by Kinsey Janke || for NHL.com
On February 24th, at just around 7 p.m., Hartford Wolf Pack center Oscar Lindberg had a date at Madison Square Garden with a dream he’d been chasing since childhood.
In 8:18 of ice time spread over 16 shifts, the Skelleftea, Sweden, native laced them up for his first career National Hockey League game with the New York Rangers, a game that will linger in his memory forever, regardless of how many more games come after it.
“I was kind of nervous the first couple of shifts, but I think as the game went on, I felt more comfortable,” Lindberg said. “I’ll remember that day for the rest of my life, that’s for sure.”
Drafted 57th overall in 2010 by Phoenix and acquired by the Rangers in a 2011 trade, Lindberg played for Skelleftea of the Swedish Hockey League – he was MVP of the SHL playoffs in 2013 – before making his debut in the American Hockey League last season.
For some, the shift to the North American style can be a difficult one. Finding ways to translate what worked isn’t always easy playing on smaller ice, and with players whose skillsets often differ from the European game.
“You have to make decisions quicker here, and I think that is one of the biggest things I’ve struggled with but it has been better the more I’ve played here,” Lindberg said. “[The AHL’s] a good league, and there’s a lot of skilled players and guys working hard. It’s a tough league, for sure.”
Lindberg’s first season in the AHL with Hartford saw him net 18 goals and 44 points in 75 games to finish second in scoring on the Wolf Pack roster. In his second year, Lindberg hasn’t missed a step. He again is second in team scoring with 16 goals and 36 points in 54 games, and his plus-5 rating on the season ties him for second among Wolf Pack forwards. Last weekend, he scored game-winning overtime goals in back-to-back games against Springfield and Lehigh Valley.
“I try to be a good two-way center,” said Lindberg. “My defensive game and my faceoffs have been something I’ve been taking pride in all my career, but I think offensively I can contribute with some goals and points here and there.”
Lindberg had an ally in Jesper Fast last season, using the fellow Swede help buffer the culture shock and uncertainty that often comes with the territory when moving across an ocean in pursuit of that one big dream. But even though having Fast there was a comfort, his countryman’s eventual recall and subsequent permanent stay with the Rangers didn’t hinder Lindberg.
Instead, he jumped at the opportunity to speak with his teammates in English, and master the language he had begun to learn while in school back home.
“I think he was pretty well-adjusted,” said Wolf Pack head coach Ken Gernander. “I think maybe sometimes he was a little more accustomed to having that extra 10, 15 feet with the wider rink, so things sometimes develop a little quicker. But structurally, tactically, everything was pretty status quo for him.”
From the get-go last season, Lindberg was relied upon in a top-six role, getting big minutes and shouldering a lot of the offensive and defensive responsibilities. Gernander notes that when able to, he and his staff tried to bump Lindberg to a lesser role in order to alleviate some of that pressure.
“I think he actually responded better. It freed him up a little bit,” Gernander said. “Now, he’s obviously grown into a top-six center in the AHL, and can pretty much handle all tasks. He’s just a more complete and more mature player; it’s been a steady progression and development for him.”
Though he was with the Rangers for just one game before heading back to Hartford, the effect was both immediate and lasting. Allowed to get a glimpse of just what the NHL is all about, Lindberg’s new insight into the next step from the Wolf Pack gave him something to measure up against for the future.
“I saw right away that the guys were stronger, bigger, and more skilled, too. But I just think if I keep playing good hockey, the chance will come again,” he said. “But it’s good to see how professional guys are up there, and that you need to be a really good player to play at that level consistently.”
For Gernander, an AHL Hall of Famer and former Ranger himself, the steady uptick in Lindberg’s development both offensively and defensively has been noticeable in his season and a half of AHL time.
“He’s very committed to becoming better on faceoffs. He’s had good success here this season with his percentages and things like that,” he said. “Playing at the NHL level, I think his whole game will translate well. He has offensive upside, and what team wouldn’t want that?”