Going through a practice with the Barons on Tuesday at the Cox Center, Teemu Hartikainen looked like he couldn't be happier to be back in Oklahoma City.
“It's great being here,” the 21-year-old Finn said. “Coming to the rink with this team right now makes me happy. We're a very close group, even closer than last year.”
On his latest callup to the NHL's Edmonton Oilers, Hartikainen had a chance to share the ice with a pair of the top Finnish players of all-time — Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu. Both play for Anaheim.
In the first of two meetings with the Ducks during the stint with Edmonton, Hartikainen scored a pair of first-period goals in a 2-1 win. Selanne scored Anaheim's goal, with an assist from Koivu.
“It was great to play against them,” Hartikainen said. “They're kind of my idols.”
Playing with Selanne, who has 663 career NHL goals, was especially gratifying.
The second meeting between the teams came in what could've been the 41-year-old Selanne's final home game.
“Of course, you don't want to go kill him in a corner or anything,” Hartikainen said. “You don't want to hurt him in maybe his last home game. You just watch how he does things and be amazed at his career.”
Hartikainen took lessons away from his latest NHL stint that he hopes leads into a full-time spot with Edmonton next season.
“I'm really confident at that level now,” he said. “But I've got to work on my skating. Last year, it was in the (defensive) zone and this year I worked really hard on that. In my last 12 games, I was a plus-5. This time, it's skating, creating more scoring chances and getting better in the first few steps.”
The Barons squeaked into the American Hockey League postseason a year ago. Oklahoma City coaches hoped the addition of Hartikainen, Chris VandeVelde, Ryan O'Marra, Linus Omark and Jeff Petry after the end of Edmonton's regular season would provide a spark.
Eventually, the Barons fell in the first round of the playoffs.
This season, though, the Oilers sent three players back to Oklahoma City — Hartikainen, VandeVelde and defenseman Colten Teubert.
With the Barons in a bit of a slump entering Friday's 7 p.m. regular-season home finale against Houston, Oklahoma City general manager Bill Scott is hoping the trio can give the Western Division champs a shot in the arm.
“It's exciting when you get three players back like these guys,” Scott said. “They're all invested in what this team is doing and have come down here with smiles on their faces. They want to play and help this team win a Calder Cup, which it is capable of doing.”
All three players will be a key if the Barons are to make a run in the postseason, which begins next week. Playoff pairings will be determined this weekend as the AHL closes the regular season. Oklahoma City has road games Saturday (at Texas) and Sunday (at San Antonio).
Hartikainen pairs with Josh Green and Magnus Paajarvi to bring back one of the most productive lines the Barons have assembled this season.
“It's a good line for us,” Hartikainen said. “It gives us some speed, some muscle, a little bit of everything.”
VandeVelde gives the Barons a center who can be solid on draws and help out on special teams.
With Taylor Chorney expected to return for the playoffs after being injured in late March, Teubert gives the Barons a chance to put their six top defensemen on the ice at the same time for the first time this season.