TAMPA, Fla. - Growing up in Finland, Sean Bergenheim envisioned himself someday playing in the NHL and elevating his game during the Stanley Cup playoffs.
But never in his wildest dreams did the forward imagine having the kind of impact he has as part of the Tampa Bay Lightning's surprising run to the Eastern Conference finals.
With seven goals in 11 games, the post-season neophyte not only leads his team in playoff goals scored but through Sunday was also tied for the league lead with Nashville's Joel Ward and Philadelphia's James van Riemsdyk and Danny Briere.
Even more impressive, his production has come as part of the Lightning's third line—instead of one featuring any of Tampa Bay's big three of Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos.
The 27-year-old left wing is one of nine players on the roster who had not appeared in a NHL post-season game when Tampa Bay entered its first-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Last summer, he signed a one-year, US$700,000 contract with the Lightning after spending parts of five seasons with the New York Islanders.
"It just seemed like a good fit," said Bergenheim, who was impressed with some of the off-season changes the Lightning were making under the guidance of new general manager Steve Yzerman and first-year coach Guy Boucher.
Generally not known for offence, Bergenheim has never scored more than 15 goals in a NHL season. He had 14 with Tampa Bay this year, ranking eighth on the team.
And while St. Louis, Lecavalier and Stamkos have combined for 15 goals while contributing to the Lightning overcoming a 3-1 deficit against the Penguins and sweeping the top-seeded Washington Capitals in the East semifinals, Bergenheim surprisingly leads the team with 36 shots.
St. Louis, second in the NHL this season with 99 points, and Lecavalier both have 30. The high-scoring Stamkos, second in the league with 45 goals during the regular season, has taken 27.
Bergenheim has had St. Louis' attention all season, not just during the run to reach the conference finals against the Boston Bruins.
"I'm not surprised. ... You can't say that one game he didn't work hard. Some of them might not go the way he wants, but he leaves it out there every game," said St. Louis, a six-time all-star who's one of three players remaining on the roster from the Lightning's 2004 Stanley Cup championship team.
"He probably doesn't get any power-play time. Very little," St. Louis added. "But 5-on-5, he's very efficient. And right now, he's giving us dominating minutes."
Bergenheim, who has one assist, said it wouldn't be possible without linemates Dominic Moore and Steve Downie also playing at a high level. Downie has two goals and 10 assists, while Moore has two goals and six assists in the playoffs.
"Those guys are setting me up for very nice plays," Bergenheim said. "Obviously, we have a lot of good players, but we've been clicking well."
The former first-round draft pick of the Islanders shrugged off the notion that some of his success could be linked to a seemingly uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time.
"One mindset I've been working on is not being too close to the net. ... I think some of these goals I've been a little bit further away from the net, which has given me better angles to shoot at," said Bergenheim, adding that he's also benefited from being to able to play relaxed.
That's where leadership provided by St. Louis, Lecavalier, goaltender Dwayne Roloson and other veterans have helped Bergenheim and other players lacking a lot of playoff experience, including the 21-year-old Stamkos.
"When we were down 3-1, that's where I think it was huge for our young team, them talking about there's a chance and we've got to take it one game at a time. From that, we learned a lot ... and all kind of felt it's hard to stop us if we play like this," Bergenheim saidof confidence built coming from behind to eliminate the Penguins. "We kept the feeling going into the Washington series."
The conference finals are expected to begin in Boston on either Thursday or Saturday, depending when the Western Conference semifinals conclude.
Though the Lightning had not heard any official word from the league office, Boucher after practice Monday that he was inclined to think the series would start Saturday.
"I don't see us starting Thursday, now. We'll see. ... If it's Saturday, it's a long time," the Lightning coach said. "But we're going to be on equal ground. If we play Saturday, I think both teams will be so anxious to get on the ice and get going, it's going to be quite a first period."
NOTES: LW Simon Gagne, who left Game 1 of the Washington series with a concussion, returned to practice. "It feels great to see him back that soon," Lecavalier said. "It's scary when you see somebody fall on his head." Gagne, hurt on a check by Capitals D Scott Hannan, said he felt fine after the workout and expects to play in Game 1 against the Bruins. ... D Pavel Kubina, out with an undisclosed upper-body injury, has not resumed practising. Kubina's head went into the glass on a hit in the first game with the Capitals.