No Pain, Big Gain
A healthy Markus Naslund is back in the groove and fueling the resurgent Canucks
By going 10-2-1-1 in January, the Canucks made that month the most successful in franchise history, but two of those losses, on Jan. 8 in Buffalo and the next night in Detroit, might have been the most significant games of the season for Vancouver. That's because it wasn't until then that left wing Markus Naslund, the Canucks' best player, showed he had fully recovered from the fractured right tibia and fibula that ended his season last March. "He's human; it had to have crossed his mind," says coach Marc Crawford of Naslund's return to Buffalo, where he sustained those injuries. "He played that game and got past the ghosts, and then in Detroit he was outstanding. He beat Chris Chelios one-on-one, and he beat Nicklas Lidstrom. He was dominant that game. Since then we've observed a real upswing in his play."
With Naslund leading the way, Vancouver has awakened from an early-season slump to jump into the middle of the playoff chase. From Dec. 27 through Sunday the Canucks had gone 14-4-1-1 and moved from last place in the Western Conference to seventh (28-25-5-1 overall). Naslund's 11 goals and 16 assists over that stretch had raised his season totals to 27 and 34, tying him with the Flames' Jarome Iginla for most points in the league.
"You always have that in the back of your mind," Naslund says of the injury and his early-season play. "When you're falling, you hope you don't fall [the same] way again. I hadn't been skating as aggressively, and by waiting a half a second, I lost a lot of chances to score. I hesitated instead of jumping on the puck."
After surgeons inserted a titanium rod and screws into his right leg last spring, Naslund rehabbed all summer in the private gym of his summer cottage in his hometown of Ornskoldsvik, Sweden. He biked and worked with weights to regain lower-leg strength. He also skated regularly with teammates Daniel and Henrik Sedin, the Sharks' Nicklas Sundstrom and the Blue Jackets' Mattias Timander.
Naslund's prolific scoring of late followed a change in his center: On Jan. 9 Crawford replaced Andrew Cassels with Brendan Morrison, whose superior speed and ability to pass make him an ideal complement to Naslund and hard-hitting right winger Todd Bertuzzi.
Naslund, 28, signed a three-year, $15 million contract extension in June and is maturing into the elite scorer he was expected to be when the Penguins drafted him in the first round in 1991. In fact he's in uncharted territory for the Canucks, who have never had a player finish higher than third in the points race ( Pavel Bure in '97-98). "It's flattering when you look at the players below you," Naslund says of the leader list, "but the thing I'm most proud of is coming back from the injury the way I have."
Goalie Jos� Th�odore
Keeping Montreal In the Race
Jos� Th�odore's first experience as a goaltender was born of necessity. Jos�'s brother Rock, 2� years his elder, was a budding forward, so during street shoot-arounds outside their house in the Montreal suburb of St. Bruno, Rock practiced his marksmanship by sticking his younger brother, then four, in net. "When there's only two players, you need a shooter and a goalie, and I was younger, so I was the goalie," says Th�odore, now 25, whose given name is pronounced JOE-zay. "Rock said I was pretty good, so I figured I ought to give it a try."
In his second season as Montreal's No. 1 goalie Th�odore has single-handedly kept the injury-depleted Canadiens (24-22-8-3 through Sunday, ninth in the Eastern Conference) in playoff contention despite their having the second lowest goals-per-game average of any team in playoff position. Though strong all season (20-16-6, 2.11 goals-against average and a stellar .929 save percentage), Th�odore has been at his finest when pressed into heavy duty: a 1.84 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage over 16 straight starts from Nov. 6 through Dec. 10 and 1.72 and .944 while starting 13 of the Canadiens' last 14 matches through week's end. "The mental part is the toughest, but it's fun to play a lot," says Th�odore, Montreal's second-round draft choice in 1994. "It's a chance to prove yourself to the rest of the league, and as a young goalie that's what you're looking for."