TAMPA — As a teammate of wing Sean Bergenheim with the Islanders for almost two years, Lightning center Nate Thompson said you could always see his ability was there.
Bergenheim, 27, a first-round pick in 2002, had the speed, relentlessness and scoring touch that dated to his junior days in his native Finland.
"I think it was just a matter of him putting it together," Thompson said.
Bergenheim certainly has done that this year, especially in the playoffs, where he's tied for the league lead with seven goals heading into Saturday's Game 1 of the East final against the Bruins. He has thrived in the opportunities provided in a "fresh start" after "hitting a wall" during five seasons in New York, where he felt stuck in a defensive role.
In a season in which Bergenheim's confidence and minutes have grown, coach Guy Boucher said the third-liner realized he's not just a "grinder," becoming a more complete player.
And while not many expected Bergenheim to score seven goals in his first 11 postseason games — after having 14 in the regular season — Boucher points out playoff-style hockey is made for the feisty 5-foot-10, 200-pounder.
"When you're in the playoffs, there's no space out there," Boucher said. "You've got to battle it out in small environments, and that's exactly where he shines. He's a hustler. He's a guy that gives you everything he's got and goes in headfirst. That's the definition of the playoffs."
Bergenheim gives a lot of credit to his linemates, center Dominic Moore and wing Steve Downie, a trio Boucher said played as well as the Lightning's top two lines against the Capitals in the second round. But Bergenheim also believes he's able to play more relaxed while making adjustments in positioning that put him in the right spots.
"He's been a force out there. He's been dominating the games," defenseman Victor Hedman said. "Every time he's on the ice, it seems like something is going to happen."
Bergenheim grew up in Helsinki admiring fellow Finn Teemu Selanne, who became a 10-time All-Star and Stanley Cup champion. He remembers, as a kid, sending away trading cards of Pavel Bure and Eric Lindros and how pumped he was when the star forwards replied with an autograph.
The only hockey hero Bergenheim never saw play was his father, Christian, who was a goalie in a Finnish pro league but quit at age 23. Bergenheim read up on his dad through newspaper articles and has one of his jerseys framed.
"I wanted to be a goalie, too," he said, smiling.
But Bergenheim turned into a talented forward, getting drafted 22nd overall by the Islanders. He scored a career-high 15 goals in 2008-09 but dropped to 10 last season.
"When I came into the NHL, I just wanted to stick," Bergenheim said. "I was in a defensive role and stayed in that role. Maybe I didn't play good enough to deserve more minutes, but I was always put in that role."
With the Lightning, Bergenheim saw his role expanded, including more than 84 minutes on the power play (compared with just 12 minutes, 21 seconds with New York in 2009-10, albeit in 17 fewer games). And when Tampa Bay's top forwards were hurt, Bergenheim was given a shot to step in.
"Here, you always get the feeling that you can do more, and if you do better, you're going to get more, too," he said.
After last season, Bergenheim said he "needed a change." It turned out the Lightning needed a third-line wing. General manager Steve Yzerman, in scouting the Islanders in previous years as vice president of the Red Wings, said he always noticed Bergenheim, how he was first on the puck. Bergenheim felt it was a "good fit," signing a one-year, $700,000 deal.
What the Lightning got was a bit of a bargain, a checking forward who came up big in big games.
"Every time there's been pressure, he's been there, and he's been one of our better players," Boucher said. "Some people freeze under pressure. Some people fly away from it, and some people fight. He fights."
And Bergenheim, so far, has enjoyed the ride.
"The way it's worked out," Bergenheim said, "has been greater than expected."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]m.