Greatest Rivalries: Kozlov Scores Four vs. Rangers



Viktor Kozlov.

There have been others like him in different sports. For baseball, it was Clint Hartung and Dick Wakefield. Nicknamed “The Hondo Hurricane”, Hartung was to be a superhero for the New York Giants, but emerged as more hot air than hotshot. Dick Wakefield got the biggest bonus in baseball history from the Detroit Tigers, but, when all was said and done, his legacy is left more with his bonus than his ball-playing.

Who was the National Hockey League’s version of Hartung and Wakefield? Try Kozlov on for size because he sure had it at 6-foot-4, 232 pounds.

Kozlov never was and never will be a household word in the ice world, although he was built like a house, played well for a time — like Wakefield — and wound up being as forgotten as Hurricane Hartung.

But for one night in the 2006-2007 National Hockey League season, the one-time first-round Draft pick was a giant-sized success commensurate with his full-sized fuselage.

Make no mistake, as a teenager, Kozlov looked like a super-star-in-the-making. After all, he was right up there in the 1993 draft that included Chris Pronger, Paul Kariya, Jason Arnott and Saku Koivu. Kozlov was picked sixth by San Jose.

Then again, that was the same meat factory that gave the NHL the No. 1 pick, Alexander Daigle. The French-Canadian Victoriaville center had been picked first overall by the Ottawa Senators. Based on his immensely nondescript NHL career, Daigle could have been plucked 200th and even that would have been too high.

(THE MAVEN’S COMMENT: At the time I paid little attention to Kozlov despite the raves and his high selection in the Draft. In those days, we knew a lot less about the Russians. There was no Kontinental Hockey League then and my focus — parochial as it might have been — was more on the North American skaters. But enough name hockey talents were mentioning Kozlov in dispatches so that I had to open my eyes a bit and check him out. )

Some of the best minds in hockey believed that the sky would be the limit for Kozlov. “He’s a big-time talent,” said Brian Burke, then general manager of the Hartford Whalers, “a really hard to find guy. He can score along the lines of a Dave Andreychuk and he’s a more complete player.”

It was, however, a long-distance appraisal and never once did the word “hustle” become part of the Kozlov description and that, more than anything — his perceived lack of vim, vigor and vitality — eventually proved to be his downfall. To call him a bust would be unfair because there was some terrific hockey in his tank and some Rangers fans may remember how terrific it could be.

Those who were witnesses at The Garden on the night of Dec. 3, 2006 could have been forgiven if they had mistaken Kozlov for Bobby Orr, Maurice Richard and Marian Gaborik all rolled into one. The native of Togliatti, Russia proved to be a heavy bomber on ice, blitzing the Rangers’ nets so effectively, he actually overshadowed a future Hall of Famer named Brendan Shanahan who produced a hat trick for the home club that night

More than that, Kozlov cooled a Rangers club which had Stanley Cup playoff designs. And for icing on his cake, Kozlov’s effort helped dismay Henrik Lundqvist enough that The King actually pulled himself out of the nets.Thoroughly unexpected, Henrik asked after the first period that he be replaced by Kevin Weekes.

To understand the immensity of Kozlov’s one-night showstopper, it’s worthwhile to consider his promise and what prompted the Sharks to use their first pick on Kozlov. Mostly it had to do with his majestic look that reminded some observers to regard him as a “Russian Jean Beliveau,” referencing the oversized Montreal Canadiens Hall of Famer.

Darryl Sutter, who coached Kozlov in San Jose, knew quite a bit about Beliveau, but didn’t see Big Jean’s brand of hustle in Kozlov’s game. From the get-go, Sutter found the not-so-rapid Russian a colossal disappointment. “I will not accept it out of guys making more than a million dollars not to try,” snapped Sutter. “Not when a player like Kozlov has all that ability. I don’t care how good they are or how good they’ll become.”

(THE MAVEN’S COMMENT: I’ve always felt that the Sutter Brothers — being typical hard-nosed, farm-raised Western Canadians — generally took a dim view of European players. To me, that explained why Brent Sutter — when he took over as head coach of the New Jersey Devils — yanked the captaincy away from Patrik Elias and gave it to Jamie Langenbrunner. It was to be one of the biggest mistakes of Sutter’s coaching career. As for Darryl , whether it was his coaching technique, attitude, whatever, he hardly got the hoped-for production from Kozlov that future coaches such as Ted Nolan did.)

Unfortunately, the only similarity between Kozlov and Beliveau had to do with dimensions. No matter how hard he tried, Viktor was less than victorious once he skated in San Jose. He failed to create a niche in California and wound up with  29  goals and  69 points in  174  games with the Sharks before he moved on to a warmer climate in the Sunshine State skating for the Florida Panthers. Slowly but surely, his game began to resemble the reason the Sharks originally had been so enthused about his prospects. A future Hall of Famer he wasn’t, but he sure played better in Sunrise than he did in San Jose.

In the 1999-2000 season, Kozlov donned some star dust by totaling a 17-53-70 line in 80 games and was a very healthy plus-24. It would prove to be Viktor’s best sets of NHL arithmetic except for the one full season he spent on Long Island. But his tenure in Florida abruptly ended when he was traded to New Jersey in time for the 2004 playoffs.

(THE MAVEN’S COMMENT: Like everyone else who covered the Devils for MSG Network, I was impressed with everything about Kozlov — in practice. In a sense he reminded me of the comparison between Gordie Howe and Gordie’s kid brother, Vic, when Vic was called up to the Rangers. Vic looked like Gordie — had the same strong build — same smooth skating stride, quick wrist shot; just about every weapon that his old brother had. But that, too, only was in practice. When the games began, Vic skated as if he still was in practice. There was none of Gordie’s pizzazz and fight to Vic’s game. As a result, Vic Howe became a forgotten skater in the minors.)

Kozlov’s one full season with the Devils was conspicuously lackluster. He scored only a dozen goals which was not enough to suit boss Lou Lamoriello and that was the end of Kozzy’s Devils career and, some felt, finis for Viktor in the NHL. But the Islanders figured differently. Kozlov was tendered a one-year, $865,000 contract and readily accepted. Nobody knew it at the time — with the possible exception of the Isles’ general staff — but this would be the start of something big; and I don’t mean Kozlov’s shoe size either.

For starters, a factor in Viktor’s favor was the coaching of Ted Nolan who was enjoying a rare season in the NHL sun after being labeled — unfairly I believe — one of those troublesome black sheep of the coaching fraternity. But Nolan was a winner and he had an interesting cast of characters in Uniondale.

While not necessarily starry, his roster was strong enough to at least compete with some of the playoff-seeking clubs. In goal, Rick DiPietro still displayed enormous promise, Jason Blake had become a pepper-pot who could score, Arron Asham delivered punch and an occasional puck in the net and Alexei Yashin still was around to provide offensive power along with Mike Sillinger and Miroslav Satan, among other worthwhile skaters. On top of that Tom Poti, the ex-Ranger, led all Isles defensemen in scoring with 44 points.

If Kozlov could play up to his early expectations the Isles might even gain a playoff berth which they had missed the previous season. Sure enough, in 2006-2007 all of the Russian’s offensive gears meshed as perfectly as they could. His goal-scoring matched his playmaking and his plus-minus — while not stratospheric — proved to be as good as Nolan could expect from his sharpshooter. And if one game could encapsulate that perfect — but brief — offensive storm for the perfectly built player, it happened on Seventh Avenue against the hated Rangers.

(THE MAVEN’S COMMENT: I got a kick out of that Islanders team because of a bunch of diverse characters. DiPietro was displaying positive cockiness to go with his improved goaltending, under-appreciated players such as Poti were having super years and foot soldiers like Sillinger were as valuable as they ever would be in their long careers. This was a fun team to cover with a playoff chance to boot.)

Walking into The Garden on the Sunday afternoon of Dec. 3, Kozlov was just beginning to feel his oats as an Islanders scorer. While he had suffered occasional slumps — droughts of nine and 10 games — there was a feeling that he had finally come into his own. He had cashed in twice the previous night in a 5-3 triumph over Pittsburgh. It was the Islanders’ fourth win in their last six games while the Blueshirts had just lost three in a row. All of which underlined a key point.  The turbulent Atlantic Division race was up for grabs — between the Isles, Rangers and Devs neck and neck at this point of the season. A victory for Nolan’s skaters on this night would thrust them to the top of the Atlantic, a point ahead of both their Met Area rivals.

The moments after the opening faceoff offered no clues as to what manner of game ultimately would produce 11 goals. In fact, it wasn’t until eight-and-a-half minutes had elapsed before the opening goal was scored. Satan, still in mint condition, sailed down the right wing to the bottom of the circle and beat King Henrik with a wrist shot and the Isles were off and running. Nor did they stop there. You knew that the Blueshirts were in trouble when Chris Simon tallied on a power play shortly thereafter. Already, there was a sense that Lundqvist was not himself.

With less than four minutes remaining, Kozlov finally got on the board. Simon’s centering pass to Andy Hilbert was broken up, but Kozlov pounced on the rebound and lifted the biscuit over a sprawling Henny. The goal inspired Lynn Zinser of The New York Times to note: “Kozlov’s first goal provided a small window into the soul of the Islanders’ (eventual) win. It was mostly a case of being in the right place at the right time. Kozlov stood in front of the net and the puck landed on his backhand, courtesy of a failed clearing attempt by Rangers forward Martin Straka. Kozlov flicked the puck past the bewildered Lundqvist.”

Only 34 seconds were left in the first period when Sillinger and Asham combined on a tic-tac-toe play. Asham’s conversion left the capacity matinee crowd wondering whether this was the real King Henrik or an unreasonable facsimile thereof. Guess what? It had the Rangers’ No. 1 puck-stopper wondering as well. After all, it was most unusual for the Swedish Swifty to allow four goals on just eight shots. “It was,” added Zinser, “a bizarre game.”

(THE MAVEN’S COMMENT: You have to remember that this was not the Vezina Trophy-winning Lundqvist we know today. There still was doubt about his ability to win big games. Just the fact that he had pulled himself out of the game — coach Tom Renney had no intentions of doing so — raised plenty of questions about Henny’s competitiveness. These questions were further raised during the ensuing playoffs in which the Rangers were knocked out by Buffalo.)

Once in the room, Lundqvist approached Renney and told him that he, Henrik, shouldn’t continue between the pipes because he felt uncomfortable. “I wasn’t satisfied with my play,” Lundqvist allowed after the game. “I thought that a change would benefit the team; even though I didn’t think that any of the four were ‘soft’ goals.”

Henny’s self-yanking sure didn’t hurt. Kevin Weekes took over and early in the second period stopped Shawn Bates on a shorthanded breakaway. That stopped the bleeding; at least momentarily. While killing a penalty, Brendan Shanahan broke free on a two-on-one chance before firing a wrister between DiPietro’s pads. “We felt better about ourselves,” explained Shanny, “because we knew that the Islanders had not been playing as well as they thought they were. We could have packed it in but we battled back.”

Next it was Jaromir Jagr who beat DP on a wrist shot 66 seconds later and suddenly the Isles were in trouble thanks to Shanny’s second goal of the match. Now, the Rangers were only down by one and the crowd called for more.  “We bent,” DiPietro admitted, “but we didn’t break.”

The breaking of the Islanders would have happened had there been a fourth straight Rangers goal, but Kozlov filled the breach. A centering pass from Simon — he was behind the Rangers net — wound up in Weekes’ crease. Both Hilbert and Kozlov took pot shots at the biscuit and Viktor got his last licks in with a mere minute and change left in the stanza. “That goal was the turning point,” Nolan later recalled. “All of a sudden a light went off in our brains and we started getting our composure back.”

Cushioned by the two-goal lead, the Nassaumen kept the Rangers at bay in the third period while looking for another goal. It finally developed with a three-on-three rush culminating with Kozlov taking a pass from Richard Park on the left wing. Kozlov’s wicked wrist shot beat Weekes high to the glove side to give Viktor his second hat trick of his career. With less than two minutes remaining, Park zinged a pass from the left circle all the way across to Kozlov at the right circle. Once again, Kozlov relied on his not-so-secret weapon, the wrist shot, zooming it high on the glove side for his first four-goal game.

(THE MAVEN’S COMMENT: No matter what anyone could say about Kozlov’s intensity — or lack of it — he was a swell guy to be around. He not only was a good-looking guy, he was as nice as he looked. I enjoyed interviewing him because for those reasons and because i kept thinking that his best was yet to come. The four goals against the Rangers on this night suggested that he was just reaching the apex of his career.)

“Sometimes the puck goes in and sometimes it does not,” Kozlov remarked after the game. “This is the first time I ever had four goals in a game except maybe in Junior hockey. But I have to give credit to my linemates and my team.”

As for the 7-4 victory, it thrust the Nolan-ites up to the top of the Atlantic Division and gave every indication that he had, in fact, a playoff team. But it would be but in a most unusual way. Following the win over the Rangers, the Isles played soso hockey. Remarkably, they squeezed into the playoffs with a Shootout win over the Devils in their final game of the season before being eliminated from postseason play by Buffalo. Meanwhile, the Blueshirts got themselves into the second round and, for a bit, appeared capable of moving on to a third round before the Sabres dispatched them to the golf courses.

Kozlov’s regular season with the Islanders (25-26-51 and plus-12) earned him a two-year, $5 million contract with Washington where his first season was a successful 54 pointer. Once his Caps deal was over, Viktor said bye-bye to the NHL and resumed his career in Russia; with no regrets whatsoever. “When I signed my contract with Washington,” Kozlov concluded, “I decided that these would be my last two years in the NHL and that was that.”

What it was, when all was said and done, was a satisfactory North American career for a pleasant gentleman who never lived up to his drafting expectations. But, man, he sure was a heckuva lot better than the chap who was plucked first in the Draft that year; Alexandre Daigle!

One afternoon at The Garden against the Rangers proved that. Just don’t ask King Henrik for a reminder!