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Penguins Consistency missing from Wilson's game

Sunday, October 14, 2001

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Mike Wilson is 6 feet 6, 229 pounds. Big enough, practically, to be two men.

Which, in some ways, is pretty much what he has been during his first five-plus years in the NHL.


WHEN: 2:08 p.m. today


TV: Fox Sports Net

Lemieux to play today in Buffalo

Penguins Report: 10/14/01

Inside the NHL
Biron not buckling under burden of replacing a legend

Eastern Conference Notebook
Wilson: No more Penguins

Western Conference Notebook
Shanahan gives dives low score

NHL Q & A: Michael Peca

NHL: By the numbers

Forge hold on for 6-5 win


One is the Mike Wilson who was so ineffective -- and, his many critics said, so soft -- that Florida's front office made no effort to retain him when his contract expired after last season. Did everything but offer to help Wilson pack and drive him to the airport.

The other is the Mike Wilson who crushed New York Islanders center Michael Peca, his pal and former teammate, with a ferocious check last Wednesday, an hour or so after he dropped New York tough guy Steve Webb with a punch that would have knocked out a Brahma bull.

The Mike Wilson who Penguins assistant coach Randy Hillier believes has the potential to be a major force on their blue line.

"If [Wilson] uses his body, he can be very effective for us," Hillier said. "He's a big guy, and when he hits, people feel it."

Opposing players have felt it -- a lot -- in two of the Penguins' first three games. He recorded a team-high nine hits during their season-opening loss to Colorado, and had Avalanche forwards looking over their shoulders as the game progressed. And his open-ice hit on Peca in Game 3 will be a staple of highlights tapes for months to come.

The catch is, Wilson was a non-factor in the game sandwiched by those two. Heck, if he hadn't changed his sweater number between the Colorado game and one against Anaheim three nights later, he might have gone totally unnoticed against the Mighty Ducks.

The enigma that is Wilson, then, has been neatly encapsulated by the early weeks of his Penguins career. Some nights, he is near-invincible. Others, near-invisible.

And no one is more keenly aware of that maddening inconsistency than Wilson.

"The first and third games, I played physical," he said. "The second game, I didn't play as physical as I should have. I have to do that every night."

He certainly didn't do it with the Panthers. With his pterodactyl wingspan, Wilson routinely gave in to the temptation to break up plays with his stick instead of neutralizing opponents physically.

"I get in the habit of stick-checking a lot, using my reach," he said. "Sometimes, it's an advantage, but sometimes I depend on it too much. I have to figure out when to use my reach and when to use my body."

That doesn't mean he always has to use his body the way he did on the Peca hit. Oh, those collisions are eye-catching, but a defenseman can be effective simply by using his body to keep an opponent out of the play.

"As long as I'm getting in front of guys, I don't have to kill them," Wilson said. "If I angle them and take them to the boards -- keep them out of the play -- that's what I need to do."

Hillier acknowledged that he might have to prod Wilson to keep the physical edge on his game -- "I think it's going to be an ongoing thing," he said -- but seems convinced that the effort will be worth it.

"A guy with that size and the ability that he has, if he's consistent, he could be extremely effective," Hillier said.

What impact his surroundings have on Wilson's play isn't known, but should become evident when the Penguins face Buffalo today at 2:08 p.m. at HSBC Arena. Wilson broke into the NHL with the Sabres during the 1995-96 season and still has friends, like defenseman Jay McKee, from his time on the Niagara Frontier.

He even has fond words for his old employer and a Chamber of Commerce perspective on life in western New York.

"The organization gave me a chance to come in and play my first [pro] year," he said. "Maybe some other place, I would have gotten buried in the minors or something. It's a great place to live. I think it's a pretty underrated place."

His memories of Florida, especially the ones from last season, presumably aren't as pleasant. Wilson got a dislocated shoulder last Oct. 22 and, when he returned 61 games later, the Panthers had a new coach, Duane Sutter, and a defense corps that didn't really have a spot for him.

"[Sutter] was there for, like, two months before I came back, and he kind of had his guys that he got comfortable with," Wilson said. "And when I came back, I didn't play well."

The Panthers soured on him, but that sentiment wasn't universal. Wilson said nine teams contacted his agent after he went on the open market and several -- Toronto and Carolina among them -- offered contracts.

He opted to sign with the Penguins, and could be a pivotal figure on their blue line this winter. He has worked alongside Andrew Ference so far and, while the pairings are subject to change, Hillier feels Wilson and Ference have complementary qualities.

"Initially, what I liked about it was that [Wilson] is big -- he's got size, he's physical -- and Andy is obviously smaller, can get to the puck quicker," Hillier said.

At least one statistic suggests that splitting up Wilson and Ference is an idea worth considering -- Ference is tied with Stephane Richer for the team's worst plus-minus rating, minus-4 -- but Ference believes they can bring out the best in each other.

"We're getting better," he said. "We're starting to communicate a little better and read off each other a little better. We're complementing what the other guy has.

"You've got a guy who's going to put a guy like Peca out of a game -- just step up and throw guys around in a corner and move guys out in front of the net and be solid -- then you have me running all over the ice, doing my thing, jumping up on the play and skating all over the place and hitting guys and being feisty.

"Other team's forwards, they look at our pairing and can't really exploit either one of us."

Not every night, anyway.

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