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A Beast in the Middle

Lindholm, now a viable center for the Canes, was dominant in Chicago

by Michael Smith @MSmithCanes / CarolinaHurricanes.com

It was just the Carolina Hurricanes' second shift of the game in Chicago on Thursday night. They had won the first shift, with J-F Berube forced to make saves on both Brett Pesce and Jordan Staal in the game's first minute.

The Canes would roll a change not too long after, and Elias Lindholm's line hopped over the boards. Chicago was hacking and whacking at the puck trying to force it through the neutral zone, and the Canes pounced. Brock McGinn gained the line with the puck and drew a defender to him. That left Lindholm opened, and his quick snap shot bounced square off the short side post.

That quality scoring opportunity set the tone for what would be a quality outing for Lindholm. After the 3-2 victory, head coach Bill Peters said Lindholm was the best player in the game.

"I felt like we had a lot of chances. We had the puck a lot. When we don't have to play down low and waste energy in our own zone, it's easier to create offense," Lindholm said on Saturday. "We could have probably had two or three more goals. We just try to work hard."

Lindholm certainly could have had a couple, but even still, he was involved in all three Hurricanes' goals. On the first, he and Brett Pesce provided the net-front presence on Jaccob Slavin's goal, so much so that it initially appeared to be Lindholm getting the redirection, though upon further review it was the defending stick of Connor Murphy.

Video: CAR@CHI: Slavin bangs home big drive from point

On the Canes' second goal, Lindholm made a heads up play as the penalty kill concluded, looking up to spot Justin Williams coming out of the box and streaking through the neutral zone. Lindholm fed Williams a tape-to-tape pass, and he finished.

Video: CAR@CHI: Williams tallies after leaving penalty box

On the game-winning, power-play tally in the third, Lindholm worked the puck off the wall and up to the point where Teuvo Teravainen let a shot go that was redirected in front by Sebastian Aho.

Lindholm's final stat line: two assists, four shot attempts and a plus-2 rating in 21:36 of ice time, a high amongst team forwards.

"I thought that line was dominant and had tons of chances. Just did it right. Very structured in the way they played," Peters said on Saturday. "Lindy has been real good in the middle, but that's as dominant as I've seen that line offensively."

The Hurricanes selected Lindholm fifth overall in the 2013 NHL Draft as a natural center, but the now-23-year-old Swede has been deployed as a right winger for much of his 360-game NHL career. Then, when the team assigned Marcus Kruger to Charlotte in early February, Lindholm moved to the middle on a more regular basis, centering Jeff Skinner and Phil Di Giuseppe. Lindholm was a necessary commodity in the middle in the absence of Jordan Staal, and he's been utilized there ever since, now centering McGinn and Williams.

And that's the plan moving forward.

"For the foreseeable future," Peters said. "We're going game-by-game, but we'll play him in practice tomorrow in the middle and plan on playing him against the Rangers in the middle."

Lindholm has enjoyed the transition, and it suits the way he likes to play the game.

 "You get more involved," Lindholm said of playing the middle. "It's fun. I like it. I want to have the puck as much as possible. I think that's where I'm at my best, when I have the puck and dish it out to the wingers. There's a little adjustment, but it's fun."

At 18 years old, Lindholm probably wasn't physically ready for the rigors of the NHL, especially having to get to the dirty areas of the ice as a winger.

"There were a couple times early on when I came over and felt like I wasn't ready, and it wasn't fun. It was tough," he said. "A lot of big guys, and I had a tough time down low."

Now, that's where the 6-foot-1, 192-pound "Swedish Beast" thrives: hanging on to pucks down low and putting his body in front of the net for screens, redirections and rebound opportunities.

"I like it now," he said. "I try to watch what all the best centermen do and see how they play the game."

"He's strong on the puck. I think if you get a centerman who's weak on the puck, you're never going to have it," Williams said. "The most important thing with having a centerman is you want him to be able to carry the puck, and he can certainly do that."

With his play down the middle over the past month, culminating with Thursday's dominant performance in Chicago, Lindholm has cemented himself as a viable center with the Hurricanes.

"He's there. There's no question," Peters said last week in Minnesota. "That question has been answered: can he play in the middle in the NHL and be a very effective top-six-type center? There's no question he can."

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