Growing up in Finland in the 1990s, Teemu Selanne
was the obvious player to look up to, and Tampa Bay Lightning
forward Sean Bergenheim
did just that, but other stars of the day caught his eye like Pavel Bure
and Eric Lindros
. In a conference call Thursday afternoon, Bergenheim noted that he mailed cards to Bure and Lindros and received them back with autographs.
"I was pumped about that," he said.
But Bergenheim's inspiration to play the game came from a much closer source. In his childhood he lived in Espoo, a suburb just outside Helsinki, as the son of an airline hostess and a father who owned a company in the computer business, and while his parents introduced him to several sports in his youth, hockey was the one that stuck.
It shouldn't be a surprise that Bergenheim eventually gravitated to hockey since other family members had played it, specifically his father, but his track to the NHL didn't exactly go as planned.
"He was a goalie," Bergenheim said of his father. "I never actually saw him play, but I wanted to become a goalie, too, when I was younger. But I started figure skating when I was, I think, three years old, and then when I started hockey, I started as a player and I just kind of stayed on that route.
"I never got to be a goalie."
If the returns from this postseason are any indication, it seems to have worked out OK for him.
Tampa Bay polished off a four-game sweep of the East's top-seeded Washington Capitals
on Wednesday night to earn the Lightning's first berth in the conference finals since they won the Stanley Cup in 2004, and their current seven-game postseason winning streak has come in no small part due to Bergenheim's scoring prowess. The winger scored twice in the Bolts' 5-3 win in Game 4, which gave him 5 goals in the last five postseason games and pulled him into a three-way tie with Philadelphia's Danny Briere
and James van Riemsdyk
for the postseason lead with 7 goals.
Bergenheim's breakout performance is downright stunning for someone who scored just 14 goals in 80 games this season, one off his career-best of 15, which he totaled two seasons ago with the New York Islanders
. This may be less a surprise than simply a delayed development of someone with obvious offensive skills, however. After all, Bergenheim was a first-round draft pick for New York back in 2002.
"I'm not surprised," said teammate Martin St. Louis
, who has 6 goals this postseason and is a nominee for the Hart Trophy as the regular season MVP. "Bergy is a warrior. You can't say one game he didn't work hard. … He scored  goals this year. Doesn't get probably any power play time, very little. Five-on-five he's very efficient. Right now he's giving us some dominating minutes. And he's the reason that whole line, [Dominic] Moore, Bergenheim and [Steve] Downie, the minutes they've given us are dominating minutes. It's a deflating feeling when you're getting beat by the third line. That line is a big reason we finished that series in four."
That line has certainly been producing in a big way for the Bolts. Moore has 8 points so far this postseason while Downie's 10 assists have him tied for the second most in the League, which has played a significant role in Bergenheim's emergence this spring.
"We're working hard and those guys are setting me up for very nice plays," Bergenheim said. "You've got to have players and, obviously we have a lot of good players, but we have been clicking very well."
But the players around him, while certainly crucial to Bergenheim's impressive postseason, have been supplemented by his own preternatural calmness and a willingness to change his game. Despite the natural angst that comes with playing in your first postseason, Bergenheim has made a point to play with a relaxed frame of mind so that his game can develop naturally and he doesn't take on the heavy stress that playoff-time, particularly trailing a series 3-1 as Tampa Bay did in the first round, carries with it.
That, as well as a fundamental change to his positioning, has helped him become one the League's most potent scorers this spring.
"One mindset that I've been working on is not being too close to the net," Bergenheim said. "I think that's been something I've tried to get rid of for a long time, but I think some of these goals I've scored I've been a little further away from the net, which has given me better angles to shoot at, and maybe I've been a little bit more open so my linemates have found me better. And then there's just a mindset of playing relaxed.
"I don't feel any pressure."
Bergenheim's easy nature and secondary scoring ability have provided Tampa Bay with a valuable and unexpected weapon. After scoring a total of 35 goals over three full seasons with the Islanders, Bergenheim had anticipated that he would be in for a change of scenery this offseason. With the feeling that the Lightning, who already had several talented players even if most were short on playoff experience, could use some added depth to bolster a run at the postseason, Bergenheim thought Tampa Bay would be a good fit.
Evidently, so did general manager Steve Yzerman
, and the signing has paid off as players like Bergenheim have kept the team afloat through a grueling stretch that has seen the Lightning play five postseason games in just eight days -- and win all of them.
Now they'll get at least a few days to rest with seven straight wins in the books. Still, without that furious run against the Penguins, in addition to his suddenly torrid lamp-lighting against Washington, Bergenheim knows Tampa Bay wouldn't stand nearly as good a chance at reaching the Stanley Cup Final for just the second time in franchise history.
Keeping focus despite the layoff will be crucial.
"During that span we kind of bonded and we kind of felt it's hard to stop us if we play like this," Bergenheim said. "We kept that feeling going into the Washington series. … Now we have a little bit of a break, but we've gotta have that feeling and us really understanding that that's the way we have to play to be successful.
"It's the learning and the bonding that we did as a team during these last seven games."
Reach David Kalan at firstname.lastname@example.org