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Ducks Left Seeing Red

With oozing gash above his eye, Detroit's inspired Yzerman still looks like a winner, changing his game to keep up with the times.

April 22, 1999|HELENE ELLIOTT

DETROIT — The fire burned in Steve Yzerman's eyes, metaphorically speaking, well before the butt end of Steve Rucchin's stick, in an all too literal sense, was in Yzerman's left eye.

"Was he different after that?" teammate and sometime linemate Brendan Shanahan said, repeating a question in incredulous tones that suggested the answer was obvious. "Well, he was uglier."

The accidental poke after a first-period faceoff Wednesday created a slit above the Detroit captain's left eyebrow and gave him a nasty shiner. But Yzerman didn't need the high stick to get him fired up for the Red Wings' playoff opener and the first step in their quest to win a third straight Stanley Cup championship.

"He had that look before the game," Shanahan said of Yzerman, whose fourth career playoff hat trick launched the Red Wings to a 5-3 victory over the Mighty Ducks Wednesday and a 1-0 series lead.

"You could see it the last couple of games. We know there's a huge task in front of us and you can see by the way guys are practicing and preparing that they're ready."

Yzerman was ready for a physical game, and that's what he got. For a center known for his finesse during the first half of his career, he has developed into a stalwart defensive player who is feisty when the going gets rough and won't back away. His scoring totals aren't what they were in the late 1980s and early '90s, when he scored more than 100 points in six consecutive seasons, but he is more widely respected now and is unquestionably a more complete player.

"Steve has been doing that for so long, it's just amazing," Paul Kariya, the Duck captain, said of Yzerman's performance Wednesday. "He has solidified his game on both ends and we've got to pay much more attention to him the next game."

It helps, too, that Yzerman has had better support players around him the past few seasons. "It's sort of like [Wayne] Gretzky in New York, when he had Mark Messier with him. Teams couldn't key in on him, and it's tough to key in on Stevie with Sergei Fedorov or Igor [Larionov] here," Red Wing Coach Scotty Bowman said. "We use him differently here and teams are not zeroing in on him all the time. . . . He has definitely gotten better. His defensive game is better. He's had big, big numbers in the past [155 points in 1988-89], but I don't think that will ever happen again."

The tradeoff of points for defensive improvement is one Yzerman has made under Bowman's prodding. And although he's not scoring as much as before--his team-leading total was 29 goals and 74 points--he still scores vital goals.

None was more vital than his first goal Wednesday, which came moments after his eye injury and brought the Red Wings even at 1-1. They have had slow starts in previous playoffs, losing their opener two years ago and trailing Phoenix, 2-1, last season, but they were intent on avoiding a repeat. By getting the rebound of a shot Lidstrom had put off the end boards and quickly putting the rebound inside the post before Guy Hebert could move his left pad in the way, Yzerman helped the Red Wings regain momentum.

"It's something that you get to expect," Bowman said of Yzerman's timely scoring. "You have to respect . . . what kind of player he is. Generally speaking, he gets scoring chances and he's a sharp shooter. He's never lost that."

That was apparent on Yzerman's second-period power-play goal, off the rebound of a Shanahan shot that had hit Holmstrom. His final goal turned a mistake by substitute Duck goalie Tom Askey into a sure loss.

"We came out strong, maybe a little too fired up," said Yzerman, who was voted the most valuable player in the Red Wings' Cup drive last season. "After 10 minutes we said, 'Let's take a deep breath and relax.' We weren't able to score early, but we weren't worried."

Nor did the physical bashing faze him, although he has completed 16 NHL seasons and is weeks from his 34th birthday. Yzerman has reinvented himself in the late stages of his career in a way Gretzky could not, and he has become more effective in more ways than in his younger, high-scoring days.

"He's a better player now than ever. People look at his stats and say he's not the player he used to be, but the game has changed and he's a better player and a great leader," Duck Coach Craig Hartsburg said. "You look at leaders, and he'd be right there at the top."

Said left wing Wendel Clark, who scored Detroit's second goal: "Steve was outstanding. He had a huge game for us. He's been doing it for a lot of years that I was playing against him, and I'm just glad I'm with him now."

The cut above Yzerman's eye, unstitched and still oozing blood hours after the injury, was no big deal to him. "I don't know if that was a penalty," he said. "It was an accident."

It was no accident that the Red Wings played a physical style, using their brawn to push the Ducks off the puck repeatedly. The Ducks hoped to get the Red Wings away from a skill game, but were outmatched in size, skill and depth.

"It wasn't really more physical than I expected," said Yzerman, who recently agreed to a three-year, $24.5-million contract extension that will take effect in the 2000-01 season and carry him past the 20-year mark. "It's typical of what happens early in a playoff series. Both teams were feeling each other out. I think both teams up front have a lot of speed and some forwards who bang away, so we saw some really good bodychecks by a lot of guys on both teams. . . .

"We generally have to play better all around [in Game 2]. Kariya and [Teemu] Selanne both scored and they at times controlled the puck. Generally we have to pick it up a little."

No problem for Yzerman, who has picked up so much so gracefully along the way.

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