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Lupul wipes slate clean

by Adam Kimelman
Joffrey Lupul has been playing important minutes for the Flyers, and has scored 12 goals and 27 points, including a three-goal, three-assist game against Pittsburgh.
When Joffrey Lupul first suited up for the Philadelphia Flyers, he didn't know what to expect.

Would the Philadelphia coaches see the player who scored 41 goals in his first two NHL seasons with the Anaheim Ducks, or the player who endured a dreadful campaign last year with the Edmonton Oilers?

Lupul didn't have to worry long.

"I came into the season hoping, but not really knowing where I would fit in here," Lupul said. "I didn't know if (coach John Stevens) was going to look at last year and say this guy is what he is. But he was really fair with me. We talked at the start of the year, and he said, 'Wipe the slate clean.' That was what I needed to hear."

Lupul has been playing important minutes for the Flyers, and has scored 12 goals and 27 points, including a three-goal, three-assist game Dec. 11 against Pittsburgh. He scored another hat trick four nights later against Carolina. These performances earned him NHL Third Star of the Week honors.

The 27 points he's posted in 32 games is one less than he had with the Oilers all of last season, and he is on pace to break a career-high of 28 goals.

"It was a tough year for the whole team," Lupul says of his one-season stay with Edmonton. "It wasn't just me. I had a year that I'd like to forget and about 15 other guys from our team last year did too."

After two seasons with the Ducks, Lupul was the key to the trade that sent Chris Pronger to Anaheim. Edmonton fans saw the hometown boy -- he grew up in nearby Fort Saskatchewan -- turn in strong early performances in his NHL career, including a four-goal playoff game in his second NHL season, and assumed they were getting a young forward on the rise.

The pressure of playing at home and taking the place of an All-Star in Pronger became more than Lupul could handle, and it showed when he scored just 16 goals and 28 points in 81 games.

Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren said Lupul became a perimeter player during that time.

"If you look at tapes of his game when he played in Anaheim, he played more of a north-south game, a gritty game," Holmgren said. "He went into the gritty areas in Anaheim, but a lot of times when I saw him last year he was more an east-west guy. In today's game, if you want to score you have to go into the hard areas."

He certainly went to the gritty areas when he scored a hat trick Dec. 15 against Carolina. He banked one goal off a Carolina player who had fallen into the net from the slot, then he took three whacks at a loose puck by the post scoring his third goal of the night. His other goal came on a breakaway, when he gathered a loose puck at the Flyers' blue line and pulled away from David Tanabe, one of the fastest skaters in the League.

Lupul, who is 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, has been a forechecking force this season. Stevens wants his forwards to play an attacking game deep in the offensive zone, and Lupul is more than happy to oblige.

"I think it (physical play) has always been a part of my game," Lupul said. "I might have gotten away from it a little bit last year. ... It's fun to get in there and throw a hit on the forecheck, especially in this building (the Wachovia Center), these crazy fans here, they love seeing somebody get hit into the end boards. If I get a chance to do it, good, that's fun."

Fun was one word he didn't say much last season.

"Last year I got too worried about the score sheet," Lupul said. "Everyone was talking about goals and goals and goals, and I said I had to get some points. For me, I don't think I'm a top-end offensive guy, I'm more of a hard-working, physical player. I have a little bit of natural ability to get those goals.

"I was putting the pressure on myself to go out and score goals when maybe I should have been putting the pressure on myself to compete, work, play more physical and, in turn, the goals would have come. I think things just started off bad there. I never really found a line. I played with every guy on the team four times. I never got comfortable there."

Lupul never got comfortable with coach Craig MacTavish.

Lupul has been a forechecking force this season.

"He was the type of coach that had a couple guys he was really comfortable with and he played them 23, 24 minutes a game," Lupul said. "The other guys had to scrap it out for the bottom 12 minutes. I never really got into that comfort zone with him. He never really trusted me as far as John Stevens does, as far as penalty killing and four-on-four play and last minutes of periods. It gives you a lot of confidence when you come in and a coach shows that much confidence in you."

Jason Smith, who was also included in the Lupul trade that saw the Flyers send Joni Pitkanen and forward Geoff Sanderson to Edmonton, has seen a completely new player.

"He came in with a new attitude this year," Smith said. "He was refreshed and looking for the opportunity to prove himself again this year. He's taking that challenge. He came to training camp in great shape and he's working as hard as he can every night."

Holmgren has been a Lupul fan for a long time. Holmgren heavily considered picking Lupul with the fourth pick in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft before they chose defenseman Pitkanen. Lupul went seventh to the Ducks.

"He's an intriguing player," said Holmgren. "He's a good blend of size and skating ability and a knack with the puck."

Despite last season's struggles, Lupul said his confidence never wavered.

"There's no doubt in my mind I would have bounced back, regardless of what happened," Lupul said.

Holmgren is happy his club can reap the benefits.

"He can skate, he can handle the puck and he's got a knack to score," Holmgren said. "It's hard to get those guys."

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