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Tampa Bay Lightning's Sean Bergenheim has new role: hero

TAMPA — Years from now, they will talk of the goaltender. The day he arrived, and the impact he made.

They will talk of the captain, and his mid career renaissance. They will talk of the Hart Trophy candidate, and his many moments of glory.

But in the end, I hope they talk of the hero no one saw coming.

For this is the story of the 2011 Tampa Bay Lightning, and of Sean Bergenheim. As of this morning, they appear to be forever linked.

An overlooked team, and a forgotten player. One heading to the Eastern Conference finals, and the other sitting atop the NHL postseason goals list. And no one seems quite sure how either arrived.

"I feel good on the ice," Bergenheim said, struggling to respond to question after question about the hottest scoring streak of his career.

"I don't have an answer for that."

So, for now, we'll let the numbers do the talking. And we'll start with Wednesday night's 5-3 victory that clinched a sweep of the Capitals in the conference semifinals. Bergenheim scored again, including the go-ahead goal in the second period. His second goal of the night gave him seven for the postseason, which is already halfway to his regular-season total of 14. And if you're not impressed that he is tied for the league lead in playoff goals, then consider he was 174th in the NHL in the regular season.

"Every tough game, every important game, every game where there was some pressure, he was there," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said.

Naturally, the temptation is to lump him in with the great one-hit wonders of the postseason. To compare him to Gene Tenace of the 1972 Athletics. Maybe Timmy Smith of the 1987 Redskins, or Chris Kontos of the 1989 Los Angeles Kings.

And, 10 years from now, perhaps those comparisons will be real. But as of now, Bergenheim's legacy is still to be written.

For, at 27, he still has the time and the skill to change the landscape of his career. He has spent parts of six seasons and more than 300 games as a role player in the NHL, but there was a time when more was expected of Bergenheim.

He was a first-round draft pick of the Islanders in 2002, and was playing in the NHL at age 19. The problem was, in those days, Long Island was not the best place for a prospect to grow. There was a contract dispute that sent him to Russia and Sweden, an injury that interrupted a season, and a lot of mediocre talent that did little to help him progress.

"When I was in juniors I scored a lot. When I got into the pros, I was always kind of in the grinding, fourth-line role. And there's nothing wrong with that," Bergenheim said.

"I was playing as hard as I could but you always get what you deserve. So I was in that role, and I'm still in a great role. I love my role on this team. It's different from juniors obviously, but that happens to a lot of players."

What's interesting is Bergenheim has developed the tenacity of a grinder but still retains much of the skill that once made him a prospect.

Still, when he became a free agent last summer, NHL general managers did not exactly body check each other to get close to Bergenheim.

Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman signed him to a one-year, $700,000 deal that looks like one of the bargains of the season when you consider Bergenheim outscored Washington's $124 million man Alex Ovechkin in this series.

"I just liked the way he played all of the time. He's a competitive guy. He's strong on the puck," Yzerman said. "I got a chance to talk at length with people who knew him … so I had a good background on him.

"But mostly, I just liked the way he played. He was a competitive guy, and we were able to get him at a salary that fit into our budget. Obviously, he's worked out well for us."

That salary is about to take a big step forward. More than anyone else, Bergenheim has dramatically improved his bargaining position as an unrestricted free agent.

The Lightning undoubtedly will want him back, and Bergenheim said he absolutely wants to stay, but the finances could get interesting.

Bergenheim said he made some changes in his game before the postseason but was reluctant to go into detail or to say whether they are responsible for this success.

"There's a few things that I've maybe realized. Kind of a mind-set that you have to have," Bergenheim said. "It's something I don't want to get into that much.

"Maybe it's just coincidence that I'm scoring these goals."

Maybe.

Or maybe Bergenheim is in the process of changing the tone of his story. Maybe he is changing the direction of his career.

And maybe he has changed the fortunes of a team along the way.

Tampa Bay Lightning's Sean Bergenheim has new role: hero 05/05/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 5, 2011 1:34am]

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