Game 1 -- and Maxim Balmochnykh, for Petr Sykora, Mike Commodore, J.F. Damphousse and Igor Pohanka last summer.
Who knew the deal would have such significant ramifications here in late May?
Who knew you could win the Cup in July?
Tverdovsky has been shuttled in and out of the Devils' lineup as their sixth defenseman in these playoffs, mainly swapping spots with veteran Ken Daneyko.
He played in just 50 regular-season games as he tried to adapt to the conservative style of coach Pat Burns and overcome an illness.
The decision by Burns to put Tverdovsky in the lineup in place of the popular Daneyko wasn't an easy one. Tverdovsky was part of some bad decisions that led to an overtime winner by the Ottawa Senators in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final, but Burns has kept coming back to him, kept stroking him.
It looks like the decision to play him in this final is a master stroke now.
"He played pretty well," said Burns, slipping into his Yogi Berra mode. "When he keeps it the way we want him to play, that's what we want him to do."
Friesen, who had his third goal of the final to make it 3-0 in the third period, can see the difference in Tverdovsky, too.
"I've seen him improve here," he said. "There were adjustments to be made. A game like tonight really shows how how hard he's worked. He's really responded well. Good for him. I'm happy for him."
Burns stressed again in a meeting with Tverdovsky yesterday morning that he must not endanger his team with bad gambles.
"Yes, he talked to me," said Tverdovsky. "He said to me to play the same way I did in the first game. Do my part on the ice and don't try to force anything. Don't try to be the guy to turn things around. Wait for the chances and they will come to you.
"What I have learned is to play well defensively and there will be opportunities for you, one, maybe two a game where you can show your offensive skills. By doing less, you might accomplish more. I guess that's what happened."
Tverdovsky twice took shots from the point last night that wound up being deflected behind Ducks goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who cannot be blamed for this unprecedented predicament in which these Ducks now find themselves.
"It's just been some lucky breaks," said Tverdovsky. "I don't think we've been killing them. It hasn't been easy. Every inch of ice is a battle.
"It means a great deal to me to be in this type of game. It doesn't happen often. I had a tough time and you just try and stay positive. I was lucky today."
Patience is not something that has characterized Tverdovsky's play over his nine years in the NHL. But he has had to learn it both on and off the ice. He has had to wait his turn here with the Devils.
"I've tried to control my emotions," he said. "There is a lot of depth here and it is a solid group. Any one of us can get the job done. I have had to realize how this team plays. Everybody pays the same price. That's the only way the system works. If everyone does their own thing, it doesn't work."
There's that light again.
The challenge for Tverdovsky now is to keep it shining.
Chris Stevenson of the Ottawa Sun is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.