Jussi Jokinen and the shootout go together like spaghetti and meatballs -- it's nearly impossible to think about one without the other.
The Finnish-born left wing of the Carolina Hurricanes has made a name for himself in the post-lockout NHL with his abilities in the shootout. He's converted 26-of-48 attempts (54 percent) since 2005-06, and he's made a lot of professional goaltenders look overmatched along the way.
"I'm glad he's on our side now," said Hurricanes goaltender Cam Ward, who has the honor/nightmare of facing Jokinen almost every day in practice. "It's nice to get his opinion of what he sees when he comes down on a goaltender -- what he likes and doesn't like when the goaltender moves."
But more than ever this season, Jokinen is showing his value isn't confined to the 90 feet between center ice and the crease that's been freshly resurfaced at the end of overtime.
Through 55 games, he's tied for the Hurricanes lead in goals (18) and is third in points (40). Jokinen already has eclipsed his career-high in goals (17) and is well on his way to surpassing his high-water mark in points (55), both set in 2005-06 when he was a member of the Dallas Stars.
Jokinen was acquired at the trade deadline last season from the Tampa Bay Lightning mostly for his shootout skills during the stretch run. But this season, he's earned minutes on the team's top line with Eric Staal and Ray Whitney and has 15 points (7 goals, 8 assists) in his last 12 games.
The trio seems to have found an immediate chemistry. Whitney has 2 goals and 7 assists in his last nine games. Staal has caught fire of late with 8 goals in his last 7 games, and Jokinen has assisted on half of those goals.
"He's very underrated. Jussi's one of those guys that does everything very well," Staal said. "Offensively, he can make those plays and find those areas on the ice where he's kind of one step ahead of the defenders. He's good positionally everywhere and he's a fun guy to play with because he can find those holes and make those plays."
And it's not as though Jokinen has been able to hide in the shadows and pick up his points while flying under the radar. The Hurricanes have been riddled with injuries to some key point producers this season: Staal has missed time; defensemen Joe Corvo and Joni Pitkanen have been banged up; wingers Erik Cole, Scott Walker and Tuomo Ruutu have been dealing with injuries for most the season, and even Ward sat out for more than a month after a skate blade lacerated his leg.
Even with the added responsibility, Jokinen is putting up the best numbers of his short career. How does he explain it?
"I could feel that they really wanted me here last year," Jokinen said. "The whole coaching staff is really giving me ice time and I can feel that they have lots of confidence in me and they are giving me chances and opportunities to be successful and be the player I can be.
"I think the confidence has always been the big thing for me. The last couple weeks I've been playing top line and big minutes on the power play and obviously they're letting me produce and I've been able to do that. And I hope I can keep playing the same way the rest of the year."
Playing with someone of the caliber of Staal will always help someone put up impressive numbers and build confidence, and Jokinen said skating with the Hurricanes captain reminds him of when he played with a future Hall-of-Famer during his time with the Stars.
"It's like my first two years in Dallas when I played with Mike Modano," Jokinen said of playing with Staal. "I think those two guys are actually the same type of players. They're both really fast and have a good shot and really good hockey sense. I like to play with those kind of players."
Jokinen's breakthrough 2009-10 campaign shouldn't be a surprise after his performance during last season's Stanley Cup Playoffs. He had 7 goals and 4 assists in 18 games for the Hurricanes, who might not have made it past the first round if not for Jokinen's heroics against the New Jersey Devils.
He scored with less than a second remaining in regulation in Game 4 to give the Hurricanes a 4-3 win and even the series. Then in Game 7 in New Jersey, Jokinen tied the score at 3-3 with 1:20 left in the third period and set the stage for Staal, who scored the deciding goal 48 seconds later.
"Sometimes players get with certain teams they feel more comfortable with and he was a good player in Dallas, but it didn't work out as well for him in Tampa," Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford said. "Last year, he was dealing with personal issues and that was difficult on him too. But all those things are behind him. He played well for us last year, scoring big goals in the playoffs and he's had a heck of a year for us this year.
"We picked him up knowing that he'd be a top-nine player for us, but he's actually exceeded our expectations."
Maybe this is the season that Jokinen breaks away from his reputation as shootout specialist.