Korolyuk was trying to feed Marleau

Updated: May 15, 2004, 1:19 AM ET
Associated Press

CALGARY, Alberta -- Alex Korolyuk doesn't know the meaning of the word "hotdogging."

That's what a Calgary reporter learned Thursday night when he used the term to inquire whether the San Jose forward was trying to show up the Flames while scoring his empty-net goal in the Sharks' 3-0 win in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals.

Korolyuk was the Sharks' offensive star in their first win of the series, getting two goals and an assist while forechecking, killing penalties and playing with Vincent Damphousse and captain Patrick Marleau on the top line.

It was the biggest game of the Russian speedster's career, and Korolyuk made his only noticeable mistake when he pulled up short of the net before scoring his second goal.

Though his teammates knew Korolyuk simply was trying to pass to Marleau, who hasn't scored in six games, a few of the Flames took offense. But when asked his motivations, Korolyuk could respond only with a stare and a grimace.

"No, I don't know," he said.

Though his English has improved in recent years, Korolyuk still has difficulty holding a conversation -- "and his Russian isn't good, either," Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov recently quipped. But his play has spoken for itself: Korolyuk is fluent in everything he needs to know to help the Sharks win.

Korolyuk was drafted by the Sharks in 1994 for his offensive skills, but he has learned there's more to the NHL than goals and assists. The language barrier might have contributed to Korolyuk's struggle to adjust to the defense and checking of the North American game -- a struggle that prompted him to return to Russia last season in self-imposed exile.

But Korolyuk's problems ended this season under coach Ron Wilson, who thrust extra responsibilities on his smallest player. The 5-foot-9-inch wing responded with a career-high 37 points and a personal reinvention as a two-way forward capable of blocking shots and harassing opponents with a vigor he rarely showed before.

"I know that he came back with a great attitude," Damphousse said. "You could sense he learned that he needed not to just score and be flashy on offense, but he needed to take care of small details defensively. ... That's all stuff he wasn't doing a couple of years ago."

It's a remarkable transformation for those who remember Korolyuk's first six seasons in the Sharks' system as a pure scorer who hung out near the opponents' blue line and didn't like to hit.

Former Sharks coach Darryl Sutter repeatedly tried to reach Korolyuk, whose athleticism and offensive skills marked him as an NHL talent. But Sutter finally phased him out of the lineup in 2001-02, when Korolyuk played in just 32 games -- and the following summer, Korolyuk went home.

"A lot of Europeans, when they come over, they measure on scoring, not on the whole package," Sutter said. "I think the biggest part of Korky's development is he went back last year. When you're a really good competitor, you realize what it's like to play in the best league in the world.

"Ultimately, if you're a high-end player, you're a good competitor, you want to play in the NHL. I think you probably mature in a hurry then."

Korolyuk's pregnant wife had stayed behind in California, and Korolyuk returned to the Sharks last summer determined to win back his job. Wilson, hired two months into Korolyuk's season away, saw the Russian's talent and couldn't understand why he wasn't a star.

So early in the season, Wilson gave Korolyuk extra responsibilities and a simple command: "Don't let down your teammates." At first, Korolyuk was shocked to be on the ice in tense third-period situations or on penalty-killing units, but he quickly rose to the challenge.

Though Korolyuk still has his offensive skills, he excels at the forechecking required in Wilson's system, speeding down the ice to force turnovers and make life miserable for slow-footed defensemen.

He had a two-goal game in a first-round victory over St. Louis, and Wilson praised his defensive play in the Sharks' first two series. Korolyuk scored in Game 1 against Calgary -- and when Wilson decided to shake up the lines on his struggling team before Game 3, Korolyuk got a promotion and a career game.

"It's just one of those gut feelings," Wilson said. "Korky played a number of shifts with other people, and I thought he had an impact on every shift. It didn't matter who he was going to play with."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press