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Pitkanen provides boost to blueline

by Dean Bennett / Edmonton Oilers
Pitkanen just about ready

Oilers defenceman Joni Pitkanen stepped on the ice briefly during the morning skate today. He felt good and is likely to return to the lineup tonight.

"We'll see tonight," said MacTavish. "Game time decision."

Pitkanen will take part in the pre-game warm-up and from there the coaches will decide whether he's ready to play. If he is, they will have to take one of the blueliners out - Allan Rourke is likely.

"It's tough," said MacTavish. "The defence has played pretty decent the last little while. You factor into the equation that you need someone to play the right side."

Pitkanen has already been taken off injured reserve in anticipation of his return.

"If Rourke's the guy that comes out, you need to find someone on the left side who's comfortable playing on the right side. The way he's played, it's going to be difficult to take him out but that might be the guy."

Prior to his injury, Pitkanen had a goal and an assist in eight games but was logging a ton of minutes on the back end.

- Marc Ciampa
The Finnish flash from 64 degrees latitude, with the wildfire skates and  laser beam tape-to-tape passes, has found a new home in Edmonton with the Oilers.

But, man, does Joni Pitkanen miss the saunas.

“In Finland, we go to the sauna almost every day,” says Pitkanen, referring to the ritual that is so grounded in Finnish culture and leisure that there are 1.6 million saunas in his homeland - one for every three inhabitants.

He doesn’t go as often in North America: “It’s a little different here,” a twinge of disappointment creeping into the defenceman’s smile.

“It’s steam rooms.”

The 24-year-old from Oulu came to the Oilers in the heat of July this past off-season along with speedy veteran winger Geoff Sanderson in a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers for Jason Smith and forward Joffrey Lupul.

Despite being felled by a knee injury Oct. 20, the 6-foot-three-inch 214 pounder has already managed to impress fans, teammates and coaches with his trademark fleet feet.

“He’s quick to get going, but once he gets going, it’s not a big burst of speed,” said assistant coach Charlie Huddy, who handles the defence.

 “It’s kind of slow and steady, and when he gets to top speed it doesn’t look like he’s blowing the doors off anybody. But he’s a powerful skater.”

For skating, he compares Pitkanen to Sandis Ozolinsh.

What about Paul Coffey?

“I don’t think it’s fair to compare him with a Paul Coffey or someone like that, but he’s not too far off of Coffey. He can really skate.

“What Coff did so great is he would take the puck up on a rush and very rarely get caught way behind the play.

“Joni has that. He knows that if the puck is turned over or he’s made the initial play, he’s getting back hard - and he’s got the speed to be able to do it.”

His speed, quickness and ability to spark the offence with a pass vertically through the neutral zone or horizontally through traffic made Pitkanen, then a star with Karpat Oulu in the Finnish elite league, the top ranked European prospect heading into the 2002 NHL Entry Draft.

The Philadelphia Flyers took him fourth overall and last season, his third with the team, he scored four goals and 43 points -  one of the few bright spots on team that sunk to the bottom of the NHL.

He led the Flyers in assists (39) and power-play assists (17) and was ranked among the top 25 in the NHL in scoring by defencemen for the second year running.

That was enough to catch the eye of Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe, who is looking to Pitkanen and free agent signee Sheldon Souray to juice his blue line.

“His skating and his puck movement ability is something we haven’t had here in quite some time,” said Lowe.

“We felt like we had challenges last year moving the puck and if you look at teams that have had success in the last couple of years, they have really been able to move the puck.”

Pitkanen has not disappointed.

“He can take it down the wall on the rush and hold onto it and find guys coming late,” said Pitkanen’s early defence partner, Steve Staios.

“It’s pretty unique for a defenceman, really. I mean most D-men can get up in the play and usually join a little bit later, but he’s someone who can lead the rush.”

Added defenceman Matt Greene: “I think we’ve got a lot of guys who can follow up the play well, but it’s a real asset to have a guy who can actually lead the rush like Joni does. That’s special. That’s something not a lot of teams have.”

Goaltender Mathieu Garon, who has faced Pitkanen in competition before and now in practice, says you can’t cheat on the Finn.

“He’s got a great shot. He can put it pretty much wherever he wants from the point,” said Garon. He can go high or he can go low. He can pretty much go everywhere, so you’ve got to be patient.”

Patience is what Pitkanen needed earlier this year, when he was skating one-on-one against Matthew Lombardi and dropped to his knees.

“I felt like something happened in my knees. I think I played one shift after that. After the game it was pretty sore and the next day it was really sore.”

The diagnosis was a meniscus tear in the right knee and no action for a month.

It was not the first time he’s injured that knee in a hockey career that began as a kid skating in rinks in an around Oulu, an historic city of 135,000 on the northern part of the Baltic Sea.

His local team, Karpat Oulu, is the biggest game in town and sports a history intertwined with the Oilers. The team’s alumni include ex-Oiler Janne Niinimaa. It has retired the No. 10 jersey of  Reijo Ruotsalainen.  And goaltender Niklas Backstrom left last year for the Minnesota Wild after winning two Jari Kurri trophies as playoff MVP.

Karpat has become the signature team in Finland, winning championships in 2004, 2005 and 2007. It outstrips all other teams in merchandise sales and regularly sells out its 6,612-seat home rink.

Pitkanen smiles ruefully when reminded of the championship run he missed.

“My last year (2002-03) we went to final and we lost. After that they had three championships because they had very good players my age. And they’re still doing very well.”

He still goes home to Oulu every summer, but says this year, going back south to play at 53 degrees latitude wasn’t as big a stretch.

“Edmonton is a lot like my hometown. Both have very nice people and the winter is the same.

“I like it.”

This story originally appeared in Oil Country Magazine
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