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Elevating His Game

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

For Dallas Stars center Joel Lundqvist, a proven playoff performer who always seems to raise his level of play when it matters most, the early days of the regular season must seem somewhat uninspiring.

But when your team is struggling a bit, coming into the day with an uncharacteristically sub-par 1-3-1 record, there’s nothing like a game against your twin brother in the World’s Most Famous Arena to get the adrenaline flowing.

The Stars visited Madison Square Garden Monday night to play the New York Rangers, whose star goaltender happens to be Henrik Lundqvist, Joel’s identical twin brother. 

While Joel didn’t record a shot on goal, he did deliver three hits in 10:11 of ice time as the Stars emerged with a hard-fought 2-1 road victory. Henrik made 25 saves in defeat.

It was the third time the twins have faced each other in North America - and ever. They were always teammates back in Sweden, including during the 2004-05 season when their Vastra Frolunda squad (which also featured winger Loui Eriksson) won the Swedish Elite League championship. Then Henrik made the jump to the NHL in 2005-06, bursting onto the scene with the Rangers, being named a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as a rookie (and each year since), while Joel quietly joined Dallas the following year.

“That was the first time, two years ago, when we played the first time,” Joel said of their meeting, in his fifth game as an NHLer, on Dec.14, 2006 in Dallas. “That was a very special feeling. We’ve always been on the same team. When he moved over here, a year before me, that was the first time we were not on the same team. We’d always been together and it was a weird feeling, but it was fun, so I’m really looking forward to this game.”

He noted before the contest that he has yet to fire a shot on his twin in any of their matchups.

“I need some really good scoring chances this time and hopefully I can have a good game, too,” Joel said.

He did play a solid game and the one shot he attempted was blocked. It was still a highlight sharing the same ice with his brother. Of course, for twins who had gotten used to always being around each other before Henrik left for the NHL, playing against one another also gives them a chance to catch up outside the rink a little bit.

“When we grew up, until like 15-16, we did everything together and then we started to get our own lives and own personalities, but until then, we were like one,” Joel said. “But after that, we don’t have to talk all the time, but we still talk and he’s a good friend to have. Of course, you want to be on the same team, but we know each other so well, so we don’t have to see or talk to each other all the time.”

With a twin who has enjoyed so much success in the NHL, such as the three straight Vezina Trophy nominations and the gold medal with Sweden at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, one might understand if Joel was a bit envious of Henrik. But then again, Henrik might be jealous that Joel’s Stars advanced to the Western Conference Finals last spring, which is further than the Rangers have gone since Henrik’s arrival there.

“It’s hard to compare when we play different roles, but when he was 15-16, he was always a little bit of a step ahead there,” Joel said. “I’ve always had my dreams and my goals and I’ve always been proud of what he’s accomplished and what he’s done here. I think it’s a lot of fun to just watch him and follow his career, too, but I have my dreams and my goals, and I’m just proud.”

Speaking of that deep playoff run last spring, Joel’s performance in the 2008 post-season was excellent, as he registered two goals and seven points in 18 games. The 6-foot-1, 198-pound center also delivered 67 bodychecks, good for third on the club and fifth in the entire NHL throughout the playoffs.

“He’s a big-game player,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said. “If you look back at his reputation in Sweden, he was the exact same way. He was a player that played on good teams, played on championship teams and was effective in the playoffs. He finds ways to get the job done in tight and crucial situations. He was a guy that we relied on a lot in the playoffs and he gave everything he had.”

Lundqvist’s contributions in the post-season included the crucial game-wining goal in Game 5 against the Red Wings in Detroit that extended the Western Conference Finals to a sixth game, and his teaming up with Eriksson and Toby Petersen on a shut-down checking line that severely limited the damage done by Red Wing greats Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.

It was a remarkable turnaround for a player who had a very up-and-down regular season, spending three weeks at AHL Iowa last November and sitting out as a healthy scratch for eight straight games in February and 13 of the final 28 contests. 

“That time when I was sent down was for sure the toughest time in my hockey career,” Lundqvist admitted. “I was really focused to be here, I signed a two-year deal. It was tough, for sure. I probably got a lot stronger mentally after that. It felt good to finish it off good, to go into the summer, to have a good playoffs. Still, I have to fight to get ice time here, it’s a lot of good players but I want to play, I want to improve my game.”

Lundqvist, the Stars’ third-round draft choice (68th overall) in 2000, believes it all boils down to ice time - the more he gets, the better he plays. His average of 14:06 of ice time in the playoffs was a marked increase from the 10:32 he averaged in the 2007-08 regular season and that showed in his performance.  

“I played more, that’s the most important,” he said, when asked why he excelled in the playoffs. “I felt real good at the end, I played more, got more confidence, I liked the more physical and faster game in the playoffs. They’re fun games to play in.”

“That just shows you the confidence people can take from playing a lot, the responsibility you can give to those you might not think can handle it,” remarked goaltender Marty Turco of Lundqvist’s playoff performance. “It’s no surprise to us, but maybe to some.”

Of course, Lundqvist, now 26 and in his third season, also understands the flipside of that equation is that the better you play, the more ice time you earn. Starting this year logging just 10:04 per game, he has been looking for more ways to contribute, whether it’s 5-on-5 or on the penalty kill.

“When it’s a good team, it’s tough to get ice time,” acknowledged Lundqvist, who registered one assist and a +2 plus/minus rating in the first six games, but also ranked second on the Stars and tied for ninth in the NHL with 20 hits. “I have to play good, and then you get more ice time. It’s that easy. All the minutes you can get is good. That’s what I want this season, to really get more minutes.”

He started the year skating on a line with center Brad Richards and Eriksson, a line that enjoyed some success during the earlier rounds of the playoffs last spring. But the trio was split up after two games and for the last several outings, Lundqvist has been anchoring the fourth line with Krys Barch and Steve Ott

“He recognizes what he has to do,” Tippett said of Lundqvist. “Some of it is opportunity, he got caught in a numbers game a little bit (last regular season), but his play has elevated himself to where he’s a very good NHL player now.”

Now if he could only register a shot against his brother... He’ll get another shot Feb. 6 in Dallas. You can bet both Lundqvists already have that date circled on their calendars.
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