Avalanche looking to Zadorov in search of more physicality vs. Sharks

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Colorado Avalanche defenceman Nikita Zadorov exhorts the crowd as he is escorted to the bench after fighting. (David Zalubowski/AP)

DENVER – Despite out-hitting the San Jose Sharks 41-20 in Game 3, the Colorado Avalanche want to be more physical.

Enter Nikita Zadorov.

The towering 24-year-old brought back old-time hockey last game with 11 hits, which is the third-highest total in an NHL playoff game over the last five years.

To put his pluckiness in perspective, a mere five hits is a big night in today’s NHL.

"Aggressive hitting – that’s my game," beamed the chatty Russian, taken 16th overall in 2013.

"I had situations with their guys having their head down all the time so I might as well go and hit them. I try to be physical on all their guys, and their skilled guys are getting frustrated, and I think it gets my teammates going. When I piss all their team off it’s my job."

After one too many blasts on Evander Kane, Michael Haley had enough and tried twice to initiate a fight with the six-foot-five, 230-pound behemoth.

Nothing doing.

"I told him, ‘You’re playing five minutes a night and I’m playing 20 – it’s an unfair trade,’" shrugged the fourth-year defenceman, who laughed off the dance offer by the five-foot-10 Haley.

"What’s the point of me challenging him? I know him. I train with him in the summer. He’s a nice dude who plays hard, but no friends on the ice, obviously. I’m having fun with it."

It’s a far more mature, calculating Zadorov than the one whose discipline was an issue early in his career when coaches went through a spell benching him.

Playing on a blue line with five other highly skilled playmakers, he’s now well-versed in his role, which includes being the team’s nuclear deterrent as well as playing meaningful minutes as a significant piece alongside Tyson Barrie.

"My role is everything – a hybrid between being physical when you can and also having to make plays when you can in the offensive zone and create chances," said Zadorov, whose Avalanche heads into Game 4 Thursday down 2-1 in the series.

"Some games I play against top lines like I did against San Jose the last two games. Sometimes I have to stay physical on my enemies like (Matthew) Tkachuk in Calgary and their top group and make sure they don’t get physical or a jump. Sometimes I have to be part of the offence with Tyson because I go on the ice with (Nathan MacKinnon’s) line a lot and I cannot just forget about the puck and go hit people."

Clearly not just a knucklehead.

Zadorov led the league in hits last year and sits fourth amongst playoff foes with 42 wallops in eight outings. An expert on the NHL’s hit parade, he was well aware of where his playoff-high 11 hits sat historically.

"It’s not a team playoff record," said Zadorov, who was acquired from Buffalo in the six-player swap that included Ryan O’Reilly.

"Adam Foote had 13 and Darius Kasparaitis had (12)."

Only Austin Watson (14) has thrown more hits in a playoff game this year. In today’s sanitized NHL, it’s becoming a bit of a lost art.

Not on Zadorov’s watch.

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NUMBERS GAME

It has been more than a decade since Joe Sakic played for the Avalanche, but his presence is still felt in the team’s Pepsi Center dressing room.

Not just because he’s the GM, but because he still has a corner stall between Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog.

Upon retirement, the team announced that the stall of the longtime captain would remain untouched. For several years his equipment remained in it and it was covered by plexiglass.

When he became GM of the club a handful of years ago, they removed his equipment and the plexiglas, leaving his nameplate and No. 19 atop the stall where it remains.

At the Avalanche’s home rink and practice facility, Sakic’s nameplate and number join several others in the stalls in which they once sat.

Players whose numbers are retired by the club, or who have been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, are all honoured, including Milan Hejduk (23), Rob Blake (4), Ray Bourque (77), Adam Foote (52), Patrick Roy (33), Peter Forsberg (21) and Dave Andreychuk (38).

PAVELSKI SKATING

Joe Pavelski skated Wednesday in San Jose for the first time since his head injury in Game 7 against Vegas.

"He was Facetiming us after the (Game 3), so he’s feeling better," said Sharks coach Pete DeBoer.

"I think we’re all excited about the progress he’s making, so I wouldn’t say he’s not going to be available (in this series)."

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