After notching his third goal in the last seven games Friday night as the Stars beat Minnesota 4-0 to move into fourth place in the ridiculously-tight Western Conference standings, Wandell is serving notice that he has arrived as a consistent, impact NHLer.
The fact that his goal, which gave him six on the season to surpass the five he totaled as a rookie last year, came while skating on the club’s top line alongside the squad’s two leading scorers, Brad Richards and Loui Eriksson
, also illustrates just how impressive the 24-year-old Wandell has looked lately.
“That’s two of the best players in the league, so of course, it’s always fun to play with those guys,” the 6-foot-1, 197-pound Swede said of his new assignment. “I try to find an open spot out there, because it always comes right on your stick, so try to be ready.”
“I thought he was skating very well, he was hanging onto the puck in the offensive zone, so I felt if we could get into a cycle game on the half-boards, that sort of thing, that he would complement the other two guys,” coach Marc Crawford said of his decision to move Wandell from more of a checking role on the third line to a spot where more offense is expected, starting with Wednesday’s 4-3 shootout loss to Calgary.
Crawford proved to be prophetic, because Wandell’s goal Friday, which gave Dallas a 3-0 lead at 17:05 of the second period, came after the trio executed some effective cycling of the puck in the right corner. Eventually, Wandell got the puck on the right half-boards, took a few strides into the circle and fired a deceptive wrist shot that found its way past Wild goaltender Jose Theodore just inside the near-side post.
“I think I had a really slow start to the season, a lot of injuries and I think I really didn’t get a lot of rhythm at all, and the last 10 games or so, I feel like my timing is good and the puck is kind of more my friend right now,” said Wandell, who missed four games with a shoulder injury back in early February. “Hockey is a little more fun right now for me than over the first 40 games or so - even though we were winning, you always want to be a good player.”
“He’s been playing good lately,” said Eriksson, who has been on a bit of a hot streak himself lately with four goals and three assists in the last eight games. “Obviously, he has some great speed coming up on the ice, and he’s been able to score some goals, too. I think that’s been good for his confidence, to score some goals, and I think he’s a really good player in this league. He’s such a fast player out there, you can recognize him when he’s out there.”
When he’s on his game, Wandell is a speedy, intelligent player who can contribute at both ends of the ice. When he returned from his shoulder injury, several other forwards, including Richards, were also on the injured list and Wandell was needed to assume a bigger role, and more ice time, to fill the void and he has seized the opportunity. Particularly with Richards missing 10 games due to concussion-like symptoms, Wandell moved up the depth chart as a center, but even though Richards returned Wednesday night, Wandell’s role has remained extensive.
“He’s been playing really well lately,” Richards said. “I watched him a lot over the 10 games (I missed) - he’s picked up his game and he brought some speed to our line.”
“He’s skating better, and another guy who was injured in terms of getting back, we’ve gotten a lot healthier, and Tom’s been a big part of that,” Crawford said. “Not only you get guys back that are healthy, but as they get through, they start to play better and that’s definitely been the case with him. He’s played on the penalty kill, he’s played in a skating role, we’re not afraid to use him against any type of players and he’s continuing to take steps in his progression.”
Playing more, and in more crucial situations like on the PK unit, seemed to increase his confidence and that in turn has helped him play better, which further boosted his confidence even more. That he’s averaged 13:20 of ice time over the 15 games since his return from the shoulder ailment, a significant increase over his overall season average of 11:26, is another indication of how much the coaching staff trusts him.
“Getting a little more ice time is one thing, you get a little more opportunity out there,” acknowledged Wandell, who matched his career-high with five shots on goal Wednesday night against Calgary and added four more in the Minnesota win Friday. “I feel good out there right now, so I’ll try to keep it up.”
“He’s getting more ice time, with some injuries, and he’s been taking the opportunity to get some more ice time and play a little better,” added Eriksson. “That always seems to help, too - when you get more ice time, you can get some more chances, and the more you play, the more confidence you get.”
Wandell, who was the Stars’ fifth-round selection (146th overall) in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, has come a long way since getting off to a relatively slow start this year. After establishing himself as a solid two-way center as a rookie, Wandell’s first season was cut short when he suffered a torn ACL in Jan. 2010. While he was ready to play again at the start of this season, completely regaining his form after reconstructive knee surgery, and getting back the same speed and jump he had before, proved to be a sporadic process early in the year.
After scoring two goals, including the game-winner, in a 4-1 win over Florida back on Oct. 21, Wandell endured 21 consecutive games without a point and often found it a struggle to get more than 10 minutes of ice time.
Before the shoulder issue forced him out of the lineup Jan. 26, Wandell went another 16 games without finding the scoresheet. Overall, Wandell recorded just two points (one goal, one assist) over a 40-game span. But since returning on Feb. 9, he has gradually elevated his game, displaying more of his quickness and puck savvy with each contest.
“He’s such a gifted skater and puck-handler that he kind of brings an element that not many of us can really bring,” noted agitator Steve Ott
, who has often skated with Wandell on the third line this season. “Playing alongside him, he’s so good at carrying the puck up ice and being able to distribute, that it kind of makes my game a little bit easier. He’s just kind of progressed throughout the year. He’s come back from a really serious injury and maintained his skating ability and everything else, which has been pretty impressive.”
Having another player hitting his stride as the Stars enter their final 14 games in the midst of an ultra-tight playoff chase can only help their cause. With the Stars’ style of play, they need production from multiple sources and Wandell can be a big part of their success if he can continue to deliver consistent performances as he has over the last two weeks.
“It’s great when that happens, especially this time of year,” defenseman Trevor Daley
said of getting contributions from throughout the lineup. “You need guys stepping up and getting the job done, it can’t be the usual suspects all the time. It’s the right time for it to be happening and we just got to keep it going.”
“He continues to play well positionally and eating up minutes,” Ott added. “You need guys to step up and Wandy’s been one of the instrumental guys for our success.”