After battling through a host of debilitating injuries to key contributors throughout December and January, the Dallas Stars have enjoyed a resurgence lately, and one of the players who has stepped up his performance is second-year forward Jussi Jokinen.With the Stars on a 9-3-1 roll over their last 13 games, they are back in the thick of the battle for the Pacific Division lead. They trail Anaheim by six points for first, and are just one point behind San Jose for second in the division and fifth in the Western Conference after beating them 5-2 Sunday afternoon at the American Airlines Center. Dallas finished a five-game homestand with a 4-1-0 record and are 6-1-1 in their last eight home outings.
While the Stars benefited from the return of several injured players, including center Mike Modano, who was out for 23 games, and top scorers Philippe Boucher and Sergei Zubov for much shorter stretches, increased production from other sources like Jokinen has helped significantly.
After enduring a difficult span of 17 games from mid-December to mid-January in which he registered just one goal and five points, Jokinen has scored one goal and five points in the last five contests alone. Since participating in the NHL YoungStars Game alongside some of the league's outstanding young talents and scoring a goal and an assist in front of the home fans at American Airlines Center, Jokinen has posted two goals and seven points in 11 games.
Overall on the season, Jokinen has 11 goals and 30 points in 57 games, with a +4 plus/minus rating, ranking him third among the team's forwards. He has also continued his prior success in the shootout, converting on 5-of-8 opportunities.
"Yeah, the last, maybe, 10 games, I feel probably a little bit better now," Jokinen acknowledged. "I have worked off the ice pretty hard all season and if you don't work out during the season, you're going to be tired in February, March and April, and I want to be on top of my game in March, April and May when we play in big games. I feel I'm going in the right direction."
"He's been playing good," added center Mike Ribeiro, who often lines up with Jokinen on the second power play unit and was the recipient of a nice cross-ice pass from Jokinen that was easily re-directed into an open net for a goal against Detroit last Wednesday night. "He's been creating plays and playing well defensively, too. A skill player, he's got a lot of skills and he's making a lot of good plays. I think he's fast on the puck, strong on the puck and he's been helping us a lot lately."
After such a successful rookie season in which he scored 17 goals and 55 points and took the NHL by storm by connecting on his first nine shootout attempts (finishing with a league-high 10 goals on 13 tries), expectations were high for Jokinen coming into 2006-07. He played the majority of last year on the club's top line with Modano and fellow Finn Jere Lehtinen, and even helped Finland earn a silver medal at the Olympics last February. His 55 points were three better than Lehtinen and represented the highest total by a Stars rookie since Modano himself piled up 75 in 1989-90, so the bar was set pretty high.
While Jokinen claims his second time through the NHL has been smoother overall, he admits there have been some bumps on the ice as opponents have concentrated more on neutralizing him.
"I feel like it's easier now, you don't have to worry about other stuff (off the ice)," said Jokinen. "Of course, last year, when I played the whole year with Mike and Jere, it was Mike and Jere and somebody (with jersey number) 36. They had no idea who I was and maybe they know a bit more that I can make plays and score some points. That's why it's more difficult, but otherwise it's easier."
Another factor that played into some of his early-season struggles this year was continually changing linemates. While he skated with Modano and Lehtinen occasionally, coach Dave Tippett mixed things up frequently, especially when the injuries hit, and when Modano went down Dec. 4, pairing up with him was no longer possible.
Recently, though, Tippett has established a stable line for him again, uniting Jokinen with fellow Finns Niklas Hagman and Antti Miettinen. During the three games that Miettinen recently missed due to a lower body injury, Swedish rookie Loui Eriksson filled in, but the results were the same.
"It's tough," Jokinen said of swapping linemates from game to game. "I always like when you have the same line and you get used to those guys and you learn their (tendencies). You see, 'Okay, he likes to go there, I can pass there.' I think I found pretty good chemistry with Mike and Jere last year, and we played a few games this year, too, but now I've played the last 10 games with Mietts and Haggy a lot. We have found some pretty good chemistry too. We have this year lots more injuries than last year, so I think that's one reason why we've had adjustments with the lines."
Tippett agreed that having a consistent line for Jokinen has made a difference in his performance lately.
"I think we've had him on a regular line now for awhile," Tippett said. "I think a lot of his success last year was due to him playing with Mike and Lehts, and with Mike out for so long, he didn't get that opportunity to play with him. We were having a hard time finding a good fit for him on a line. Now, we've given him his own line, and it seems like it's pushed him in the right direction."
Jokinen also likes having linemates that he can speak Finnish to.
"You can speak your own language in some things that you might not normally say," Jokinen said. "Maybe that helps a little bit." "The line with him and the other two Finns has been pretty good for us," Tippett stated. "We've thrown him in center ice, and he's responded to that challenge, and he's been pretty good. We're looking for some secondary scoring, and he seems to have added that. His group has been pretty good on the power play for us, so that secondary scoring, he's kind of picked up a lot of that slack."
As Tippett noted, Jokinen has been playing center with Hagman and Miettinen, and the switch from left wing seems well-suited for his strengths.
"You're a lot more involved in the play down low in your own end, it seems like the puck's around you a lot more," explained Tippett of the center's responsibilities. "You've got to be supportive of everybody on the ice, not just trying to hang on the wing over there. There's a little more work, a little more creativity for him."
Jokinen's skillful creativity has been more evident over the last several weeks and the Stars have benefited greatly from it.