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Latvian Locomotive Gaining Steam in NHL

04/28/2014, 8:00am CDT
By bwerger

Not long after USHL career, Girgensons earns "A" for effort in NHL

by Jim Leitner, Dubuque Telegraph Herald 

Zemgus Girgensons knows a good hockey prank when he sees one, so he became a little leery shortly after entering the Buffalo Sabres' dressing room on the final day of the regular season.

But the "A" sewn on the chest of his jersey was no joke. The 20-year-old rookie forward earned the right to serve as Buffalo's alternate captain that afternoon because of the tenacity he showed during one of the worst seasons in franchise history.

"When I walked into the locker room, a couple of the guys asked me if my chest feels a little heavier today, and I had no idea what they were talking about," said Girgensons, who starred for the Dubuque Fighting Saints from 2010-12 before the Sabres selected him 14th overall in the 2012 NHL Draft. "The coaches rotate the alternate captains, and they usually don't tell you before, so I found out when I saw my jersey.

"I still kind of thought someone was playing a joke on me. But, when it sunk in, it was a pretty exciting moment for me. I felt excited, honored, nervous ... all sorts of emotions."

He shouldn't have been surprised.

"He earned it," Sabres center Tyler Ennis said. "He plays so hard every night. He's a good example of what everyone should play like."

Ted Nolan, who coached Girgensons in Buffalo and with the Latvian national team at the Sochi Olympics, considered the power forward a natural selection for the honor. He wished more players would have followed the example Girgensons set during a season in which the Sabres finished an NHL-worst 21-51-10.

"One thing with Girgensons, he plays the game right," Nolan said after Girgensons scored twice in a 4-2 loss to playoff-bound Detroit on April 8. "If there's one thing our team can learn, is just watch the way he plays all the time. Whether he scores two goals or not, he's by far our best player on the ice.

"And why? Because he plays the game right. He works both ends of the ice. He competes. He plays with some passion and all those things that good players do. He was great tonight."

It wasn't easy, especially during a tumultuous season like the one Buffalo endured. The Sabres replaced Ron Rolston with Nolan in November, hired Tim Murray as general manager in January and encountered massive roster changes due to trades and injuries

Not exactly a rookie-friendly environment. And a difficult start to an NHL career for Girgensons, who has always placed team success ahead of his own accomplishments.

"It's always tough when most of the season you're losing, so it made the year a little longer and a little more challenging, but it was a good learning experience," Girgensons said. "It definitely was more difficult to keep working hard, but if you love the game, you have a passion for it.

"That's the way I play. And losing shouldn't change that passion. It should just drive you a little bit more to try to do a little bit more on the ice to help your team win. There are no barriers to being a better player. The top players in the game still push themselves and that's what makes them great. I want to continue to be better, to improve in every way."

Girgensons, who spent last season with Buffalo's American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester, N.Y., scored a goal in his NHL debut Oct. 2 in Detroit. He was one of only nine Sabres to play in the team's first and last games of the campaign.

Girgensons played 70 of the team's 82 games and registered eight goals, 22 points, a minus-6 rating and 14 penalty minutes. He missed an 11-game stretch late in the season with a lower-body injury.

At no point did the organization discuss sending him to Rochester.

"I think the preseason is where I felt like I belonged at this level," Girgensons said. "It's not all the top players, but I thought I played pretty well in the preseason. That showed me I can be here. And I told myself that I should keep doing everything I could to stay here."

Two of Girgensons' goals proved he belonged with the big boys. In both instances he beat standout defensemen in one-on-one situations before scoring on well-established goaltenders.

On Dec. 7, he played the puck through the legs of Montreal's P.K. Subban before beating Carey Price. Then, on April 8, he deked his way around Detroit's Niklas Kronwall before scoring on Jimmy Howard.

"Confidence is one of the main things," Girgensons said. "You have to understand that you're here for a reason. You're not here because there's something you can't do. It's just a matter of confidence and telling yourself you can do it.

"I felt confident, but I never felt too comfortable. One thing you do not want to feel in the league is comfortable. Every year is a new year, and you never know if you're going to make the cut. You have to live on the edge a little bit and have the motivation and confidence. That was tough for everybody with all the ups and downs we had this season."

Nothing built Girgensons' confidence as much as playing in the Olympics for the first time. Latvia went 0-3-3 in pool play but upset Switzerland in the qualification round to reach the quarterfinals for the first time in the country's history. Eventual champion Canada needed a late third-period goal by Shea Weber to beat Latvia, 2-1.

"We had some pretty good leadership on that team," Nolan said. "So Zemgus, being around that, being so young, I think (for) his growth, it's almost like adding another year on to his experience."

Girgensons tallied a goal and an assist in five games for Team Latvia. But, more importantly, he returned to Buffalo with extra jump in his step.

"It was an amazing experience, and it really helped my confidence because you're playing against the best people in the world there," said Girgensons, who will represent his country at the World Championships in Belarus next month. "The game against Canada was a lot of fun. I'm sure people thought we were nervous, but our guys were pretty easy minded going into the game. We were joking around, and I think that's why we played so well. Nobody was nervous."

Girgensons' NHL season ended on a couple of high notes. In addition to being selected as alternate captain for the final game, his Sabres teammates voted him as team rookie of the year.

"He's a young player that's promising, and you want to develop with that guy," forward Marcus Foligno said. "He's a young energy guy, and he can put the puck in the net. He's kind of a little wrecking ball, too. He's a key player for us."

Girgensons sees brighter days ahead for the Sabres. Granted, there's nowhere to go but up, but the rookie plans to be a part of the solution.

"It's a huge motivator for me going into the summer," Girgensons said of being named alternate captain. "I want to keep working as hard as I can this summer so I can come back next season and not let anyone down.

"We definitely have talent in our organization. It's all about putting the right pieces together and getting in the mindset of working hard. Young teams like ours usually make mistakes, but not working hard can't be one of them. That's the one thing we have to get together to improve as a team."

Special thanks to Jim Leitner and the Dubuque Telegraph Herald for contributing this story.

USHL stats - Zemgus Girgensons


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