Sergei’s Hatty A Sign of Kozier Days To Come?

Nashville Predators forward Sergei Kostitsyn (right) is congratulated by by defenseman Francis Bouillon (left) following one of his three goals to help the Preds defeat the Calgary Flames in a New Year’s Day battle at Bridgestone Arena. Kostitsyn’s first career hat trick led Nashville to its third win in a row. (Photo: AP/Mark Humphries)

Nothin’ could be Kleiner…except

Before an international TeeVee audience as the lone game on the National Hockey League’s New Year’s Day 2012 schedule, the Nashville Predators delighted another sellout crowd – their sixth consecutive at home – with a 5-3 victory over the Calgary Flames on Sunday evening at Bridgestone Arena.

Notable in the victory was the return to the ice of Preds defenseman, Kevin Klein from a protracted case of the flu that had kept him out of the lineup for seven games. Klein scored the Pred’s first goal – and should have scored the last – but for the hustling efforts of winger Sergei Kostitsyn, who netted his first career hat trick in the game (and the Predators’ first of the season).

The securing of Kostitsyn’s hattie came at the expense of what would have been Klein’s second goal of the game, which would have also been a career first.

With just over 30 seconds to play in the third period and Calgary goaltender Mikko Kiprusoff on the bench, Klein recovered a loose puck at center ice and sent it weakly towards the vacant Calgary net. Kostitsyn sprinted in from behind to tap it across the goal line just inches from the mark, ‘just in case.’

And while that may seem like a cheapie gesture to some, it could prove to be huge for the Preds and Kostitsyn going forward. Oh, don’t worry about Klein’s feelings; he’s fine. When The Tennessean’s Josh Cooper asked him about Sergei’s empty-net goal interception after the game, Klein jovially replied, “He owes me dinner – I already told him, that’s for sure! But I’m glad for his first career hat trick; those don’t come too often…I really don’t get paid to score, so it’s not a big deal.”

However, it could indeed be a big deal for the young Belarusian.

Kozy’s Coming Out Party?
Kostitsyn came to the Preds as a reclamation project a year ago last June; being taken off the hands of the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for the contractual rights to goaltender Dan Ellis  – who never signed with the Habs – and forward, and Dustin Boyd – who subsequently signed a one-year deal but only played 10 games at the NHL level last season; Boyd now plies his trade in the KHL.

So, basically, the Preds got Kostitsyn for a bag ‘a pucks and a couple of tickets to the Montreal Jazz Festival.

Kostitsyn, whose brother, Andrei, a top-10 overall pick by Montreal in the storied 2003 NHL Entry Draft, held in Nashville, still plays for the Canadiens. However, any dreams Sergei may have had of sharing NHL ice with his flesh and blood quickly began to evaporate early on in his tenure with the Habs.

Sergei was considered a malcontent; a promising, yet vexing young talent who simply didn’t mesh in Montreal. He butted heads with management; he refused to report to the Habs’ AHL team in Hamilton, Ontario. He was suspended – not once, but twice. The Canadiens saw a prima donna. Preds General Manger, David Poile, saw a diamond in the rough who needed a change of scenery.

And rough is just the description of Kostitsyn’s initial days in Head Coach Barry Trotz’s world. He was slowed by a foot injury early in training camp and required a little extra time – along with some tough love from Trotz – to upgrade his energy level on both ends of the ice. Fortunately, it didn’t seem to take much coercion for him to catch on to the Predators’ Way of responsible, 2-way hockey, and soon thereafter he began to exceed the wildest dreams of any sober Predators observer.

Kostitsyn led the 2010-11 Preds in goals with 23, and tied with Martin Erat as the team’s top points-producer with 50. It was yet another brilliant personnel move by Poile and a boon to light-scoring Nashville, who likely wouldn’t have even made the playoffs without Kostitsyn’s steady production all season long.

Kostitsyn had signed a one-year contract upon his acquisition from Montreal, so everyone knew he was due a bit of a raise. However, this past offseason, as a result of fax-machine mismanagement, Kostitsyn was awarded a much more significant raise than expected, when Poile’s office failed to tender Nashville’s restricted free agents their qualifying contract offers by the prescribed deadline, rendering them all unrestricted free agents, and losing the ability to automatically control the dollar amount increase with which they were to be re-signed.

Kostitsyn’s case was of particular concern because of the obvious leverage he now possessed as an unrestricted free agent, as opposed to the mere 10% increase from the $550,000 he was due off the one-year deal he’d signed in 2010. But instead of holding out for a Kris Verseegesque payday, Kostitsyn impressed a lot of folks with the sense of fairness he exhibited even when he didn’t need to.

Kostitsyn didn’t hold up the Preds, but agreed to a modest (by today’s UFA standards) one-year contract valued at $2.5 million. He obviously felt the need to prove himself, yet again.

Nevertheless, thus far this season it hasn’t quite seemed as though Kostitsyn has made a lot of noise, offensively. However, Sunday’s performance went a long way toward changing that. Kostitsyn’s trifecta  brought his goals total to eight on the year, and with his 10 assists, his point total now stands at 18. That may not sound a lot like someone on a pace to meet or exceed a 23g/50p’s total from last year, but interestingly enough, one year ago today, on January 2, 2011, guess what Sergei’s numbers were?

Eight goals, nine assists, 17 points.

Relax folks. The dude’s ahead of schedule!

Special Konnection
As you may know, I feel as though I have a special connection with Kostitsyn  – or, I guess it’d be more accurate to say, he had a special connection with me. But at any rate, Sergei’s one of my favorite Predators, mostly because his is such a quintessential story of what this team is made of.

Kostitsyn is a product of David Poile’s brilliance as a manager and Barry Trotz’s brilliance as a leader and mentor of hockey played the way it should be played. And with the notable absence of Captain Shea Weber for a yet still indeterminate period, it’s increasingly important for the entire team to play to their potential.

Speaking to the media after the game Sunday, Trotz commented on Kostitsyn’s performance. “He got three shots – that’s like ten games for him sometimes it seems,” he joked. “He’s shooting the puck – he’s got a really excellent release – and we talked about him just using that; using that as a little of an offensive weapon, using it to create offense, not just to score the goal; just keep throwing it in there and it’s gonna go in…and if it doesn’t go in for you it’ll go in for someone else. He’s starting to get the message.”

Some players are just slow starters; perhaps this is Kostitsyn’s M.O. Then again, perhaps it has taken a little more of that Barry Trotz patience that he needed to get going last season to once again convince Sergei to Kozy up to an offensive role so vital to the success of his team. He’s getting the message, and delivering the goods.

It’ll be interesting to see if perhaps this three-goal effort will be a springboard of confidence – or of will – that will propel Kostitsyn to resume or exceed his production of 2010-11 and further the Nashville Predators’ cause in doing the same with regard to their Stanley Cup Playoffs aspirations this season.


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