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Ozolinsh's Best Defense Is Some Good Offense

As a child, Duck defenseman tried spins and lutzes, then discovered scoring goals was more fun.

May 02, 2003|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

Hockey is offense. Sandis Ozolinsh, a defenseman, has held that thought from Latvia to the United States. It is what brought him from Florida to Anaheim.

The Mighty Ducks plucked Ozolinsh from the Panthers in a January trade. In the largest dividend he has paid to date, he lured the Dallas Stars to one side of the rink Wednesday night, then slid a gotcha-pass to Mike Leclerc for the game-winning goal in a 1-0 victory.

That is what has made him special through 10-plus seasons in the NHL. That is why he is banging about ice rinks instead of twirling around them.

Offense put Ozolinsh on this career path when he was a mere child.

His mother, Velta, who managed a fruit and vegetable shop in Riga, Latvia, wanted her son to be a figure skater, "to keep me out of trouble after school," Ozolinsh said.

So Ozolinsh spent six months practicing axles and lutz jumps, while other kids in the neighborhood were knocking the puck around in the street. The day came when he made his first move up ice to join the rush.

"I wanted to be in a boy's sport, something a little more rougher and a little more exciting than skating around by myself doing spins and jumps," Ozolinsh said. "After school, when I came home, the older kids were playing hockey. Of course, I wanted to be a part of that. They would show hockey games on TV once or twice a week. I wanted to be a part of those teams too.

"I drove my mom crazy by requesting to play hockey. I finally said to her, 'If I can get the puck by you, then I can play hockey.' So we went out, she was in boots and I was wearing skates, shooting."

Ozolinsh chuckles when asked about the outcome, answering in perfectly phrased English spoken with an accent that is a mixture of Eastern European emigrant and West Coast surfer.

"I'm a hockey player, right?" Ozolinsh said.

An offense-minded one.

Teams that win the Stanley Cup generally need a defenseman with Ozolinsh's capabilities. Detroit, eliminated by the Ducks in the first round, had Nicklas Lidstrom. Dallas, down 3-1 in the best-of-seven-series with the Ducks, has Sergei Zubov.

Even Ozolinsh was one of those guys, helping Colorado win the Cup in 1996.

The Ducks were searching for someone to fill that specific job description and Ozolinsh certainly has the resume. He finished with 12 goals and 44 points during the regular season.

Those skills had been dormant through much of the playoffs -- until Wednesday. Ozolinsh had only one assist in the Dallas series. And he got that when he was knocked down and teammate Jason Krog darted in, took the puck, and scored.

But with time running out in a scoreless game Wednesday, Ozolinsh displayed the skills that have made goalies pay -- from his mother to the Stars' Marty Turco. He took a pass from Ruslan Salei, kicking the puck onto his stick with his skate, then moved forward. He was a magnet pulling the Stars to him. A second later, the Ducks had a 1-0 lead.

"That was an unbelievable pass," Leclerc said. "He dragged the puck down that side and suckered everyone in."

Ozolinsh has oozed such offense since he broke in with the San Jose Sharks in 1992-93. His skills have earned him seven All-Star game appearances, five as a starter, and one moment of lifting the Stanley Cup.

That, at times, comes with a cost. Ozolinsh was long-ago tagged "the Wandering Latvian" and for good reason. No one was sure where he might turn up on the ice ... even his coach.

Those nomadic defensive ways may be over. Ozolinsh has been rock-solid defensively since adjusting to the Ducks' system, with less wandering and even less wondering: Does this guy ever play defense?

"A guy is allowed to change and grow up in this league," Duck Coach Mike Babcock said. "Ozo is a high-end player and he has played high-end almost every night defensively."

His reputation as an offensive player, though, remains intact.

Those are the skills that have made Ozolinsh a popular mercenary in the NHL -- he has gone from San Jose to Colorado to Carolina to Florida to Anaheim in 11 seasons. They are why Duck General Manager Bryan Murray leaped with both feet when Panther management wanted to jettison Ozolinsh's five-year, $25-million contract, which has two seasons remaining.

The strange twist is that he has not helped the Ducks' power play. In fact, after Ozolinsh was acquired, the Duck power play dropped from the top five in the NHL leaders to 16th, a "coincidence" Babcock said. Still, Ozolinsh was dropped to the second power-play unit and had only one power-play goal with the Ducks.

The Ducks are a woeful three for 32 on power plays for the playoffs. Still, those three goals were scored in the last three games, including Leclerc's game-winner.

"It's just scary, the things Sandis can do offensively," Babcock said.

In that area, Ozolinsh has been frightening since he arrived. He had the game-winning goal and an assist in his first game as a Duck, a 3-2 victory over Calgary.

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