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Zibanejad heating up for Djurgarden

by Bill Meltzer
Since returning to his native Sweden after a nine-game stint in the NHL, it has taken 2011 Ottawa Senators first-round pick Mika Zibanejad a few weeks to get his legs under him and establish chemistry with his linemates. But if his last three games are any indication, it appears as if the 18-year-old center is beginning to hit his stride with Djurgardens IF Stockholm.

Through his first nine games this season with DIF, Zibanejad had 2 goals and 2 assists. However, he now has points in three consecutive games while centering his team's second line, flanked by veteran forwards Mathias Tjarnqvist (formerly a member of the Dallas Stars and Phoenix Coyotes) and Mattias Carlsson.

Mika Zibanejad has three points in three consecutive games with DIF. (Photo: Andreas Grandin)
Last Tuesday, Zibanejad set up Tjarnqvist for an early second-period goal that temporarily gave Djurgarden a 2-1 lead on the road against Frolunda in a game DIF ultimately lost 4-3 via shootout (Zibanejad was stopped on his shootout attempt by Frolunda goalie Magnus Hellberg).

On Sunday, Djurgarden returned home to their legendary Hovet rink to take on the Vaxjo Lakers. Djurgarden trailed 1-0 after one period and faced a shorthanded predicament to start the second after former Philadelphia Flyers prospect Mario Kempe was sent off for hooking in the final minute of the first. Just 23 seconds into the second, Zibanejad changed the momentum of the game by breaking loose for a shorthanded goal. He snapped a shot past Vaxjo goalie Oscar Ahlsenfelt to tie the game, and Djurgarden went to score twice more in the next eight minutes en route to a 4-3 victory.

In Djurgarden's most recent game, struggling Modo came in to Hovet and skated off with a 5-3 win after building an early 4-0 lead. However, Zibanejad notched the primary assist on a Tjarnqvist goal that cut Djurgarden's deficit to 4-2 with nearly half of regulation remaining. Zibanejad also was denied on a good scoring chance by Modo goaltender Mikael Tellqvist. With Carlsson out of the lineup, young forward John Norman filled in on Zibanejad's line.

It's been a disappointing season so far for Djurgarden. The club finished sixth in the 12-team Elitserien last season and lost in a hard-fought, seven-game quarterfinal-round playoff series to Lulea HF. This year, DIF is in ninth place (a non-playoff spot if the season ended today). However, the club had won three of its previous four games before the setback against 11th-place Modo.

Zibanejad, the sixth pick in this past June's NHL draft, opened the season with the Senators and averaged 12:54 of ice time during his nine games with the big club. After registering an assist for his first NHL point late in his debut game (a 5-3 loss to the Detroit Red Wings), he went pointless in his next eight.


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By sending him down after game No. 9, the Senators were able to avoid using the first season of Zibanejad's three-year, entry-level contract. Per an agreement with the Senators when he signed his deal, Zibanejad had the option of returning to Sweden to play for Djurgarden rather than go to the Senators' American Hockey League team, the Binghamton Senators.

On Oct. 27, Ottawa loaned Zibanejad to Djurgarden for the remainder of the season. Zibanejad, who had 5 goals and 4 assists in in 26 Elitserien games last season, made his season debut for DIF on Nov. 3, in 3-2 road loss to Brynas IF Gavle. Centering Norman and Pontus Aberg, Zibanejad did not record a point.

"I really wanted to stay with the Senators, but they have more experience in this stuff than I do," Zibanejad told Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet upon his return to Stockholm. "I think this is what is best for me and I'm excited to go back home. I have no regrets. I think it will help me improve my game."

One area he would like to improve in the short term is in the faceoff circle. He won just 44.0 percent (22 of 50) of his draws during his time with the Senators, and to date has won just 38 percent (43 of 114) with Djurgarden. In terms of his plus/minus rating, Zibanejad is a minus-2 for DIF after going minus-3 with the Senators.

The Stockholm native is a product of the AIK junior system. He transferred to rival Djurgarden's program at age 16. One of the few top Swedish teenage players who never played in the famous domestic TV-Puck tournament, Zibanejad played for the Swedish junior national team at the under-16 and under-17 levels before making his major tournament international debut at the 2011 World Under-18 Championship, where he wowed NHL scouts with 4 goals and 8 points in six games en route to a silver medal.

Next month, Zibanejad (whose father is Iranian and mother is Finnish) likely will be back in Canada, playing for Sweden at the 2012 World Junior Championship in Calgary and Edmonton.  Although Zibanejad undoubtedly would prefer to be with Ottawa at that time, he recognizes the WJC will be a major test.

"Whenever you get the chance to play against the best players, you want to show what you can do," he said. "Nothing is a guarantee, but I am hopeful that I get the opportunity to play."
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