In football lexicon, “three yards and a cloud of dust” is another way of describing a tough, plodding offensive strategy: literally taken, it means the offensive and defensive lines are on a collision course, and whoever can exert their strength over the other side has won the battle.
That phrase can be taken alternately in the new NHL, and particularly with a player who has as much speed as Viktor Stalberg: given enough room, maybe a yard or three of open ice, the cloud of dust is not in front of the speedy winger, but behind him, and he is – with any luck – on his way to a breakaway goal. He's done so on numerous occasions this year.
Fans who caught glimpses of the 26-year-old Swede’s speed last season have no doubt seen him grow during the 2011-12 campaign. In 79 games this year with the Blackhawks, Stalberg has recorded career highs in goals (21) and assists (21), and he has nearly doubled his career high in points (43 this season versus 24 last year) on his way to being one of the Blackhawks’ biggest breakout players.
Those numbers are no small feat, considering each and every point was collected at even-strength, as Stalberg was not added to the power play unit until very late in the season. This season, Stalberg was the only NHL player to score more than 30 points without one coming on special teams, and the first player in Blackhawks history to score more than 20 goals in similar fashion.
The improvements are evident on the scoresheet, and Stalberg says he can feel how his play has progressed on the ice as well.
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“I think I’m more complete,” he says. “I think I’m playing better in our own end to start off and I’m getting more offense due to it. If you pick up some pucks or intercept a couple of passes in our end, pretty quickly guys are able to get up ice and to get some odd-man breaks, which really helps out.”
Play-making aside, Stalberg also says that he feels the confidence coming from the bench, as well. While in the 2010-11 season Stalberg saw less playing time and was often pulled from action during situations where Head Coach Joel Quenneville shortened the bench late in games, this season he believes that he has earned more trust from the coaching staff.
“I’m in the position where I’m allowed to make more plays, which is different [than last year]. You’re not feeling that pressure every time you make a mistake and worried that you’re not going to see the next shift. It’s nice to get that confidence from the coaches and it seems like I’ve been progressing due to it.”
That confidence has been rewarded, especially as the Blackhawks made their late-season push into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Teamed with center Marcus Kruger and winger Patrick Sharp, the Blackhawks’ second line was electric in March and April, and Stalberg himself recorded 6 goals and 5 assists in the team’s final 13 games of the regular season. The team went 8-1-4 in those contests, despite missing significant time from top-line center Jonathan Toews and star defenseman Duncan Keith.
“We’ve been playing great the last twelve games or so that we’ve been together,” says Stalberg. “To be honest, it seems like we’re getting a good scoring chance every shift we’re out there, which is something I’ve never had before. It’s been great. Sharpie is obviously a proven player in this league and one of our top guys, so he’s been great. Kruger has been doing a lot of work, very quietly. He’s working hard and making those simple plays for us too. He deserves to get some more of the credit. He’s been playing great, as well.”
What his linemates notice most, however, is not how many points Stalberg has recorded, but how he’s gotten them. Always known for his speed, Stalberg has now harnessed that ability and is using his quickness and agility to create scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates. It’s not unusual to see Stalberg in a footrace with an opponent one moment, then to see him two strides ahead the next.
“He’s just as fast as he was last year, but it seems this time he can hang on to that puck and skate at that speed now,” remarks linemate Sharp. “He challenges defensemen on every shift. With loose pucks in the offensive zone and even in the neutral zone, he’s able to get there first and do something with it. He’s a big reason why our line is having success we’ve had.”
“I think a big part is you kind of know where to use the speed,” Stalberg adds. “When you get more comfortable, you feel more confidence with the puck. If you can have the puck a little closer to your body, sometimes and you can trick an opponent a little bit if you can just get that first step around him.”
Most importantly, he’s handling the pucks responsibly, and Quenneville can trust that he will take care of the puck even when he uses that extra gear.
“He’s better as far as puck protection over the course of the season,” Coach Q says. “I think defensively he’s become more reliable and more aware. He’s become a better player and I think offensively and defensively you can see it in his game.”
Now poised for his second playoff run with the Blackhawks, Stalberg says that last year’s postseason series against Vancouver was a big stepping-off point for him, and he hopes to use that experience in the upcoming series against the Phoenix Coyotes.
“Last year was a good test, you get to see what it’s like,” he says. “That series was a tougher one to play, too. It was fun and I’m sure we’ll be more comfortable going into this situation this year. I feel like I’m playing my best hockey right now which is encouraging heading into the playoffs.”
Sharp says that the winger has only begun to tap his deep well of potential.
“I think this is just the beginning,” he says. “I think the best is yet to come. He’s got top speed, and it seems this year he’s gained that confidence to hang on to the puck and to go to the gritty areas. It seems our line with Kruger has developed a little bit of chemistry and we’re playing well. But Stalberg is a huge part of that.”
If his performance holds true to what we’ve seen in the regular season, no. 25 in red could be a determining factor in the series against Phoenix and beyond.