Friday, May 7, 2010

Man On Fire: Spurred by an Olympic snub, Mikael Samuelsson has turned into a scorer

Brian Cuzeneuve Sports Illustrated May 10, 2010

Mikael Samuelsson's ascent from journeyman forward to the NHL's hottest scorer began with a blind-side blow—not a hit from behind, but a stab in the back. Samuelsson's Canucks were in Calgary on Dec. 27 when the 33-year-old winger learned he'd been left off the Swedish Olympic team. A gold medalist in 2006, he fumed at the omission, urging Swedish officials to engage in unprintable anatomical gymnastics. "I knew I deserved to be on the team," Samuelsson says. "My words came from the heart. I don't regret them."

Neither do the Canucks. After dispatching the Kings in six games, Vancouver trounced the Blackhawks 5--1 in their Western semifinal opener last Saturday at the United Center. Although Samuelsson didn't score, through Sunday his seven goals were third best in the postseason, and his +9 rating was tied for first. "Mikael has been completely on fire," says his linemate Daniel Sedin. "There isn't a hotter player in the league."

Samuelsson admits the slight from home was a catalyst for the play that has put him among the game's top snipers. "It flipped a switch," he says. "I wanted to prove that they made a mistake, and the best way was with what I did on the ice."

At the time he had 10 goals in 38 games, and was +1 for the season. But over his next 31 games Samuelsson scored 20 goals and was +14. It was a stunning turnaround for a nine-year veteran who had broken the 20-goal plateau just once before. Samuelsson had played on four teams before signing with the Red Wings as a free agent in 2005. He became a playoff rookie that season at age 29. Three years later he won a Stanley Cup. Vancouver G.M. Mike Gillis liked the Red Wings' Euro-heavy blueprint for success and last July gave Samuelsson, a third-liner in Detroit, a three-year, $7.5 million deal. As important, Gillis also promised the Swede a bigger role with a franchise that still awaits its first title. (Samuelsson's 76 postseason games are more than those of all but one Canuck.)

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