The Lightning had everything going January 12 against the Washington Capitals at the St. Pete Times Forum. They finished with a 3-0 victory, but it could have been more. They were in complete control.
Others had goals, points, and Dwayne Roloson had a shutout. But it was defenseman Mattias Ohlund who set the tone with some big hits, while disrupting the Capitals’ top lines all night. When the No. 1 star was announced, it was Ohlund who skated out.
Ohlund, 34, is not the offensive-leaning defenseman who scored 47 goals in four seasons with Vancouver anymore. But he can still make a major impact on a game as a defensive stopper with his physical play and intelligence.
“He’s had a year to digest it,” Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. “The first thing he told me is ‘I understand that my role in the NHL has probably changed,’ and he wants to make the best of it. I'm sure it's difficult to accept as the years go on, as you get older, that sometimes your role’s got to change. But a lot of guys have done it, done it well, and I think he has. The fact that he’s one of our top leaders in that room takes a lot out of him, but he embraces it.”
Ohlund had 93 goals in 770 games in Vancouver before signing a seven-year contract with the Lightning July 1, 2009. He had a career-best 14 goals in 2003-04 and a career-best 36 points in 2001-02, getting a lot of power-play time.
The veteran of four Olympic Games and a World Cup for his native Sweden, who reached the 900-game mark March 22, has yet to score a goal for Tampa Bay. But he has filled the highlight film with bone-crushing hits, tied for the team lead in blocks last season and is second on the team in hits and blocks this season.
“The one thing that has changed the last three years for me is I’m not skating as I did when I was younger,” Ohlund said. “That makes it a little challenging to create offense. I’d like to score 30-plus points like I did for a lot of years. But I’m very happy with the role I have here. I’m having more fun playing today than I did in my mid 20s.”
Ohlund said his first season in Tampa Bay was a disappointment for everyone. He was not pleased with his performance.
This season started with an injury. Ohlund missed the first eight games. In his first game back, he played just 12:14 against Pittsburgh. But he was on the ice in the final minutes, preserving a one-goal lead, before Marty St. Louis sealed a 5-3 victory with 31 seconds left.
“Going through tough stretches makes you appreciate this season so much more,” Ohlund said. “That’s one thing you learn after you’ve been in this league for a few years. Whether it’s a good day or a bad day, you’re going to learn from it.”
Boucher calls Ohlund a gentleman and team-oriented guy, and said even the older guys look to his calm demeanor.
“He never talks for nothing,” Boucher said. “But when he says something, it’s the right thing at the right time for the right reasons. I think people were expecting an offensive guy last year. For us, we know what he is at this stage of his career. He’s a shutdown guy that plays penalty kill and will lead the defense with his attitude.”
Ohlund had four hits in the game against Washington, Jan. 12. One sent offensive defenseman Mike Green crumbling to the ice. Green had one shot in the game.
Whether it is a simple check to dislodge the puck or highlight-film hits like he delivered to Phil Kessel and Henrik Zetterberg last season, it has always been part of Ohlund’s game.
“The rest of my game usually comes together pretty good when I have that mindset to be aggressive and physical,” said Ohlund, 6 foot 4, 230 pounds. “There’s a time and a place [for a big hit]. But there’s a lot of other things to playing good defense like getting the stick on puck, positioning. But I need to use my size to be successful.”
Ohlund has had an influence on the young defensemen in the room, in particular fellow Swede Victor Hedman and Mike Lundin, who has been paired with him a lot in the last year.
Hedman continues to pick up new things from Ohlund every day.
“It’s the small things he does in the defensive zone,” Hedman said. “How he lines up, how he reads the game, not getting rid of the puck just because you’re going to get hit. I just try to learn from him.
“I’ve got the same passion. Getting up in age, he still has the drive. Just to see the battle level he brings, makes you really want to work hard for him and for the team all the time.”
Lundin came up from the minor leagues just before the midway point last season. Most agreed Lundin was the team’s top defenseman last season, playing just 49 games – most with Ohlund.
“The big thing I learned from him is communication,” Lundin said. “He always tells me ‘I want to hear you talk. I didn’t hear you last shift.’ He’s talking to forwards, the goalie. It’s amazing how much that helps and how much that calms things down in your zone. We might be running around, he’s got a broken stick, but he’s still calm. He’s winning all the little battles. You’d think they’d be 50-50, but he wins 90 percent of them.”
Ohlund has nine goals and 28 points in 52 career playoff games. As the regular season winds down and the intensity rises, Ohlund’s experience will be a big asset.
“Every game is important, every minute means something,” Ohlund said. “This should be the most fun you have in the year.”