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Bob Ryan

Oh baby, ex-castoff has dominated

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / May 9, 2009
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RALEIGH, N.C. - Should the Raleigh area nursery schools be bracing themselves for an onslaught of little Jussis in a couple of years time?

(That's pronounced "You-see," with the accent on the first syllable).

It's possible.

Really, now. What is it with this guy? Jussi Jokinen scored exactly one goal in 25 regular-season games after coming over from the Tampa Bay Lightning. Now he's this goal-scoring machine, and not just garbage goals, but timely goals, killer goals, back-breaking goals.

"It feels great," he said of his latest game-changing goal, the tiebreaker in a 4-1 Hurricanes' conquest last night of the reeling Bruins. "It was right there. Empty net."

It was eerily reminiscent of his overtime winner in Game 3. Carolina was on a power play. There was a shot. There was a rebound. And there was Jussi Jokinen, in the right place at precisely the right time. He poked it home at 2:52 of the third period, putting his team ahead, 2-1. It was goal No. 6 of the playoffs, and it seems as if every one of them has been meaningful.

Carolina coach Paul Maurice stopped short of saying that he is ordering up these Jokinen goals, but he did confide that it's been a lot of fun watching the show.

"It is," Maurice said. "You're just watching a player grow in confidence. He's had so much adversity this year, you can't help but be anything but happy for him. I'm happy for us, too."

There is adversity, and there is Adversity. The small a adversity was twice being placed on waivers this season by the Lightning. The capital A Adversity was the death of his father, who died suddenly at age 51 in March. Jokinen returned home for the funeral, missing four games. He has not yet reached the point where he can talk about the ordeal.

The 5-foot-11-inch left wing is 26. A 2006 Olympian for the Finns, he came into the NHL as property of Dallas in the 2005-06 season, going 17-38 -55 as a rookie. Tampa Bay picked him up during the 2007-08 season, but he didn't accomplish a whole lot there, compiling 8-22 -30 totals in 66 games over a season and a half.

He was known as a shootout specialist with one sexy scoring move. Lightning coach Barry Melrose seemed to like him, but things changed when Rick Tocchet replaced the ESPN hockey guru - and not for the better. His playing time diminished.

The Hurricanes acquired him Feb. 7 in exchange for Wade Brookbank, Josef Melichar, and a 2009 fourth-round draft pick.

It's not as if people in the Carolina locker room were saying, "Goody, goody, we've got Jussi. The Cups is ours!"

"When he arrived," said Eric Staal, "there were a couple of Jussi questions, but not as many as there are now. He's played phenomenal. He's a good hockey player. I think it's tough for any player to go through that waiver thing. I remember him a little in Dallas. He was a shootout specialist, and they used him on the power play and on some penalty killing, too. I thought he was older than he is. I'm glad we've got him now."

"The one guy who knew what we were getting was [general manager] Jim Rutherford," pointed out defenseman Joe Corvo. "He had him in Dallas. Didn't he score 25 or so for them? But he got into a situation where he was not able to play his best. Right now, you can see his confidence grow."

That wasn't what people were saying when the playoffs began. He scored his one goal for the Hurricanes Feb. 20, and it was against his old team, Tampa Bay. He also had one two-assist game against the Islanders during a 9-0 laugher April 7. But his final regular-season total of 1-10 -11 with the Canes did not exactly make him the focal point of enemy game plans.

The Legend of Jussi Jokinen began to take shape in Game 4 of the first-round series against the Devils. He was positioned in front of Martin Brodeur when Dennis Seidenberg fired a shot from the point. The puck glanced off Jokinen's skate and into the net with .02 seconds left. It was the latest winning goal in playoff history.

Move to Game 7. The Hurricanes were trailing by a goal with 1:20 remaining when Jokinen took a pass from Joni Pitkanen and one-timed a beauty past a startled Brodeur. Staal's goal with 31.7 seconds left sent the Hurricanes into this series.

Next up: Game 3 against the Bruins Wednesday night. Sergei Samsonov makes a nice move on Tim Thomas, who makes the save but can't control the rebound. Jussi is in the perfect spot to shove the puck home.

And then we had last night's latest dose of Jussi magic. The man is blessed.

Jussi Mania is sweeping the Piedmont. The crowd was chanting "Jus-si! Jus-si!" There are now makeshift No. 36 jerseys being worn in the RBC Center. You know the baby names are sure to come.

Maurice said all credit goes to Rutherford.

"I had nothing to do with it," he explained. "Jim Rutherford talked about it for two months. 'I know he can help us. He's a versatile guy.' He's the guy behind that one."

Jokinen is clearly enjoying his Warholian moment. "I knew I was a good hockey player, but it was tough to have faith in Tampa," he said. "It's been a good three months, but we're not satisfied. All our thoughts are on Sunday. Our goal is to win the Stanley Cup. We've got a long way to go."

I'm tellin' ya', one more big goal and the little Jussis are coming. Maybe some Jussinas, too.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of the Globe's 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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