Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Former UNH Star Stevie Moses Ties KHL Goal-Scoring Record

KHL Star Stevie Moses

In the three years since he hung up the #22 UNH jersey, Stevie Moses has become a professional hockey star. This season, he and Jokerit, the top Finnish professional team based in Helsinki, moved up to the Kontinental Hockey League - the second best professional hockey league in the world after the National Hockey League. The KHL was formed in the 2008-09 season and includes 22 teams from Russian cities such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Sochi plus teams from Finland, Latvia, Belarus, Croatia, Slovakia, and Kazakhstan. Current NHL stars such as Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin formerly played in the KHL and former NHL stars such as Ilya Kovalchuk currently play in the KHL.

Stevie Moses signed with Jokerit (English translation: Jokers or Jesters) in the season after he left UNH and is in his third season with the Helsinki squad. Last Friday, Moses became only the fifth player in KHL history to score 35 goals in a single season. Jokerit flew 1800 miles to Omsk, Russia, located in southwestern Siberia, to play the Avangard team. Less than a minute into the third period, with Jokerit trailing by two goals, Moses scored his first goal of the game and the 34th goal of the season. As the video highlight shows, Jokerit held a two-man advantage and Moses (#12 in the white jersey) one-timed a slap shot from the top of the faceoff circle to the right of the Avangard goalie. The puck sailed into the top corner of the net over the goalie's shoulder. With less than 4 minutes remaining in regulation and Avangard ahead 4-2, Moses sniped another one-timer from a similar spot on the ice. This time, the puck hit the underside of the crossbar and ricocheted in. Steve Moses had tied the KHL single-season record for most goals.

Prior to joining the Kontinental Hockey League, Jokerit was part of the top Finnish professional league known as Liiga. During the 2012-13 season, Moses' first as a professional, numerous NHL players played in Liiga due to the NHL lockout. As a rookie pro in Liiga, Moses posted 22 goals and 16 assists in 55 regular season games for Jokerit, lead the team in goal scoring, and tied for 4th in goal scoring in the league. Last season, Moses played in 13 fewer regular season games for Jokerit but still scored 12 goals and 11 assists. He was the team's third leading goal scorer.

Stevie Moses' improved goal scoring has been remarkable. Not only has he increased his best yearly output by 13 goals, he has done so playing against tougher competition. The difference between the KHL and Liiga is comparable to the NHL and AHL.

One week before Stevie tied the KHL goal-scoring record, I had an opportunity to interview him via Facetime.** He had just completed a game against the KHL team from Bratislava, Slovakia in front of over 12,000 fans at the Hartwall Arena in Helsinki. Stevie had scored the 3rd goal in the Jokerit's 4-0 victory. It was his 33rd goal of the season - just two shy of the record.

We discussed a range of topics including the differences between NCAA and professional hockey, his on-ice and off-ice experiences playing for Jokerit initially in the Finnish League and then the KHL, and his future plans. I was particularly interested in hearing Stevie's perspective on the improvement in his goal scoring as a professional hockey player. What follows are some excerpts from the interview.

Mike Lowry:
Congratulations on your outstanding season with Jokerit of Helsinki, Finland. In this historic, inaugural season in the Kontinental Hockey League, you are the league's leading goal scorer with 33 goals and 20 assists in 51 games. Your first two pro seasons with Jokerit, as members of the Finnish Liiga, you potted 24 and 13 (regular season plus playoffs). What factors have lead to your increased goal scoring in an arguably more challenging league?

Stevie Moses:
"First of all, I don't think there's any argument that the KHL is the second best league in the world. There are plenty of players in Russia who could go to the NHL and make 6, 7 or 800,000 dollars a year that are making 3 to 4 million in the KHL instead. The level of play in the KHL is really high. Of course, the parity is not the same as in the NHL because the money isn't the same throughout the league. The best teams in the KHL can get the best players."

"My team, Jokerit, came into the KHL this year with a substantially smaller budget than the established teams and I think they did an incredible job building the team. We have 12 players on our team that are regulars on the Finnish National Team that compete in the World Championships and the Olympics."

"Those guys choose to play for Jokerit for many different reasons but essentially a lot of them have made more money either in the NHL or in the KHL on some of the Russian teams and they feel they can take a little bit of a pay cut to come back and play and live in Helsinki, a beautiful city. They feel comfortable living here as opposed to making more money in a Russian market and feeling less comfortable."

"Jari Kurri, our General Manager - a legendary player in the NHL who played many years with Wayne Gretzky - did an awesome job building this team. I play with some really, really good players. Linus Omark has been my linemate all season. He played in the NHL for a couple of seasons with Edmonton and most recently Buffalo. He's a little bit of a small guy, one of the most skilled players I've ever seen with the puck - a really great passer."

"Like I've said all season, I have to give a lot of credit to my linemates. Linus and I play with Peter Koukal, a player from the Czech Republic who plays for their National Team in the World Championships. Those two guys that I play with are awesome players."

"On a personal level, I've matured. Playing over here the last few years has really helped me become a pro in the sense that it's not about being good one out of every 3 games. It's about being good every game. Even on the bad nights, it's playing at 75% of your max rather than 30%. I think I've improved mentally and being mentally prepared every game. I realize I have a big opportunity here and so it's important to perform as close to my max as possible every shift in every game."

Mike Lowry:
You were one of the most electrifying UNH Wildcats to ever play at the Whittemore Center and generated an extraordinary number of shots on goal. One of your trademarks was what could be called the "unassisted shot on goal". That's when you would either steal or gather the puck, carry it through the three zones, or within the offensive zone, and fire a shot on goal without an opponent, or another teammate, touching the puck. Is this still an important part of your arsenal? Has it been more difficult to single-handedly generate offense at the professional level?

NOTE TO READER: As this video highlight shows, Moses is still perfectly capable of generating offense on his own:

Stevie Moses:
"I think that was a strength, obviously, in college. I could skate and handle the puck higher than most guys at that level. I was able to do a lot of stuff on my own. Obviously, as you go up and play at higher levels like in the Finnish League, for example, I had to adapt a little bit at times, for sure. I think I've developed a lot, become a better hockey player and learning how to use my teammates better."

"For the fans and people watching the games it was fun to watch me try to do a lot of stuff on my own. It wasn't a selfish thing like I wanted to do it on my own but maybe I didn't see the guys as well as I do now."

"I was lucky enough, my first season here. When I came over here, it was during the NHL lockout and I was playing on the power play right away and my first power play was with Erik Karlsson (Currently the Captain of the Ottawa Senators). I was playing on the point with Karlsson as my partner. He's arguably the best offensive defenseman in the world. And we had Valtteri Filppula, one of the top Finnish players who played for the Detroit Red Wings (currently with the Tampa Bay Lightning) and his brother Ilari Filppula."

"I was lucky to play with some older guys and I really needed to move the puck with those guys because they were world class players. I think that helped me a lot to see that sometimes it's better to get open without the puck and try to find some open space without the puck. Sometimes when you have the puck, everyone's coming toward you and you learn how to move it."

"I think I've taken another step this season playing with some of the guys we have on the team now. We really try to move the puck as much as we can and try to create offense that way."

"The number of shots on goal is still an important part of my game. As I've been touring a lot this season, the media here is just crazy. It's like every game they ask 'how many more goals until you beat the record?'- the single season goal record. The record's 35, I have 33 so I'm getting close. What I always tell them is, as a goal scorer or a guy that's expected to score, I try to focus more on the chances that I get in a game and the opportunities I get. I focus on the number of shots on net to evaluate my performance as opposed to whether or not I scored."

"It's easy to get frustrated when you go 4 or 5 games without a goal if that's all you're focused on. But, I've been coaching myself to thinking - as long as I'm getting my chances and shots on net, the goals will come. The way you do it is to get the puck to the net whether it's shots, tips, getting chances. I still try to get 3, 4, 5, 6 shots a game. That's something I learned in college and Scotty Borek and Dick Umile really helped me with that. They helped me realize you don't always have to have the perfect shot, you just get the chances and eventually they'll go in."

Mike Lowry:
Do you have a go-to shot or a go-to area of the ice where you feel the most confident that you're going to score?

Stevie Moses:
"That's a good question. I don't think so. It goes through stretches like right now our power play seems to be working well. I've score 3 or 4 in the last few games on the power play on one-timers from really nice passes from Omark. That seems to be working right now but it will stop eventually. So we'll have to figure it out and adapt."

"Earlier in the season we were scoring a lot more on rushes whether it's 3-on-2's or 2-on-1's but now that's gotten a little bit tougher for us. Guys who score goals at this level have the kind of mindset where you've just got to figure out what's working at the time. When it doesn't, you have to adapt and try something different."

Stevie Moses and Jokerit have 5 games remaining in the KHL regular season. All of them are away games. Moses next opportunity to break the single-season goal-scoring record is this Sunday in St. Petersburg, Russia against SKA.

In the next installment of this series of articles on Stevie Moses, we'll cover his plans for next season. His current contract with Jokerit is over at the end of this season. Moses is weighing his options including signing with a NHL team or going to one of the premiere Russian teams in the KHL. He also discusses what it takes for a relatively smaller player to succeed in the NHL.

** Special thanks to long-time UNH hockey fan Tina Thibodeau for helping to coordinate my interview with Stevie Moses.


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