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Hole in Ozolinsh’s Game Getting Smaller

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The doughnuts had to be glazed, not jelly-filled or powdered.

Since Sandis Ozolinsh never had time for breakfast before the San Jose Sharks’ practices, he fell into the habit of grabbing a quick bite when he got to the rink. A native of Latvia in the former Soviet Union, he found glazed doughnuts, an All-American favorite, made a fine morning meal.

“Then one day, [Shark public relations officials] told me they wanted me to do an interview and I told them, ‘Get me doughnuts and I will do the interview.’ They promised they would, and they did,” the 23-year-old defenseman said.

“It became a joke. Every time I would go to the rink, if I saw doughnuts at my seat, I would know they wanted me to do an interview.”

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Ozolinsh, now with the Colorado Avalanche, is sticking to a healthier diet and doesn’t eat as many doughnuts. Someday, he’d like to make those who criticize his defensive play eat their words.

On offense, Ozolinsh is a marvel, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound blur who dodged some of the NHL’s toughest defenders while getting 14 goals and 54 points this season. The top-scoring defenseman in the playoffs, he assisted on Mike Ricci’s game-winning goal Tuesday to help the Avalanche defeat the Florida Panthers, 3-1, in the first game of the Stanley Cup finals.

His speed and skill are reminiscent of three-time Norris Trophy winner Paul Coffey, a suggestion that makes Ozolinsh blush. “He’s way better than I am. You can’t compare,” he said. “He’s like a Ferrari and I’m a Yugo.”

But the comparison of their defensive skills, particularly in Coffey’s youth, is valid. In Colorado’s defensive zone, Ozolinsh’s play can drastically shorten coaches’ life expectancy.

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“He’s not one-dimensional, but he’s a little scary in his own end,” said Mighty Duck General Manager Jack Ferreira, who was the Sharks’ first general manager and drafted him in 1991. “He’s always at the top of the crease. You just don’t know which one.”

Said Avalanche Coach Marc Crawford: “He played forward as a youngster, and whoever put him back on defense knew he was going to give some guy gray hair. But with what he does offensively, you can tolerate some miscues. I think he’s getting better, and he’s not as deficient defensively as people make him out to be.”

Ozolinsh, who often ventures deeper into the offensive zone than Colorado’s forwards, acknowledges he’s not a two-way player. “Right now I don’t think I’m better than anybody else on defense to do the job late in the game if the score is close,” he said. But that wasn’t what the Avalanche was looking for when it acquired him for right wing Owen Nolan last October.

After Uwe Krupp underwent knee surgery, Colorado had no one on defense to generate offense and play the point on the power play. Ozolinsh, who had scored 26 goals for San Jose in 1993-94, has settled into that niche after experiencing some uncertain moments.

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“The trade was difficult for me, almost like when I came the first time from Latvia. I was scared, confused, and I didn’t know what to think about it,” he said. “It turned out better than I thought for my life, but not on the ice. I think they expected me to get more points. Maybe I was putting too much pressure on myself, but things started to fall into place near the end of the season.

“In the playoffs, I have felt good. I wasn’t as nervous, compared to other playoffs, and I am doing things a little bit faster than during the season.”

Ozolinsh doesn’t see much need for the Avalanche to change anything tonight from its performance in Game 1, when it rallied from a 1-0 deficit with a three-goal blitz in the second period.

“We didn’t start well in the other series in the past two rounds. We lost the first game in the Chicago series and the same thing happened in Detroit [in the Western Conference final],” he said. “In the second period we were playing a lot more patient than we do in the regular season. We knew our chance will come.”

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All he wants is the chance to play in the last minutes of a tight game, which Crawford doesn’t yet trust him to do. “Someday I’ll be out there,” Ozolinsh said. “Right now, if my teammates are better, go ahead, let them do the job. But I want to do that job sometime.”

NHL Notes

Goalie Patrick Roy’s appearance in Game 1 was his 133rd in the playoffs, making him the career leader. He had shared the record with Bill Smith, now a goalie coach for the Panthers. . . . Florida goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck and Coach Doug MacLean were upset by NHL officials’ ordering Vanbiesbrouck to change the tape on the knob of his stick shortly before Game 1 on Tuesday. Vanbiesbrouck had red tape on his stick, although only white tape is allowed. “Three minutes before you go out for a game and they say you have to put a piece of white tape on the end of your stick or we’re going to call a penalty is pretty uncharacteristic of the way the league operates,” Vanbiesbrouck said. The infraction was spotted by off-ice officials 20 minutes before the game. . . .

Several rule changes were discussed at Wednesday’s general managers’ meetings and recommended for approval by the Board of Governors. The general managers recommended players be allowed to direct the puck into the net with a skate unless the puck is kicked in with a deliberate forward or backward motion. . . .

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St. Louis General Manager Mike Keenan, whose contract negotiations with free agent-to-be Wayne Gretzky remain on hold while Gretzky takes vacation, said he’s not sure Gretzky will return. He also hinted the club’s offer has been changed from a three-year deal to two years. . . . Detroit Red Wing Coach Scotty Bowman says he is 99% certain he will be back behind the bench next year, and the Detroit Free Press reported he will take on the job of director of player personnel full time.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Stanley Cup Finals

COLORADO AVALANCHE vs. FLORIDA PANTHERS

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Game 1--Colorado 3, Florida 1

Game 2--Tonight at Colorado, 5 p.m.

Game 3--Saturday at Florida, 5 p.m.

Game 4--Monday at Florida, 5 p.m.

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*Game 5--June 13 at Colorado, 5 p.m.

*Game 6--June 15 at Florida, 5 p.m.

*Game 7--June 17 at Colorado, 5 p.m.

* if necessary

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