COLUMBUS -- Maybe it's just one of those happenstance statistical anomalies that happen every so often in professional sports.
Maybe that's the best way to explain why Viktor Stalberg seems to have the Columbus Blue Jackets' number every time he plays them. Stalberg's remarkable run of success against the Jackets this season includes eight of his 18 goals and four straight game-winners among the Chicago Blackhawks' five wins in the season series.
Stalberg now has a chance to extend his game-winning goal streak against Columbus to five straight on Tuesday night, when the Hawks go for the sweep of the season series at Nationwide Arena. Columbus overall has been one of the worst teams in the League pretty much all season, but Stalberg doesn't necessarily think that plays much into his hot hand against the Jackets.
"They're one of the bottom teams, but if you look around, some guys have different teams that they score against more than others and Columbus seems to be one of those teams for me," he said after Tuesday's morning skate. "It's fun playing them. It's usually a pretty fast-paced game and it fits me. It seems like I get a little more confidence when we play these guys, since I've scored a lot against them."
The Blue Jackets, on the other hand, might get the opposite effect when facing Stalberg and the talent-laden Hawks. They're well aware of what the speedy 26-year Swedish forward has done to them, but also know they can't just focus on him with the likes of star forwards Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and a nightmarish two-way third line capable of scoring, too.
"The problem is if you focus on one guy, there's usually somebody else there that will burn you," Columbus coach Todd Richards said. "It's a credit to their team and how they've been able to build this thing. You can't focus on [Stalberg]. I think all the players in the room know what he's done to us this year and there has to be a focus of when he's out on the ice, but you've got to know where Sharp is, you've got to know where Kane is, you've got to know where Hossa is, you've got to know where [Andrew Brunette] is ... they've got lots of weapons over on the other side."
Still, that one guy who's burned them the most has been pretty impressive in his previous five tilts against Columbus. Richards not only took notice, but has started to see Stalberg -- and all that speed -- a little differently this season.
"At times, it's depressing watching him play against us," Richards said. "What's impressive to me is just how he moves up and down the ice. To me, it's really opened my eyes to what kind of player he can be."
Stalberg feels like he's improved, too. It's not just the fact his goals total is nearing the coveted 20 mark either.
"I think I've played a lot more consistent," he said. "Even if I haven't scored, I think I've been a lot more effective in all zones and I'm getting a lot more starch in our own end and little things like that."
Learning when to put on the afterburners and when to lay off is an ongoing process, as well.
"That's something you learn to use more and more," said Stalberg, whose overpowering speed and skating are becoming widely known across the League now. "It's still something I'm learning. I think I'm getting better at using it, slowing down and then accelerating a little better than I have in the past -- instead of just going full speed the whole way. [There's] maybe more confidence [about] when to use it and when not to."
This past Sunday in a 5-2 win against the Washington Capitals was a great example. Stalberg spotted a loose puck in the right circle of the Washington zone and went hard after it despite being several strides behind Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov -- a good skater.
Stalberg reeled him and passed him to scoop the puck and break sharply toward the goal, where he then deked goalie Michal Neuvirth and tucked the puck between the pad and far post for his 18th goal of the season.
"He's got a lot of speed and a lot of guys didn't realize that ... how fast he was," Blue Jackets defenseman Aaron Johnson told NHL.com. "Once he gets that breakaway speed, he's a tough guy to catch. I wouldn't be surprised if he is the fastest guy [in the League]. As soon as he makes that big turn and goes to the middle, it's not fun as a defenseman, that's for sure."
As for Stalberg's goals being the game-deciders in four straight?
"That's quite a stat to have," Johnson said. "Obviously it's a guy we've got to key on and hopefully keep off the scoresheet tonight."