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No challenge too tough, Lindell 'becoming the man' for Stars

The young blueliner has admirably filled the void of injured teammate Klingberg while evolving into a hard-hitting 'monster'

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

Esa Lindell was explaining his performance in a post-game interview Monday when John Klingberg jumped in to congratulate him.

"You are such a warrior," Klingberg exclaimed.

"How many hits did you have?"

"You killed guys out there."

Lindell shrugged in his shy way and laughed, and Klingberg moved on quickly, but the moment was important.

Klingberg and Lindell have become close friends and a great defensive pair on the ice, but Klingberg has been out since Nov. 8 with a broken hand, and that's putting a significant amount of pressure on the 24-year-old Lindell. So far, the defensive defenseman has been able to handle the extra responsibility, and on Monday, he showed that he might even be growing from it.

Video: EDM@DAL: Lindell pots empty-netter while shorthanded

Lindell played 24:56 and was credited with five official hits, but he was even more of a force than that in a 4-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers. He established himself as a physical presence and a difference-maker in the game, and that was just a little bit different than what he had been doing in previous games where he also was pretty darn good.

"He's taken a huge step. He's a monster for us right now," said winger Brett Ritchie, who had a goal and assist in the game. "He's becoming a top defenseman in the league. I think he was underrated for a long time, but people are starting to notice him now. With the absence of Klingberg, he has really stepped up."

Lindell has been an important part of the defense since he came to the Stars. Drafted in the third round (74th overall) in 2012, Lindell moved from Finland full time in 2015. He had 42 points (14 goals, 28 assists) in 73 games with the Texas Stars and made his NHL debut in the 2015-16 season with four games for the Dallas Stars.

The next year he was a regular in the NHL and had 18 points while logging 21:52 per game. Last season, that jumped up to 27 points and 22:05 in time on ice.

And this year, in 28 games, he already has 11 points (four goals, seven assists). He is on pace for 32 points in a full season while averaging 24:36 per game.

And while the escalation of those numbers are important, Lindell also has seen his hits go from 93 to 92 to on pace for 149 this season. That's a real jump.

Video: Montgomery likes what he sees from his Captain

"He's becoming the man for us right now with Klinger out," said captain Jamie Benn. "He's embraced the challenge and he loves to compete. You can tell in practice, there's no challenge that's too big for him. He's enjoying this, having fun."

Lindell is an interesting personality. The Finnish defenseman is naturally soft-spoken, so he can seem quiet in the locker room. But he's showing more and more that he can be emotional on the ice. On Monday, he set a physical tone in a one-goal game early and then answered any challenge from the Oilers when the contest got a little bit truculent.

He stood up to the Oilers' biggest bullies and showed that he was the last line of defense for his team if necessary.

"I think he looks more confident, looks stronger out there. He's just knocking guys off of pucks, winning battles, good stick, and he's a hard guy to play against," said forward Mattias Janmark, who had two assists in the game. "He has to play with that kind of confidence, because right now he's that kind of D for our team. He really needs to be that good."

And while Lindell won't say that, he understands it. He need to be physical, because he can be -- and his team needs him to be.

"I'm always going to try to play hard. I might not be the skillest guy or the guy who is always going to carry the puck, but I do work hard and I think hard work pays off," Lindell said. "I like hitting, and it was an emotional game, so that always feels good. You can hit more in these games, lots of big bodies, and you want to make sure that you are there to answer them."

Video: Razor: Stars drink the Oilers' milkshake once again

He was, and in more ways than one. While his teammates gushed about the hitting, his coach was equally impressed with the positioning and technique.

"Tonight, I thought he was just dynamite," said Stars coach Jim Montgomery. "He read rushes so quickly and was stepping up on people and going through bodies. He knew where they were going before they knew where they were going."

And if he can do that now, imagine what he can do when Klingberg returns around Christmas. It's just one more interesting sidebar in a season that has the potential to be something special. If Dallas (now 15-10-3) can keep pushing forward while injured, there is a chance improvement made during this stretch will be positively compounded when the hurt guys get better.

At least it's a theory that is being explored when you watch players like Lindell grow. Heck, if Lindell is indeed taking the next step in his third season and 19-year-old rookie Miro Heiskanen also is improving, then the Stars are hopeful they will have a pretty stout defense when Klingberg (who was sixth in voting for the Norris Trophy last season) returns.

"You can't put a measurement on how important he has been to our success since Klingberg has been hurt," Montgomery said of Lindell. "Once we get Klingberg back, those top three are a pretty phenomenal top three."

With the chance to get even better going forward.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika, and listen to his podcast.

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