In Mario He Trusts
Playing on the top line with Mario Lemieux has brought out the best in Pittsburgh's talented Aleksey Morozov
Skating alongside Mario Lemieux has made Penguins winger Aleksey Morozov look like a superstar, but there was a time when playing with Lemieux put knots in his stomach. "I was so nervous my first game, wondering how I was going to play with him," Morozov, 25, says of his debut on Lemieux's line last January. "It's tough mentally, but Mario gives me confidence. He tells me not to look for him all the time, just to play my game. He doesn't scream at me; he tries to help. And he always puts the puck right on my stick."
That's the biggest perk in having Lemieux for a linemate. Morozov, who's been stationed on Lemieux's right wing since the season opened, had five goals (second most in the league) and five assists for the surprising Penguins (3-1-1-0 at week's end). "This is my best time in the NHL," he says.
A Moscow native, Morozov was the Russian league's rookie of the year in 1995 when Pittsburgh made him its first-round selection (24th overall) in the NHL draft. He was twice named to the all-tournament team at the World Junior Championships, and he scored 13 goals and 13 assists in 76 games as an NHL rookie in '97-98. But with talented right wingers Jaromir Jagr and Alexei Kovalev ahead of him, Morozov languished in a third-line checking role. "I wasn't happy," Morozov says. "Playing 10 minutes a game, flipping the puck all the time from the red line, that's not my game."
After three mediocre years in which he scored a total of 26 goals, Morozov was given a top-line spot alongside Lemieux in the middle of last season. (Jagr was traded to the Capitals in July 2001, and Kovalev has frequently changed forward positions.) Morozov, who has soft hands and an accurate shot, enjoyed the most productive stretch of his career, scoring nine times in eight games before Lemieux was sidelined for the year with a hip injury. Morozov finished the season with career highs in goals (20) and points (49). Playing with Lemieux and Kovalev this year, Morozov has picked up where he left off. "He's got more space to operate," says coach Rick Kehoe, "and playing with Mario, he understands that he could get the puck anytime, anywhere, so he has to be ready. It makes him sharper."
With more precision than boom to his shot, Morozov is most dangerous from inside the dots and, at Lemieux's urging, has made a habit of going to the net. (All five of his goals came from in close.) At 6'1" and 204 pounds, he's also bulked up over the years (he weighed 174 when drafted), which has improved his strength in the corners and around the cage. "He's finally realized what to do with the puck," Kovalev says. "He takes it to the net, or he goes in for rebounds. He's found that touch."
He's also become more patient with the puck. During Pittsburgh's 3-2 victory over Atlanta on Oct. 16, Morozov took a Lemieux feed in the right face-off circle and waited for Thrashers goaltender Milan Hnilicka to cover the near post before switching to his backhand and shoveling the puck through the five-hole for the Penguins' first goal. "Mario has given me a good push," Morozov says. "I feel very good now, so even if I play without those two guys, I still feel confident."
John LeClair's Strong Start
His Back Is Game, And His Game Is Back
Asked about linemate John LeClair after the Flyers tied the Islanders 3-3 last Thursday night, right wing Mark Recchi smiled and said, "He looks great, healthy and strong. He's got strength back in his legs and his back, and he's so good one-on-one. It's like the old John."
It's been two years since the 6'3", 225-pound LeClair has played like this, pinballing off defenders on the forecheck and camping in front of the net to create havoc and score on easy tap-ins. A series of back injuries limited him to 16 games during 2000-01, and last season he scored only 25 goals in 82 games. But after getting his league-high seventh goal in Philadelphia's 3-1 win over the Capitals last Saturday night, LeClair has regained the dominant form that he showed as a three-time 50-goal scorer in the mid-'90s. As a result, the Flyers were off to a 3-0-2-0 start and were one of two unbeaten clubs, with the Lightning.