In the case of Dallas Stars center Joel Lundqvist, who missed a total of 29 games from late October until his return to the lineup for good on Jan. 10, that very scenario has resulted in a frustrating 2008-09 season so far, but he’s finally rounding back into his usual form.
Lundqvist actually made it back on the ice for one game, earning two assists in a 6-5 shootout victory over Columbus on Dec. 18, but re-injured the shoulder, forcing him out for an additional eight contests.
Lundqvist has been back for six games now, spending most of that time skating on a line with crafty center Brad Richards and the club’s top goal scorer Loui Eriksson
, and is showing signs of once again providing the defensively responsible, bruising physical presence he has proven he can be.
“I feel better and better,” said Lundqvist, who undoubtedly benefited from the extra rest the five-day All-Star break afforded him and his shoulder. “First couple of games, it was still pretty sore, but I feel like it’s getting better. It’s not as strong as I was before the injury, but I’m pretty close now. It’s getting better every day. It’s nice playing again, for sure. Of course, if you missed almost 30 games, it’s going to take a while to get going again, but it feels like I’m getting the tempo again.”
“Mentally, he’s in the game, but it’s just physically getting up to speed, and it’s legs and hands both, but his shoulder is not bothering him,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said. “He’s obviously going to have some soreness for a long time, but not to the point from where it’s keeping him away from doing anything. He’s still a physical player, but I think he’ll continue to improve. That’s our goal. When you miss that much time, you just can’t expect to be at mid-season form, so we’ll continue to push him forward and hopefully his shoulder stays strong enough so he can keep giving that all-out effort that he’s known for.”
Being out of the lineup for so long was a difficult experience for the 6-foot-1, 198 pound Lundqvist, the Stars’ third-round draft choice (68th overall) in 2000.
“It was really tough,” acknowledged the 26-year-old from Are, Sweden. “You want to play and the guys were away a lot on trips and you’re here skating by yourself, so it was a tough time. That makes it even nicer to be back and playing and be with the guys and play games again.”
With his recovery from a fractured shoulder blade and subsequent inflammation around the joint virtually complete, Lundqvist has not altered his physical style much, although he admits that he probably returned too soon in December and was looking for the big hit a little too much that night.
“I felt good when I played the first game,” maintained Lundqvist, who delivered a whopping nine checks in that game. “I hit the boards pretty bad in the third, but it was pretty sore the whole game. I felt ready before the game, but maybe it was a little too early, I don’t know. You want to be in there every night and it’s hard to say, ‘No, you can’t play,’ but maybe it was a little early the first time.”
After registering just one hit in each of his first three contests back in mid-January, Lundqvist compiled 10 in the last three, bringing his total for the season to 51 in 16 games overall. That works out to a per-game average of 3.2, the highest mark on the team and one of the best in the entire NHL.
“I’m starting to feel more confident now - if I got the opportunity to hit, I hit,” noted Lundqvist, who finished fourth on the Stars last season with 88 hits in 55 games. “Maybe I ran around a little bit more the first game I played and then I was off for three weeks after that. But now I feel more confident and strong again, so now I’ve been taking some hits and I’ve given out some hits and it feels good after, so that’s good for your confidence to know that it’s good now.”
“He’s a physical guy so he can take some big guys out of the game,” added Eriksson, who was also Lundqvist’s teammate when their Vastra Frolunda squad won the Swedish Elite League championship in 2004-05. “He likes to work hard in the corners and he’s good on the one-on-one battles, so he’s helping us a lot now. He’s feeling better as every day goes on, so I think he’s doing good.”
Although his offensive production hasn’t been overwhelming - Lundqvist is still looking for his first goal of the season and has four assists in his 16 games - he has been fitting in very well on the line combination with two of the club’s most dangerous scoring threats in Richards and Eriksson.
“(Richards is) such a skilled player, one of the most skilled players in the league, so you really have to focus on your own game and try to skate and be open, you’ll get the passes,” Lundqvist said. “I really like playing with him and Loui, too.”
“He’s always skating, that’s the biggest thing,” Richards said of Lundqvist. “His feet are always moving, he gets in on forechecks and I think he’s a good complement for Loui and I. Last year in the playoffs, we played together and had some good luck together, and unfortunately, he’s been hurt this year, but when he’s in the lineup, I think it’s probably the most comfortable fit so far that Loui and I have found. We’ve had different wingers, different people have done good jobs, but when Lundy’s healthy, he keeps the balance of the lineup good and he can help us out.”
As Richards noted, the line was first formed last spring and excelled in the post-season as the Stars advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2000. Lundqvist was outstanding in the playoffs, scoring two goals, including the game-winner in the crucial 2-1 Game 5 victory in Detroit that extended the Conference Final series, and seven points in 18 games. He also piled up 67 hits, third on the club and fifth in the entire NHL over the course of the playoffs.
“He’s a big-game player,” 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.”
As he continues to ramp back up to that level, the games will only get bigger for the Stars as they battle for a playoff spot down the stretch, so Lundqvist’s contributions will become even more important to the club’s fortunes.