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First-Half Surprises
MICHAEL FARBER
January 28, 2008
Sudden production, sudden improvement and a sudden commitment—in three unlikely places
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January 28, 2008

First-half Surprises

Sudden production, sudden improvement and a sudden commitment—in three unlikely places

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1 A Playmaker Unleashed

Operating in a conservative league, the Stars' Mike Ribeiro has long been the ultimate outsider—and not just because he does his best work from the perimeter. He sports a Mohawk and has worn an earring off the ice since he was eight. In the team's media guide, the slender center known as Mickey Ribs cites shopping malls as his favorite thing about Dallas. Still, you can't buy NHL talent like Ribeiro's off the rack. A creative playmaker, he had already crashed through his season high of 20 goals, with 22 at week's end, and he led the Stars with 53 points. "I'm playing longer with the puck, which is one of my strengths," Ribeiro says. "The difference is playing with confidence, having the coaches' trust. When I got here last year [traded from Montreal], they didn't know me. Some games I played 10 or 12 minutes."

The 27-year-old Ribeiro, who is averaging 18:40 minutes of ice time while centering Dallas's top line, signed a five-year, $25 million contract two weeks ago. Now he could really go on a shopping spree.

2 A Team Grows in Phoenix

When Don Maloney took over as the Coyotes' G.M. last May, he vowed to build around young players. What did he have to lose? Last in the Pacific for three straight seasons, the Coyotes were coming off a conference-worst 67 points in 2006--07. Look at them now. Phoenix was a solid 24-21-2 through Sunday and had won 7 of 11 games. Coach Wayne Gretzky's faith in his youngest charges—notably 19-year-old center and All-Star-in-waiting Peter Mueller, whom Gretzky (right) sends out first in shootouts—has buoyed team confidence, and his players have responded with a commitment to forechecking and to winning loose pucks.

An unforeseen cornerstone in the construction project has been goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, the ex-Duck plucked off waivers in November. Upon arrival Bryzgalov, who was 9--5 in the postseason with Anaheim, began chirping about making the playoffs—and his 15-10-2 record and 2.35 goals-against average have made that possible. With a nod to the young club's inevitable defensive lapses, Kings assistant Dave Lewis says, "Having him there allows for a more gradual learning curve."

3 Mike Richards's Big Deal

Even in an era when NHL teams ply young stars with long-term deals, the Dec. 13 news that the Flyers had given third-year center Mike Richards a 12-year, $69 million extension pushed the bounds of credulity. At the time Richards had played 166 NHL games, scored 35 goals and totaled 100 points. He missed 23 games last season with a hernia and a separated shoulder, and, if not quite undersized, he's certainly not imposing at 5'11" and 195 pounds.

Philadelphia bought into Richards's potential. No longer used mainly as a checker, Richards, who turns 23 on Feb. 11, led Flyers forwards in ice time (21:51) and points (52) at week's end. His even-keeled but tenacious on-ice demeanor is the earmark, the team believes, of a future captain. "He'll do anything for you," says teammate Jeff Carter. "He's always first in battle." And coach John Stevens gives the ultimate hockey compliment: "He manages his game for the good of the team." The Flyers, likewise, hope they've managed his contract for the good of the team.

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