Zubov’s awaited return a thing of beauty
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Just when it looked like this one would have to be filed directly under "Be Careful What You Wish For," Sergei Zubov reminded us of just what the Dallas Stars have been missing for the past three months.
For almost a hundred days the Stars had been anxiously waiting for Zubov, without question their best and most experienced defenseman, to recover from an assortment of injuries, including sports hernia surgery performed less than four weeks ago.
So what happens?
Zubov finally returned to the ice Sunday night at HP Pavilion, and the Sharks took advantage of several layers of rust and a pair of slow legs to score both their goals.
But hold the phone, puck-breath, there’s one more little chapter to this feel-good story, the most important one of all.
It was some of that old Zubov magic, a whirling eyes-in-the-back-of-his-head, cross-ice pass that the Silent Russian zipped right onto Mike Modano’s stick to set up the Shark-killer’s game-winning goal.
Once again dominating the third period, the Stars, who trailed 2-1 when the final period began, stunned the Sharks 5-2 to take a 2-games-to-none lead in this best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals series.
Zubov, you see, wasn’t the only player who showed up for the first time in this series. So did center Brad Richards, a total waste in Game 1. Richards picked up a turnover and scored the tying goal early in the period, then added three assists.
That’s more like what the Stars expected and needed from their huge trading -deadline acquisition.
Key pass was game’s big play
But it was Zubov’s return and his incredible game-changing pass that had the dressing room buzzing after the game.
"I struggled in the first half of the game, but felt better after that," Zubov said. "Personally, for me, as long as I have the same support I did tonight, I’ll be fine."
Fine doesn’t even come close to how the Stars feel about Zubov’s return to action. It was a toss-up who was happier to have him back on the ice, head coach Dave Tippett or Modano.
"You have to always be ready for (the puck)," Modano said, shaking his head. "You have to be prepared, because Sergei can get it to you whenever.
"You have to realize it’s coming to you, and he had ( Sharks’ goalie Evgeni Nabokov) out of the net a little bit."
Out of the net? How about out of his jock?
Modano had just taken a shot that had hit a skate and eventually skittered back to Zubov near the right side wall.
Modano, knowing how Zubov operates, had quietly circled back on the other side while every Shark defender’s attention — especially Nabokov’s — was focused on Zubov.
Without hesitation, Zubov whirled 360 degrees, backhanding the puck across the ice to the now wide- open Modano, who knew exactly what to do with it. His lightning-like wrister beat Nabokov on the stick side before the goalie could react.
"I had spun back the other way and everyone kind of gravitated towards Zubie," said Modano, whose goal was his second in two games and seventh this year against the Sharks.
"That’s ‘shinny’ hockey at its finest, but with Zubie, that’s part of his game," Tippett said. "That’s pretty special right there, to find a guy right on his tape, spinning around like that, that’s a special play. But we’ve seen that from Zubie around here for a long time."
Just not lately.
Up until that point, it had not been a particularly auspicious return for Zubov, who looked a half step slow most of the night. He allowed Milan Michalek to slip past him and had to hook him to avoid a breakaway, setting up Joe Pavelski’s deflected goal for a 1-0 Sharks’ lead during the ensuing power play.
Then, in the second period, Zubov and partner Trevor Daley allowed Michalek to split them for the breakaway goal that broke a 1-1 tie.
"There might have been some (Zubov) rust down here," Tippett said, touching his legs, "but there’s no rust up here," tapping his head. "That’s why he’s able to overcome it."
As has been the case throughout the playoffs, the Stars absolutely dominated the third period and it started just 32 seconds in, when Pavelski fell trying to get the puck out of his own zone. Richards pounced on the loose puck and wristed a shot past Nabokov to tie the score.
Moments later, with the Stars on their first power play of the night following a makeup call, came the Zubov-Modano pirouette that sucked the air completely out of the building and floored the Sharks.
When Zubov is out there, the Stars believe anything can happen, and sometimes it does.
Jim Reeves writes for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. His column is distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.