Friday, May 9
May 9, 11:20 AM ET
Pivotal players: Kuba & Ozolinsh
By E.J. Hradek
ESPN The Magazine
14 GP, 3-5-8, -1, 22 PIM
Anaheim Mighty Ducks
10 GP, 1-4-5, +6, 6 PIM
Wild defenseman Filip Kuba is among the many players the organization has culled from the league's scrap heap and turned into a steady performer.
Originally drafted by Florida in the eighth round of the 1995 draft, Kuba played in just 18 games for the Panthers. On March 16, 2000, he was traded to the Flames. Three months later, the Wild selected him in the expansion draft.
Since then, he's been a regular in the Wild lineup. This season, the 6-foot-3, 205-pound defender contributed eight goals and 21 assists in 78 games. He registered four power-play goals and a pair of short-handed tallies.
Coach Jacques Lemaire likes to use Kuba in all situations. Thus, he averaged a team-high 23:55 per game. Lemaire hasn't deviated from that in the postseason. Kuba again leads the club, averaging 26:38 per game. Kuba has made the most of his ice time, chipping in three goals and five assists in 14 playoff games.
The games against the Ducks figure to be low-scoring affairs. In their four regular-season meetings, the teams combined for just 10 goals. With that in mind, special teams will be important. Kuba gets minutes on both the Wild's potent power-play and steady penalty-killing units.
Also, if the Wild are trying to protect a lead in the late stages of the game, you can expect to see the Czech-born defenseman on the ice.
The Mighty Ducks have changed quite a bit since they last faced the Wild on Jan. 20. At that time, the Ducks had yet to acquire forwards Steve Thomas and Rob Niedermayer. Both players have enjoyed memorable moments during stunning upsets of the Wings and Stars.
Another new face in Anaheim is defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh. Acquired from the Panthers just prior to the All-Star weekend, Ozolinsh has been a good fit with the Ducks. Ozolinsh tallied five goals and 13 assists in 31 regular-season games with Anaheim. More impressively, the offensive-minded Ozolinsh was a plus-10 in that span.
In 10 playoff games, he has a goal and four assists as well an impressive plus-6 rating against two of the league's toughest teams. Ozolinsh brings excellent offensive skills to the rink. He is a particularly good passer, which can be helpful in moving the puck against the trapping Wild.
Ozolinsh remains a high-risk/high-reward player. A great example of that was on display in the dying moments of the Ducks' series-clinching Game 6 win over the Stars in the second round. Ozolinsh took a chance by charging deep into the Dallas zone on the attack. In this case, he found himself in the perfect spot to bury the game-winner off a rebound of a Mike Leclerc shot. Of course, if the puck had bounced in another direction, the Ducks might have been caught on the wrong end of an odd-man rush.
Against the opportunistic Wild, Ozolinsh will have to pick his spots. And, if he's not careful, Minny's fast forwards will be quick to capitalize on those errors.