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Kurri Definitely Not Finished Yet : Stanley Cup: Kings' wing has shown flashes of his old play with the Oilers. L.A. takes 2-1 lead over Vancouver into today's game at Forum.

May 09, 1993|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Every so often, a number of Finnish journalists showed up where the Kings played this season--a brief diversion from their Teemu Selanne stories in Winnipeg--and for several days there would be a wave of polite but worried questions about the psyche of their countrymen's idol, Jari Kurri.

Was Jari deeply unhappy in Los Angeles? Would he be happier back in Helsinki? Why was he not playing with Wayne Gretzky? Kurri was just as polite and just as unwilling to shed light on his state of mind, in either Finnish or English. After a stunning start, with 57 points in the first 35 games, Kurri all but disappeared right along with his teammates. In one sense, his drop in production coincided with the departure of Tomas Sandstrom, who left the lineup for an extended period after suffering a broken arm on Nov. 21.

For Kurri, it was rapidly shaping up as a copy of his deeply disappointing debut with the Kings in 1991-92, when he scored 23 goals and had 60 points in 73 games. Awaiting him was another summer of averted glances from his countrymen.

"It was definitely a tough year with a lot of things being said," said Kurri, who will turn 33 on May 18. "What can you do? I pretty much knew sometimes I was getting criticism I shouldn't get. I know I should score a lot of goals, but I feel my game is more than just a game of points. I like to work both sides of the ice. But it seems people like to look at stats.

"They'll say: 'Well, he didn't have any goals or assists. That means he had a bad game.' And maybe that hurt me a lot."

Even at the All-Star game in Montreal, a reporter asked Kurri whether he was enjoying his first All-Star event. Kurri, who rarely gets upset, looked irritated, especially because it was his seventh All-Star appearance.

At least no one had the audacity--or stupidity--to ask him whether this is his first Stanley Cup playoff experience. He collected five Stanley Cup rings in Edmonton, and lately, he is looking a lot like the Kurri of those championship Oiler days.

Heading into Game 4 of the Smythe Division final today at 5 p.m. at the Forum, Kurri has four goals and five assists in nine playoff games. He had two goals and an assists in the last two as the Kings took a 2-1 lead against the Vancouver Canucks in the best-of-seven series.

"He's playing the best since I've seen him in L.A.," Canuck Coach Pat Quinn said. "He is, in my opinion, one of the greatest two-way players in the history of our game. He's the kind of player you love from a coaches' standpoint. It's the good ones who can take it up a level. The big thing is he's got a lot of heart."

Said Gretzky: "He's like a goaltender that never makes a fancy save or makes a save look good. He never makes a play look good, either defensively or offensively.

"You guys only see him score the goals. He's been a force the whole playoffs for us. Jari's got to be up there with Doug Gilmour as the best two-way player in hockey. The guy is never out of position in his end."

Coach Barry Melrose took some of the blame for Kurri's decline in production after his fast start. When Gretzky returned and the Kings later acquired another center, Jimmy Carson, ice time became limited for Kurri as did his turns on the power play.

Now, Kurri is getting more and more ice time. It will likely continue if he keeps scoring goals like the one he scored during the third period in Game 3 on Friday, a singular effort while being tied up by Gerald Diduck.

Melrose is using Kurri with an ever-changing cast of linemates. "I have no linemates right now," Kurri said. "I'm getting more ice time and I guess it shows."

But with all the focus on his offensive abilities, Kurri is not apt to forget about his play at the other end.

"You can play so well and not get points by helping the team in other ways," he said. "Those players never get as much credit as players who score a goal and are a minus-three."

King Notes

The Kings have not led 2-1 in a second-round series since 1976 against the Boston Bruins. They went on to lose that series, 4-3. "I was out of the (junior) playoffs and waiting for the draft then," Coach Barry Melrose said. "I was probably on a tractor, seeding." His take on the Kings of the '70s? "Bad uniforms," Melrose said. "That was my first impression. I remember (Marcel) Dionne and Rogie (Vachon). That was L.A. in those days--they were out there. For a kid from Kelvington (Canada), that's where the Clampetts were from. That's what I knew about L.A." . . . Melrose coached Canuck wing Trevor Linden when Linden played junior hockey at Medicine Hat, Canada, and pointed out that Linden could be one of the keys to the series. "In the first game, I thought he was their best player, and against Winnipeg, he was, too," Melrose said. "If we quit doing what we're doing, he'll be a big factor, as will (Pavel) Bure and (Cliff) Ronning. We've been doing a good job battling them down low. Trevor is a great competitor."

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