TAMPA — There were times Mike Lundin wondered if he ever would play in the NHL again.
Seemingly stuck with the Lightning's AHL affiliate in Norfolk, the No. 10 defenseman, at best, on the organization's depth chart said he didn't see himself as upwardly mobile, even with another NHL club.
"You look around the league and there are so many good players," he said. "You're like, 'It's going to be tough to get back up there.' It's hard not to be down wondering if you're ever going to get a solid chance."
The sentiment seems almost quaint considering what Lundin has accomplished in the past six weeks, turning his second callup of the season into what seems a permanent gig and developing into Tampa Bay's shutdown defender, going head-to-head with the opposition's top offensive players.
In Tampa Bay's past two games, against the Capitals and Thrashers, Lundin, 25, was up against superstars Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk.
Ovechkin scored the winner Sunday in a 3-2 victory, but Lundin lost his stick on the play and was not part of the blown coverage. He blocked six shots in the game, four on Ovechkin.
Kovalchuk had two shots and zero points Tuesday in the Lightning's 2-1 win.
"He loves the challenge," coach Rick Tocchet said of Lundin. "To come from being in the minors to being our shutdown defenseman is a hell of a thing for a kid like that. The sky's the limit for him."
For a while, it seemed Lundin had reached his limit. After making the Lightning's 2007-08 team out of the University of Maine, Lundin was demoted to Norfolk after 25 games last season. He began this season with the Admirals as well.
A first callup lasted four games, but a Dec. 26 recall was different. Lundin seemed stronger, better able to battle. Add his good skating and stick work, and ability to stay calm under duress, and Lundin's minutes shot up.
He has played more than 20 minutes in 11 straight games, is averaging 20:26 in 22 games and is a respectable minus-2 on a team outscored by 25 goals.
"It's been a journey, for sure," Lundin said. "I've always thought that everything happens for a reason. Going to the minors last year and starting there this year, and getting that confidence and reads on the game and the pace, it's all helped me."
If there is a blip, it is Lundin's lack of offense, a result, he said, of the pressure going against players such as Ovechkin and Kovalchuk, and, perhaps the Islanders' Matt Moulson or John Tavares tonight at the St. Pete Times Forum.
"Because I know those guys are on the ice, I'm holding onto my stick a little tighter when I have the puck," said Lundin, who has a goal and an assist. "It's something I'd like to improve on."
Tocchet has no doubt he'll do it.
"He won me over when he went to the minors twice and came back with an unbelievable attitude," he said. "Mike Lundin is one of those guys, when the coaches are working out at night, the night before the game, he's in the gym doing something. He's a pro, and it's paying off for him."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at email@example.com.