He faded late in the year, when the strain of trying to carry a leaden team became too much, but he was still the lone standout veteran among this disappointing bunch. But before then, he was his usual bulldog self, finding ways to win games, even when he didn't have his best stuff. (At press time, he'd won 15 games on a bad team. And yes, Ivan Rodriguez was his usual stud self this year, but he will have missed the last third or so of the season with a bum thumb.) Hell, even Helling's best stuff isn't that great--average fastball, a breaking ball that hangs too often--but the man just battles. It's remarkable when you consider that he was once traded by the Rangers and that, after he returned, stubborn automaton manager Johnny Oates didn't give him the credit he deserved until this year. Helling never let it get to him, never lashed out at the hordes that doubted him. Which makes it all the more inconceivable that Helling was booed by Rangers fans after one bad game this year. Hey, idiots, news flash: If everyone gave the effort Helling did, perhaps the Rangers wouldn't have languished in last place for much of the year.

It's easy to forget what it was like watching the Dallas Stars before the Parkay-smooth Zubov arrived: panicked defensemen, rushing to move the puck up ice, either missing sticks with errant passes or turning the puck over trying to skate up ice themselves. Now, watch Zubov with the puck when he gets it in his own zone. He never hurries, making small dekes and turning to free himself and get behind the net...then, he starts up ice, gliding, juking one way then turning the other, faking out defenders easily. When he wants to make a pass, he does so perfectly, on the move, tape-to-tape. On a team committed to defense, he makes the offense go. Mike Modano gets the pub for his goal scoring and assists, and he is truly a special player. But star scorers can be neutralized by putting the other teams' best defensive player on them, which often happens with Modano. Derian Hatcher is a force defensively, but when he is out, the Stars can cover for him with Richard Matvichuk or other big, burly defensemen. When Zubov is out, not only does the power play turn ugly--he is its "quarterback"--but so does the five-on-five game. He adds invaluable patience and finesse to the Stars' game, and his skills, on this team, are virtually irreplaceable. Plus, he's a Russki. That's kinda cool.

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