At peace, Nicholls on top of game


Chicago Blackhawks center Bernie Nicholls could be the Comeback Player of the Year in the NHL. He also could wind up being the Hart Trophy winner, as the player adjudged most valuable to his team.

Certainly, his heart has been fully involved this season, which appears destined to be his best since perhaps 1988-89, when he had 70 goals and 80 assists for the Los Angeles Kings.

Today, at 33, he is leading the Blackhawks toward the top of the Western Conference.

* The Blackhawks lead the league in road winning percentage (.658), with Nicholls leading the NHL in scoring on the road with 17 goals and 13 assists for 30 points in 19 games. That is five points better than second-place road scorer Eric Lindros of the Philadelphia Flyers.

* The Blackhawks lead the NHL in power-play scoring, with 40 goals on 139 chances for a 28.8 percent success rate and are led by Nicholls, who is second in the league in power-play goals with 11. The Boston Bruins' Cam Neely (12) is first.

* The Blackhawks are third in the league with 3.9 goals per game, up from 3.0 last season, although overall the NHL is down about a goal per game. Chicago has scored 117 goals in 30 games, compared with 96 in its first 30 last season. The 21-goal difference can be laid directly on Nicholls' stick. Before last night's games, he ranked second in the league in goals with 21.

Not bad for a guy who had 19 goals in 61 games last season and a total of 13 in 69 games spread over the previous two years.

But as Nicholls said yesterday in a conference call, there were personal problems that tore at his heart, disrupting his concentration from late 1993 and well into 1995.

"I think anyone who has experienced what I have over the past couple years can relate to what I went through," said Nicholls, recalling the death of his son.

He just had been traded and was on a plane to New Jersey when his 2-month-old son was found to have spinal meningitis. The infant then suffered a stroke "when the hospital inadvertently took too much spinal fluid." The baby was hospitalized most of the next 10 months, said Nicholls, until developing pneumonia and dying five days before his first birthday in November 1994.

"For into two years, I was going through that," said Nicholls. "I've always said many times that no matter how well-conditioned you are, if you're not mentally prepared to play any game, you're obviously not going to play it very well. And for the last couple years, many times, I definitely wasn't mentally prepared to play the game. I think my game definitely got hurt from it."

Now, after signing as a free agent with Chicago last summer, he and his family have found a little peace. The future looks bright. Playing for a team that is being mentioned as a Stanley Cup contender because he once more has settled into the role of a goal scorer, Nicholls can let a smile into his voice when his name is mentioned as a Hart candidate.

"I don't know about that," he said. "I've never put myself in a category with those players. I'm obviously having a good year, and I'm excited as can be about it. But to put me in that category is pretty flattering."

Speaking of goalies

Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tom Barrasso, who had wrist surgery Jan. 20, is scheduled for a checkup April 2. If he's cleared to begin practicing, he could return by mid-April -- perhaps in time for Washington's visit there April 11 or certainly in time for the Capitals' April 22 appearance.

The Capitals' Jim Carey continues to lead the NHL in goals-against average at 1.58, but has dropped to second in save percentage. The Buffalo Sabres' Dominik Hasek has the lead, .934 to .933.

The Calgary Flames' Trevor Kidd is the NHL Player of the Week for a 3-0-0 record with one shutout and a 1.67 goals-against average.

Streak at risk

With league scoring down nearly a goal a game from last season, some achievements will be hard to repeat -- such as Brett Hull's five straight 50-goal-plus seasons.

"I may not and probably won't score 50 goals," Hull said during a recent conference call.

He blamed the streak's end on the 48-game season and the intense brand of defense being played in a season in which lTC every game seems to have playoff ramifications.

What He didn't do was blame St. Louis Blues coach/general manager Mike Keenan, who traded his playmaker, center Craig Janney, to the San Jose Sharks.

With that trade has come a new role for Hull, who is at center instead of his all-star right wing position.

"There were times in the past where I would get down on myself when I didn't score, because I felt that was my job," said Hull, who has 20 goals, 13 assists.

"Now, I go out and still try to score goals every night," he said. "But if I don't, I know that with the way Mike is playing me, and with the emphasis he's put on every aspect of the game, sometimes I might not score -- but I kill penalties and maybe make a good defensive play. . . . [Keenan] makes me feel like I've got the whole team on my shoulders, and if I want to lead them, they're going to come [with me] and if I don't, then we're not going to win. That is the greatest feeling you can have as a player."

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