SUN Hockey Pool

Oilers' shift disturber

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:06 AM ET

NASHVILLE -- The face is straight out of Slap Shot, the off-ice disposition is straight out of Bible camp and the style can best be described as half woodpecker, half battering ram.

Loved in Edmonton's dressing room, hated in 29 others, a player some critics laughed at and tied to the whipping post when the season began has become the inspirational leader in the club's last-ditch push for the playoffs.

Playing every shift like it's his last one, Zack Stortini has become the Oilers' personal defibrillator.

Any time the team is about to flatline, the coach sends his human crash cart over the boards and Stortini jolts everyone back to life.

"He's playing incredibly well, that whole line is," said Craig MacTavish, who's crafted the 22-year-old into one of the best agitators in the game.

"He's just a force every time he's on the ice. Every shift is an opportunity to prove to his teammates how much this means to him."

A lot of the edge the Oilers are playing with now can be traced to Stortini setting the tone.

In Vancouver, he was out there challenging the Canucks during the pre-game warmup. He followed it up with six hits, a fight, an assist, a plus-one rating, and three shots on goal in 12 minutes of ice time.

"His main goal is to try to get someone off his game, spark the team somehow, and he's great at it," said linemate Kyle Brodziak.

"Whether it's the big hit or getting under someone's skin, he loves doing it."

On 82 nights a year, he could give Esa Tikkanen a headache. The rest of the time he's so kind and considerate it's enough to make Ned Flanders gag.

When the flight crew asks him which meal he'd like on the plane, he'll actually say, "Whatever the other guys don't want."

'Nicest guy'

"He's the nicest guy in the world, but as soon as he steps on the ice there's like a switch that goes off and he becomes a totally different person," said Brodziak.

"I remember when I played with him in Iowa two years ago. He was so calm. Totally polite. Wouldn't hurt anyone.

"Then he got traded and we had to play against him. I was like 'Holy cow!... Who is this guy?' "

Of course, you can't ask Stortini about any of this because the quotes are so bad he makes Jay Bouwmeester sound like Barack Obama.

He is a very sharp person, you can tell by the way he climbs into opponent's heads in a matter of seconds, but he absolutely will not say anything even remotely controversial off the ice.

So the answer to virtually every question is that he wants to do whatever he can to help the team.

So how did he become such a shift disturber?

"When I'm out there, I want to do whatever I can do to help the team win," he said.

See? Fortunately, his teammates are quick to sing his praises -- although they still haven't figured out the Jekyll-Hyde thing.

"Maybe it's a gasket or something," said Mathieu Roy, who goes back to the minors with Stortini.

"Maybe when he puts on his helmet a couple of wires touch each other or something, because off the ice he's a really nice guy. On the ice, he's nuts."

"He's an intelligent guy and he turns it on when he has to," said Matt Greene.

"That's what makes him so effective. He knows what he's doing out there. If you look at him from the outside you'd think he was this wildman, chomping at the bit all the time.

"But he's actually a pretty intelligent guy. All his moves are calculated to the reaction he wants to get out of players."

"He talks a lot and he plays hard. He doesn't do the ugly stuff, but he plays tough," said roommate Robert Nilsson.

Whatever it takes

"And he fights back if they want to fight. There's nothing they can do to make him scared, or stop. And he really will do whatever it takes to, you know, help the team win.

"He gives a lot of abuse, but those guys take the most, too," said Greene.

"They're always targets. And you know he's not going to get any calls going his way. He's getting sticked, crosschecked, hit from behind.

" A lot of things go uncalled against him because of the reputation that he has.

"But he keeps going. He's a big spark for us. Guys like what he brings."


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