When players reported to Barons training camp last September, Teemu Hartikainen was viewed as a bubble player to make the Edmonton Oilers' roster after the NHL lockout ended.
The Oilers' brass instructed the Finland native to provide a physical presence around the net, both five-on-five and on the power play. As the four months the lockout dragged on, Hartikainen prospered in his defined role.
When the NHL finally returned in early January, it was a no brainer that Hartikainen would head north with young Oilers stars Jordan Eberle, Justin Schultz, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
Hartikainen spent the bulk of the final two months with Edmonton in a limited role. A should injury halted his momentum.
He has returned to Oklahoma City for the AHL playoffs, which provide another opportunity to solidify his spot on Edmonton's roster next season.
“He's been a beast in the playoffs,” said team captain Josh Green. “Last year, he arguably was one of our best players down the stretch. If you get him the puck down low it's hard to take it away from him. He's going to make it hard on their D. He can be very taxing on a defense.”
Taxing the defense is Hartikainen's primary role in a best-of-7 Western Conference semifinal series against the Texas Stars, which continues with Game 2 Saturday night in Cedar Park, Texas.
Hartikainen, a 23-year-old center, has scored nine points in the playoffs, including an assist on Anton Lander's overtime game winner in Game 1, a goal just 88 seconds into the extra period that gave the Barons a 2-1 win.
Texas goaltender Cristopher Nilstorp was near unbeatable in a first-round series against Milwaukee. Nilstorp was stingy again in Game 1. In a lower scoring series, Hartikainen could be a difference-maker around the crease.
“If you watch the NHL playoffs, most of the goals basically are scored off rebounds or fighting around the net,” said Barons coach Todd Nelson. “Guys like Hartikainen, Green and (Philippe) Cornet, that's their specialty.
“A guy like Harty, we want him to screen the goalie and if there's any garbage laying around bang it in. You're not going to beat a goalie too often from the wall or 20 feet. A big key in this series is getting traffic in front to make it tough for (Nilstorp) to see shots.”
Selected in the sixth round in the 2008 NHL Draft, Hartikainen, including the playoffs, has scored 42 points in 47 games this season with the Barons. He appeared in 23 games with Edmonton, scoring three points.
Areas Oilers coach Ralph Krueger wants Hartikainen to improve are puck management through the neutral zone and a “consistent physicality.”
“Teemu has played well all season,” Nelson said. “He understands his role and does a good job. Teemu has really improved every year, which is why he spent some time in the NHL.”
A key member of last year's Barons team that reached the Western Conference finals, Hartikainen has scored three goals in Oklahoma City's first six playoff games.
“I love playoff hockey. It's a whole new level,” Hartikainen said. “Teams still playing usually have their goalies playing really well. My job is to go to the net and screen the goalie on the PP (power play) and put pucks on net. We have to find a way to bounce those rebounds in.”
The Barons' top line features AHL All-Star Mark Arcobello, former NHL standout Jonathan Cheechoo and Cornet. The Barons essentially have two No. 1 lines after Hartikainen and Anton Lander returned from the NHL.
During a brief rehab stint in Oklahoma City earlier this season, Lander scored a franchise-record six points against Rockford. He played on a line with Hartikainen and standout rookie Toni Rajala.
“When you play a lot of games with a guy, you're aware where he is on the ice,” Lander said. “I always know where Teemu is. He is strong with the puck. Having a huge body near the net is huge. It's not easy to move him.”
Exactly the role Edmonton officials wanted Hartikainen to embrace.