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Under-the-radar Lindell exemplifying Stars' defense with effective play

A month shy of his 25th birthday, the fun-loving blueliner is quietly 'becoming the man' for Dallas

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

There has been much talk in the Stars' first-round playoff series against Nashville that the Predators have one of the best group of defensemen in the NHL.

And when you consider that P.K. Subban has won the Norris Trophy and twice been named a first-team NHL All-Star, and that captain Roman Josi has twice represented the Predators in the NHL All-Star Game, or that unsung Ryan Ellis was the 11th overall pick in 2009 and just signed an eight-year contract extension for $50 million, well, there's a lot to like there.

But as the Stars have tried to show their defensive moxie in a best-of-seven series that's now tied at two games apiece, their trio of blueliners also has looked good.

Rookie Miro Heiskanen has a goal and an assist and is averaging 25 minutes, 36 seconds in time on ice. All-Star John Klingberg has five assists in four games and is averaging 23:29. And unsung hero Esa Lindell has two assists and is averaging 24:49.

"Everybody in the league talks about their D, and they deserve all of that talk, they are really good," Lindell said. "For us, we're just flying under the radar and trying to do a good job every day."

Lindell might embody the identity of the Stars as much as any single player. He is quiet and strong defensively, but he also is sneaky good in his offensive ways. He is the ultimate "under-the-radar" player.

Video: PHI@DAL: Lindell goes between the legs on deflection

"He's a security blanket. He just does everything right," said Stars coach Jim Montgomery. "The way we want to play, he just goes out and executes it."

Lindell is nearing his 25th birthday (May 23) and has logged 239 NHL games. He has become the most used player on the Stars this season and played the seventh most minutes of anyone in the NHL at 1,994. (Josi ranked third in total time on ice and Ellis ninth, by the way).

Bottom line, Lindell has earned the trust of his coaches and his teammates.

"He's becoming the man for us," said Stars captain Jamie Benn. "He's embraced the challenge and he loves to compete. There's no challenge that's too big for him. He's enjoying this, having fun."

Lindell, who is often caught on camera with a goofy smile, said fun is a big part of his game. He said that he loves the game of hockey and he loves the competition, and right now he loves playing in this series.

"For me, it's fun. It's fun to play these games," he said. "I enjoy it when we're in it, and I just try to play hard and simple. That's what I want to do every game: be consistent, make smart plays."

Video: Montgomery says it's 'nice to get series back even'

Lindell has done that enough in his three-year run as an NHL regular that he's starting to become an important part of every coaching decision. He is the team's top penalty-killer and also has been moved onto the power play as a catalyst who tries to distract the goalie and pounce on rebounds.

"His instincts are good offensively and defensively. People ask why do we have him at the net-front on the power play -- people call it the bumper -- it's because he has the vision to make plays and he has the will to retrieve pucks in the corners," Montgomery said. "I think he relishes hitting people in the offensive corner instead of being the `hitee.'"

Lindell had an incredible between-the-legs redirect for a goal on the power play a few weeks back, and said he enjoys the chance to spread his wings offensively. Teammate John Klingberg said Lindell's skill is underrated.

"Esa has always had a complete game," Klingberg said. "He can score when he gets the chance."

Lindell helped Finland win the gold medal at the 2014 World Juniors by tallying five points in seven games. That next season, he had 35 points (14 goals, 21 assists) in 57 games for Assat Pori in the Finnish Elite League. The next year in the AHL, he had 42 points (14 goals, 28 assists) in 72 games with the Texas Stars.

Despite that history, Montgomery said he wasn't sure Lindell had the skating or skill to play the puck-possession game he envisioned when he was hired as head coach last spring.

Video: DAL@WPG: Lindell snipes one past Hellebuyck

"To his credit, when I watched film this summer, I wasn't sure he was going to be able to play the way we wanted to play," Montgomery said. "But I didn't know how good his brain was. His ability to adapt and get better is unreal. We ask people to catch people going east and west, and he's unreal."

And along with that hockey sense is a bit of a mean streak that fits his 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame. It's the intriguing balance that makes Lindell such an effective player.

"There's a guy who takes great pride in his penalty kill," Montgomery said. "I think when he goes out on the power play, it's fun time. But the penalty kill is serious time for him. There's a lot of times when we want him to change, and he looks over at the bench like, 'Why?' He wants to be out there for the entire two minutes."

And if only the coaches know that, Lindell said he enjoys the anonymity.

"I'm totally fine with it," Lindell said. "A couple of coaches have said to me, 'If people don't notice you in the game, then you've done a good job.' So I like to think that's a good line to describe me."

A couple of more playoff games like this, and that description might not fit anymore.

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.

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