Peca preaches confidence to Columbus youngsters

Michael Peca has two Selke Trophies to his name (1997, 2002) and one trip to the Stanley Cup final (1999). Yet only the most ardent Columbus Blue Jackets fan would believe this 33-year-old center has a chance of getting his name engraved on Lord Stanley’s mug come June. Sure, the Jackets are now just five points shy of the club record established in 2005-06 (74). But merely snagging their first-ever playoff berth in the ultra-tight Western Conference remains a longshot, as they sit in 11th place with a .500 record in their last ten games. So what’s encouraging? Even though the club dealt away captain Adam Foote and future Hall-of-Famer Sergei Fedorov at the February 26 trade deadline, a pair of talented 23-year-olds, Rick Nash and Nikolai Zherdev, are vying for the team scoring lead, and Peca has picked up his game, recording assists in eight of his past 13 games. With the defensive structure that coach Ken Hitchcock preaches and the stellar goaltending of Pascal Leclaire, there’s still time left for this team to surprise the naysayers. spoke with Peca, a veteran of six NHL clubs and nearly 800 games, about his pro and international careers after the Blue Jackets beat Vancouver 3-2 at GM Place on February 29. Following a game where you rallied from a 2-0 deficit and won in overtime, what are you happiest about?

Michael Peca: I think just the resiliency we showed. We weren’t happy with the fact that we felt we’d outplayed them for the first two periods. The coach pointed out that we’d outworked everyone on their team but the goaltender. We needed to do a better job of getting in front of his paint, pushing him back, and going to the net a little bit harder. To have that resiliency and come back in the third, get it tied up, and get the win in overtime is a big confidence booster for us. It seemed like your team was a bit more excited, going after the win more than the Canucks in overtime.

Michael Peca: Yeah. We put ourselves in a spot to get the win and we didn’t want to sit back and wait for something to happen. We wanted to go and be pro-active. Right from the drop of the puck, we were going after them. You guys have put together a couple of four-game winning streaks this year, but mostly it’s been kind of up and down. How do you explain the inconsistency, and how do you get past that?

Michael Peca: It’s tough. It’s something we’ve been dealing with for a while. We’re hoping to put together a 12- or 13-game winning streak now. That’s the goal. You know what? It’s a young team, and you try to keep everybody pretty level-headed, whether it’s after a big win or big loss. The thing that’s been indicative of our team this year is playing really well against better teams, in terms of the league standings, and kind of letting our guard down against teams that are lower than us in the standings, ones we figure we should beat. We seem to be motivated by our opponent more than just being motivated by the game itself and wanting to go out and win hockey games, and it’s cost us wins this year. What are the biggest adjustments everyone in this room has to make after losing Adam Foote and Sergei Fedorov?

Michael Peca: I just think that everybody’s got to come together a little bit more. We’re a very close group in here. But I think with the departure of Adam–even more than Sergei, although both of them bring a wealth of experience and leadership–now it’s an opportunity for younger guys to assume some responsibility. They’ve all been captains or assistant captains, whether it was in junior or in the minors, coming up through the ranks. They know what it means to be a leader. Being a leader is no different at the junior level than it is at the professional level. You’ve just got to have the confidence to be assertive and handle responsibility. So we’re starting to get the confidence out of those young guys, and hopefully we can continue to encourage that. Tonight you played alongside Gilbert Brule, who’s a hometown hero in Vancouver from his days with the Giants. Do you see a difference in him since he came back from the minors a month ago?

Michael Peca: Yeah, he’s a little bit more patient with himself and his game. The biggest thing with Gilbert is that this has been a challenging year for him, not getting so much ice time early in the season and then going to Syracuse for a short period of time. I just think he was a victim of coming into an organization a little too early that I think wasn’t set up to be beneficial for young players. I think the management that drafted these kids, I just don’t think they brought them in the way you need to bring young kids into this league nowadays. He was a little bit of a victim of that. Now he’s just got to keep finding the patience in his game and being confident, because it’s hard when an organization just thrusts you in as an 18- or 19-year-old and expects you to do what you did in junior. It’s a really rare player that can do that, and when you don’t get those results, it’s easy to get down on yourself and question whether you still have that ability. He’s clearly got the ability. He’s got the physical makeup and skill set. It’s just a case where he’s got to reacclimatize to the NHL level and be patient with it. He’s going to be a great player in this league for a long time. Is that stuff you think about when you come back to Vancouver? This is where you started your career with the Canucks. Probably you’re best-remembered here for that big hit you laid on Teemu Selanne in 1995.

Michael Peca: You know, it’s funny. It’s all about creating an identity and trying to establish yourself in some way, shape or form in the league. I came out of junior being a two-time 100-point guy and a 50-goal scorer, but once I came to the NHL, our team was full of scorers. We had Pavel Bure, Geoff Courtnall, Trevor Linden, and guys like that. So for me, I was in a situation and a role that I had to adjust to. I started getting used in more defensive situations. Sometimes you wonder what would happen if you were used more the way you were in junior. But you’ve got to adjust at times, and do whatever it takes to help the team you’re on win hockey games. In my case, it was being a physical player and being a strong defensive player. Fortunately for me, it’s enabled me to have a pretty strong NHL career in that respect. And that also helped you get on the gold-medal Canadian Olympic team in 2002.

Michael Peca: Absolutely. You’re always trying to create your niche, and organizations like Hockey Canada are always looking for those types of players to fill out rosters. Being here at GM Place, the 2010 hockey venue, can you speak to the kind of pressure Team Canada will face at the next Olympics? You know what it was like in Salt Lake City with all the expectations after Nagano.

Michael Peca: Yeah, I think there’ll be a lot of pressure. But I really expect the same kind of results that they had in the World Cup in 2004 in Toronto and Montreal. They played fantastic. Any team they put together for 2010, it’ll be a lot of fun to watch those guys play. But I really think there’s so much great youth in our league right now, there’ll be four or five nations that will be so super-strong, it’ll be great hockey for everyone to watch. Do you think using the smaller North American ice surface at GM Place will factor into the equation much?

Michael Peca: I think the difference you’ll maybe see is that some of the European teams will have a few more NHL players than European leaguers, although sometimes the Swedes and Russians like to pull some guys from their respective leagues. But I’d suspect with the games on an NHL rink, you’ll see more NHLers. What did you learn or observe in Salt Lake City that perhaps you can carry over to help a young team like Columbus?

Michael Peca: The greatest thing I learned was that regardless of the situation or the magnitude of the game, when you see guys like Yzerman and Lemieux and Joe Sakic, it’s like when you get in the playoffs. The level of play goes up–there’s no question about it. Games start faster. There’s a little bit more of an emotional sway from side to side. But the biggest key I learned from those guys is that they just go out and do the same thing. Shift after shift, game after game. Regardless of how big the game is. They continue to be strong and they always seem to come up big in big games, because they don’t come down a level. They still play at the same level. It’s not about going up a level. It’s about playing at the same level they’ve played at their whole lives. A lot of people succumb to some of that pressure and tighten up, and are afraid to make plays. But guys like Lemieux and Sakic, all those guys who were there, it doesn’t matter. And you learn that. Regardless of the situation, go out there with confidence and play your game, and more often than not, you’re going to be successful. Finally, with this club, there’s obviously a history of not making the playoffs. Can you talk about how vital it is for you guys to find a way to squeeze in this year?

Michael Peca: It’s important, and we’re putting a lot of pressure on ourselves. Obviously the perception is, after Adam and Sergei were traded, that we’re waving the white flag. But by no means are we doing that. Those are situations where in one case I think management had its hand forced a little bit. With Sergei, I think they didn’t feel he was part of the core group here anyhow. So it’s important from this standpoint: the best way for a lot of these young guys that have been around this organization to get better and appreciate the game on a day-to-day basis is to get into the playoffs and experience it. Getting on a bit of a run and enjoying it. That’ll pull fans in and create more of an interest in the Blue Jackets in the Columbus, Ohio area. There are a lot of things that go into us wanting to be in the playoffs. Hopefully we can ride this wave a little bit and get some wins. Digg it Furl iFeedReaders Netscape RawSugar reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo MyWeb YardBarker

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