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.)
In Vancouver, Samuelsson saw some time with fellow Swedes Daniel and Henrik Sedin, but he usually stayed on the second line; coach Alain Vigneault preferred to pair the twins with energetic wing Alex Burrows, whose speed is comparable to the Sedins'. But in the first round, with the Canucks down two games to one against L.A. and trailing 3--2 in the third period of Game 4, Vigneault moved Samuelsson up with the twins. The Swedish line tallied six points and keyed a 6--4 comeback victory.
Samuelsson has been the beneficiary of the Sedins' considerable playmaking skills. (At least one of the twins has assisted on four of his postseason goals.) "Mikael is kind of like a Canadian player the way he uses his emotion to guide his play," Daniel Sedin says. "He's exactly what we needed."