Sean Bergenheim has quickly emerged in these 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs as an offensive threat. In fact, he's been more than just that.
He's been the hero for the Tampa Bay Lightning, scoring what seems like every big goal in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Washington Capitals, which wrapped up on Wednesday night in a dramatic sweep. He's tied for the league-lead in playoff points. Sean freakin' Bergenheim.
Yes, for the first time in his NHL career, Bergenheim is living up to the hype that surrounded him as a first-round draft choice. But it wasn't always this easy for him. In fact, until about three weeks ago, Bergenheim was still just a nice option for teams that needed a responsible third-line cog in their lineup.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with that, but as a first-round pick, you know that he's always had higher expectations for himself.
Four years ago, Sean Bergenheim was playing in Europe, and no, it's not because he missed the mother land or anything like that. He's of Finnish origin, and he played the 2006-07 season in both Russia and Sweden, mostly because he just couldn't seem to stick in the New York Islanders organization.
Trip after trip on the ferry across Long Island Sound to the AHL in Bridgeport, Conn. were wearing on Bergenheim, and as a free agent in the summer of 2006, Bergenheim found his way out of a North American job and over to Europe at the ripe old age of.... 22.
He played nine games in Russia before transferring to Vastra Frolunda in the Swedish league, and in 36 games there he put up 33 points. Not too shabby. It was enough for the Islanders to take him back a year later, and for three years thereafter, he was a solid spoke in the otherwise ugly wheel that the Isles have been spinning over the last decade.
Bergenheim became one of those middling players that the Islanders were so known for during that period, and to an extent are still known for today. Lots of decent young guys and strong third liners, you know? He didn't have the best of relationships with then-head coach Scott Gordon, and after some injury woes and a nice settling into that third-line, score-every-once-in-a-while, two-way forward mold, the Islanders failed to give him a qualifying offer in the summer of 2010.
After signing with the Tampa Bay Lightning a few months later, Steve Yzerman cited his two-way play and his competitive nature as reasons why he made the signing. It took until mid-August for him to sign, too, a full month and a half after the beginning of the free agency period. It's not like NHL general managers were driving by the sexy Bergenheim and honking their horns at him or anything.
He had come a long way since the 2002 Entry Draft, when the Islanders selected him with the 22nd overall pick that year.
Hard-worker, fairly speedy, decent hands but a frustrating inability to finish -- at least as compared to how his hands would make you think he could finish. Generally does put up points when put with talented linemates (if only by working the corners to get the puck/create space for talented linemates). He's the type who every once in a while will surprise you with his skill or a sudden sniper shot.
Has the tenacity for good penalty killing, which is how he was often used. Was inconsistent through his time with the Islanders, but there is some argument that that was due to being shifted around constantly from line to line. Definitely all the tools to be a solid checker with scoring punch, but it's a question whether he can put all that together consistently.
If only he could finish. "Talented linemates" is something that doesn't come easily with the Islanders, but in Tampa Bay? Lecavalier, Stamkos, Gagne, St. Louis. Okay, so Bergenheim wouldn't be a top-six forward on the Lightning, but Downie, Moore, etc. Yes, talented linemates. I like where this is going.
Bergenheim did indeed play on the Bolts third-line for most of the season alongside Steve Downie and Dominic Moore in that same two-way role. He still gets ample PK time, and as the season wore on, he didn't really do much to escape the role he had been typecast into during his time on the Island.
14 goals, 15 assists, solid defensively, strong on the penalty kill. Great, and with a one-year deal, another year of awkward offseason waiting while the league's GM's walk by to the sexier options.
Oh, but then the playoffs arrived, that cage-door opened, and Bergenheim ran out like a puppy that had to pee really, really badly. Seven goals, including two in Wednesday night's Game 4 clincher over the hated Capitals. Suddenly, the offensive pop is there. Suddenly, the finish that Isles fans wished he would always have is there.
Suddenly, he looks just like that 22nd overall pick.
"I don't know what it is. It's something that's been there my whole career," Bergenheim told the St. Pete Times. "Ever since I was in juniors, usually in playoffs I played very well. I don't have an answer, but I'm definitely a better player when it's a tight game than an 8-1 game. I personally enjoy these games so much too."
And maybe that's just it. In his eight years of professional hockey before this current season, Bergenheim had played just 14 postseason games, all in the American Hockey League. Now, in his first NHL postseason, he's become a threat. A star, even.
There were never any big games to be played during his time with the Islanders. Frankly, it didn't seem like hockey was much fun for him while he was in New York. Lots of one-way ferry tickets to the AHL, contract issues with his general manager, apparent feelings of disrespect from his head coach. Injuries. A horrible team. The list goes on.
Now, he has everything he could want. Steady linemates, a clear role, respect from his coach, a new-found finishing ability. And hey, coincidence, he's become a postseason hero for the cinderella Tampa Bay Lightning, who are headed to the Eastern Conference Finals.