For a player who hoped for a ten-goal season, Antti Pihlstrom
has done alright for himself. The 23-year-old left wing signed with the Predators as a free agent last June and entered his first professional season in North America intending to concentrate on adjusting to the United States on and off the ice. In the process, Pihlstrom became a leader within the ranks of the organization's AHL affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals.
In the 78 games for Milwaukee, Pihlstrom notched 27 goals and 18 assists with a +7 rating. At the same time he developed into a player the Admirals coaching staff could rely on in tight situations.
“He brings us energy every night,” said Admirals head coach Lane Lambert. “He’s a tremendous skater with presence and speed. His speed alone creates offensive opportunities.”
Pihlstrom’s offensive style has become a staple of his game, building on speed and creativity with the puck. While many European players have struggled adjusting to the “dump and check” style of play in the U.S., Pihlstrom has been able to integrate the finesse he developed in Finland with the aggression and speed necessary for success in the AHL.
“This style of play isn’t easy. Sometimes we play three games a week and at the start of the season it was pretty hard,” he said of adapting. “Everything comes so fast here with the smaller rink. I wasn’t used to that. But now that I’m more comfortable with the game, I can go hard every time.”
Although his adjustment to playing in the U.S. took some time, Pihlstrom’s game didn't falter. In four separate games this season he netted two goals, including December 18 against Grand Rapids when he scored twice in just 14 second. He also put up at least one goal and one assist in five other games.
Off the ice, Pihlstrom has taken the adjustment in stride, joking that the hardest part was finding an apartment and good food. Having countryman Janne Niskala to share the experiences with was helpful, but both were thankful for teammate, and fellow Finn Pekka Rinne
, who showed them the ropes in Milwaukee.
Pihlstrom began playing at the age of five in his hometown of Vantaa. Located in southern Finland, he grew up in a region responsible for some pretty heady competition: Niklas Backstrom, Mikko and Saku Koivu to name just a few. Most notable, however, is the fact that Pihlstrom shares his heritage with NHL phenom Teemu Selanne who hails from just down the road in Helsinki. Noting his ability on the ice, Pihlstrom marks Selanne as the player who most influenced him to pursue professional hockey.
“He’s a good scorer and a fast skater. Selanne was the player. He was the big guy,” said Pihlstrom.
Pihlstrom began his pursuit of a career in hockey by playing in Finland’s SM-liiga, generally regarded as one of the best leagues in Europe. In four seasons, Pihlstrom skated in 212 games while posting 58 goals and 40 assists. In his 2006-2007 campaign with HPK Hameelinna, he was ranked third in goals and fifth overall in points, and during their playoff run he notched eight points, good for third on the team.
It that Pihlstrom’s dedication and perseverance has already begun to pay off. On December 14, Pihlstrom received the call that some players wait a lifetime for. The next night, he suited up in a Predators’ sweater in for his NHL debut in a 3-1 Nashville loss to Colorado. Despite the loss, Pihlstrom still managed to get a hit and a shot on goal while he was on the ice.
Even though he found himself back in Milwaukee shortly after, it’s safe to say that the taste of hockey at its highest level has him hungry for more, but like every player looking to move up to the big show, Pihlstrom recognizes there are aspects of his game he needs to improve to achieve his goal. One thing’s for sure, his attitude and determination will only help him to excel.
“It’s always been my goal to play here. I work hard every shift and I try to be a team player and just do good things. “
His style of play and performances, both with Admirals and currently at the World Championships, have not been lost on the Predators scouts and coaching staff. Despite a full roster returning at the forward spot (12 forwards who finished the 2007-08 season with the Predators are already signed for next season), several within the organization expect Pihlstrom to compete for a NHL roster spot out of training camp this fall.