By Bob Crawford
The Hartford Wolf Pack certainly didn’t coddle Swedish centerman Oscar Lindberg in his first North American pro hockey experience.
The 22-year-old Lindberg was installed as the Wolf Pack’s number-one pivot from the first drop of the puck this season, and the Pack coaching staff continued to count on him in that spot throughout the club’s first-half struggles.
Lindberg, who came to the AHL this year with 178 games of experience in Sweden’s top league over four seasons certainly did not wilt under the responsibility of that assignment. He displayed a strong and consistent work ethic, and showed flashes of explosiveness offensively, scoring seven goals and adding ten assists for 17 points in the season’s first 35 games.
Since mid-January, however, when the Ranger organization acquired veteran center T.J. Hensick off of AHL waivers and top-drawer prospect J.T. Miller, also a centerman, returned from a stint in the NHL, Lindberg’s offensive production has taken off. Starting January 12, Lindberg reeled off a run in which he had at least a point in eight out of ten games, totaling six goals and seven assists for 13 points, including a five-game point-scoring streak that featured five goals and nine points.
According to Wolf Pack head coach Ken Gernander, the Wolf Pack’s newfound depth in the middle was a key to Lindberg’s unlocking his offensive potential.
“It’s a pretty important position, and for a large part of the season he was our really only one bona fide center,” Gernander said this week. “And now that we have three, you can spread the workload around a little bit, it doesn’t enable the opposition to check his line on such a regular basis. And with a couple of extra players, we now have a full complement of lines we’re comfortable with, and everybody can kind of complement one another.”
“I think we’ve got four good centers,” Lindberg said, “but two top guys who can produce take a little pressure from me. It’s nice to get some guys to produce, not just have the pressure on me to do it.”
Being able to get into a rhythm with a steady set of linemates is something that Lindberg identified as making life easier for him.
“I think we play with more consistency with the lines, having the same lines for a couple of weeks,” he said. “And I feel more and more comfortable too. It’s just been happening, and I’m trying not to think about it too much.”
Lindberg’s improved offensive stats have largely coincided with his being put on a line with veteran banger Micheal Haley as his left-winger. Kyle Beach occupied the right side on that line for several games, giving Lindberg a strong physical presence on both wings, and Danny Kristo slid into that spot in the Wolf Pack’s last game. That was a 4-1 home win over Adirondack on Tuesday, in which the Haley-Lindberg-Kristo created two first-period goals.
“I think he’s intuitive enough to read off them,” Gernander said of Lindberg and his recent linemates. “They create turnovers, can make space for him to make plays in behind them, those types of things. And it just seems to complement his game.
“Danny’s an offensive player, and Lindberg’s a little bit of each (offensive and defensive), but if he can get some guys who think along the same lines, and he can maybe play some give-and-go hockey with, it should help his overall game.”
For Lindberg’s part, it’s not so much whom he is on the ice with, but rather being together long enough to get used to each other.
“I think as long as we keep the lines and not change too much, it’s easy to find chemistry,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who you play with, as long as you’ve got some consistency. And I think I’ve been doing that lately, and we’ve been getting a lot of wins too, so that’s been nice.
“Haley, he’s an aggressive guy who wins a lot of battles in the corners, and now playing with Kristo, he’s a playmaker. So I think we complete each other in a good way.”
Lindberg enters the weekend only one point behind Kristo for the team leadership in points, with Lindberg having 13-17-30 in 45 games and Kristo 17-14-31 in 42 outings. Clearly Lindberg’s confidence is on a high, and it seems likely that the tougher times earlier in the year made him grow and mature as a player.
“I think the experience was good for him,” Gernander said. “I think he now has a good understanding of how competitive the American Hockey League is, how hard you’re going to have to work to create your offense and to get your opportunities. It was a little bit of trial by fire for him, but I think the overall experience will help expedite his career.”
It may be, too, that the full adjustment from the bigger rinks of European hockey, and the different style of play in Sweden, took half of an AHL season to complete.
“The ice surface is a lot different,” Lindberg said. “It’s more stop-and-start (in North America), not just swinging around, and not a lot of dumping (the puck) and stuff like that. But I’m learning, and I think it’s been better the last couple of weeks, for sure.”
That better stretch for Lindberg has mirrored the Wolf Pack’s improvement as a team, and it is quite likely that the young Swede’s play will be a key indicator of how far the Pack can climb before the AHL season draws to a close.
photo credit: chris rutsch