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Are shootout specialists developing in the National Hockey League?

Pierre Lebrun, Canadian Press
Published: Tuesday, October 17, 2006

(CP) - Ottawa Senators head coach Bryan Murray raised some eyebrows on the weekend when he sat his three star forwards during a shootout.

With Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza on the bench Saturday at Montreal, Antoine Vermette and Mike Fisher scored in the shootout to give Ottawa the win. Checker Dean McAmmond was also used but missed.

Confused? Don't be.

"It's a different skill," said Dallas winger Jussi Jokinen. "You don't have to be a 40-or 50-goal scorer to be good at shootouts."

The 23-year-old Finn is the NHL's shootout king. Going into Tuesday's game in San Jose, Jokinen had 11 shootout goals in 14 attempts since the new format was added last season - just seven short of his 18 career regulation-time goals.

He's a specialist. Like a left-handed reliever in baseball or a third-down back in football, he's found his niche in hockey.

While some unheralded players like Jokinen have excelled at the shootout, many big-time stars have been terrible. Skaters love it, goalies hate it. And the numbers suggest North American players are almost on par with European skaters when it comes to shootout success.

But it all starts with Jokinen, who gets to strut his stuff in the shootout while more established teammates like Mike Modano, Jere Lehtinen and Brendan Morrow often take a seat.

"Not that I don't have confidence in the other guys, I'm sure someone else could jump up and do well, but he has a pretty good track record," Stars head coach Dave Tippett said of Jokinen.

Tippett has a second shootout specialist in Sergei Zubov. The veteran Russian defenceman almost always follows Jokinen in the shootout and has eight goals on 13 attempts.

The Stars ran their NHL-best record to 13-1 since last season in shootouts with Sunday night's win at Anaheim.

"Zubov and Jokinen, very similar to last year, gave us the lead and (goalie) Marty Turco had to make a big save and he came up with it," Tippett said of Sunday's shootout. "That's been our recipe to success."

Zubov is third all-time in shootout goals since the format started. Viktor Kozlov of the Islanders, a decent centre but certainly no star, is second with nine goals on 14 attempts, including another last week.

Other teams may follow suit with their own specialists. The Minnesota Wild have used Mikko Koivu twice in their two shootout wins this season and he's delivered with two goals. He's now 6-for-8 overall going back to last season, only two goals short of his eight career regulation-time scores.

That's much better than Minnesota's top offensive threat, star winger Marian Gaborik, who's 0-for-6 in the shootout since last season.

The 23-year-old Koivu is likely not headed to the same kind of all-star career as his older brother Saku in Montreal. But when it comes to the shootout, there's no comparison. The Habs captain didn't even take an attempt last season and this year he's 0-for-2.

Koivu and Gaborik aren't alone among star players who haven't quite figured out the shootout. Going into games Tuesday, future Hall of Famer Joe Sakic was 0-for-7, Ilya Kovalchuk 1-for-11, Jarome Iginla 1-for-9, Jonathan Cheechoo 1-for-6, Sergei Fedorov and Patrick Marleau 0-for-5, Mark Recchi 0-for-4, Martin St. Louis 0-for-3 and Spezza 0-for-2.

"I think it's a lot to ask for your go-to guys to play 25, 30 minutes and then ask them to be the go-to guy again in the shootout," Devils goalie Martin Brodeur said Tuesday.

Saku Koivu thinks that just because you're the leading scorer on a team doesn't mean you'll be good in the shootout.

"It doesn't work that way," he said in Montreal. "It's like goalies. I think (Miikka) Kiprusoff was one of the worst in shootouts last year and he won the best goaltender award."

Indeed, last season's Vezina Trophy winner from Calgary was among the worst shootout performers, 1-7 while allowing 12 goals on 23 chances.

Who was the best? Among goalies who played in five or more shootouts, no one matched Kari Lehtonen's .850 save percentage, allowing only three goals on 20 attempts.

"I don't know, I guess you have to be pretty flexible and quick in a shootout," Lehtonen said from Atlanta, trying to explain his success. "It's different than a regular game. I practise it a lot with great shooters on our team like Kovalchuk and (Slava) Kozlov."

Lehtonen actually lost his first shootout this season, allowing one goal. He's now 5-1 for his career. The king of shootout wins comes from Dallas, of course. Marty Turco is 9-1 and has been beat seven times on 27 chances (.741 save percentage).

"Probably two reasons for my personal success (in shootouts) is two names, Jokinen and Zubov," Turco said this week, downplaying his record.

But like others goalies, neither Turco or Lehtonen are crazy about the shootout.

"It's kind of a cheap way to decide who gets two points," said Lehtonen. "But it's exciting for the players and the fans. I understand why it's here. Everybody else but goalies like it."

Brodeur, despite a solid 9-3 career record in shootouts, also doesn't enjoy it.

"I understand the entertainment value is huge," said Brodeur, a member of the league's competition committee. "What I'm scared of is that there are so many now, will it lose its glamour as the years go on? The fans love it now but will they in five years?"

Meanwhile, despite Jokinen, Kozlov and Zubov being top three in shootout goals since last year, Europeans aren't that much better at it than North Americans. The numbers show that European shooters have had a 36 per cent success rate since the shootout started last season (through Monday's games) compared to 31 per cent for North Americans.

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