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Young duo making mark on resurgent Lulea HF

by Bill Meltzer
Hockey has never been a sport in which you can learn much about a player strictly from looking at his statistical performance. Other than the uniforms they wear and the hometown they share, Luleå HF leading scorers Linus Omark and Johan Harju could scarcely be more dissimilar as hockey players.

Drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in the fourth round of the 2007 Entry Draft, Omark relies on his puckhandling ability, elusiveness and creativity to rack up points. Fellow Övertorneå native Harju is more in the power-forward mold. Harju was a sixth-round pick by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the same draft that saw Edmonton take Omark.

Together, the two forwards have given Luleå a potent one-two punch up front, as both players have had breakthrough offensive seasons. Omark, who will turn 22 next month, ranks fourth in Elitserien (the Swedish Elite League) with 39 points through the first 40 games of the season. Harju is tied for second in the league with 19 goals (9 on the power play) among his 31 points. Harju, who needs only 1 goal to match his season total from last year, will turn 23 in May.

If not for the strong play of the two youngsters, it's unlikely that LHF could have recovered from a rough start to the 2008-09 season. Luleå sat in last place after nine games. Instead of battling to avoid playing in the dreaded Kvalserien, Luleå instead has vaulted up the standings. The team is currently battling for playoff positioning as the post New Year's stretch drive gets under way. 

LHF is currently in sixth place in Elitserien (eight teams make the playoffs) with 60 points. Fourth-place Skellefteå AIK also have 60 points but Luleå has a game in hand heading into a road game against Frölunda Gothenburg. First-place Linköpings HC has 68 points. If the season ended today, Luleå would play perennial title contender Färjestads BK in the first round of the playoffs. Djurgårdens IF Stockholm and Södertälje SK would be in Kvalserien. Kvalserien is a "playdown" competition in which the two bottom clubs in the 12-team Elitserien battle it out with the top clubs from minor league Allsvenskan to avoid relegation.

Omark (pronounced OO-mark) was a virtual unknown to North American observers until the 2007 World Junior Championships, played in Leksand and Mora, Sweden. Especially in the opening game against Canada, Omark dazzled with his ability to keep the puck on a string and create scoring chances out of seemingly harmless plays. His strong tournament prompted the Oilers to choose him in the Entry Draft, and he has emerged over the last two seasons as one of the most entertaining and effective young players in the Swedish Elites.

Although listed at 5-foot-9, Omark appears smaller. He's been questioned by critics not only for his size and lack of first-stride explosiveness, but also for his conditioning. Through it all, he has usually found ways to answer his detractors with his ice vision and soft hands.

Early this season, Swedish television commentator Niklas Wikegård had a blunt assessment of the youngster, who had just 4 points through the first nine games.

"When you interview him, he looks like he's eating marshmallows. He looks fat," Wikegård said on the national SVT network.

Omark dismissed the commentator's remarks. But coincidentally or not, Wikegård's harsh words coincided with the beginning of a stretch in which Omark posted 8 points over the next five games. He hasn't looked back. Over the last 30 games, he has 10 goals and 34 points in a relatively low-scoring league.

"All the criticism just sparks me," Omark told Aftonbladet."I get better and better with every game, so this is going to end well."
Of late, there's hardly been a peep of criticism about the play Omark or Luleå. The youngster has earned plenty of respect from his colleagues around the league. Recently, longtime NHL defenseman Marcus Ragnarsson (now with Djurgårdens IF) deemed Omark "a very hard player to defend one-on-one because you can't give him any room."

Harju concurs.

"I score the most goals, but he scores the prettiest," Harju said recently.

Harju, meanwhile, has been using his size and heavy shot to his advantage. The 6-foot-2 forward has found a niche by getting to scoring areas and making himself difficult for defenders to move from the slot. He has a quick and accurate release and a knack for scoring both on one-timers as well as deflections and rebounds.

Harju's quintessential moment this season came in a 7-3 road victory against Modo Hockey Örnsköldsvik. With the score tied 3-3 after two periods, Harju took over the game, scoring a hat trick and triggering a three-goal Luleå explosion in a 79-second span.

"There's nothing wrong with my self-confidence right now. I'm not worrying about scoring goals, and more pucks are going in for me," Harju said in explaining how he has vaulted up to a tie for second in the league goal-scoring race and a tie for first in the league with nine power play goals.

As with Omark and most every young player, Harju has often heard that he has to round out his two-way play. Some have said that he could play a little bit meaner and more physically, if he wants to follow in the footsteps of someone like former Luleå player, Tomas Holmstrom. But Harju arguably has better natural abilities than the perennially overachieving "Demolition Man." Harju's skill set has sometimes been likened to that of Columbus Blue Jackets left wing Fredrik Modin.

While he's not the fastest skater in Elitserien, Harju has a knack for being in the right place at the right time and underrated skills when he is in control of the puck. But his stock in trade will always be his finishing ability.

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