Published November 20, 2014
PHILADELPHIA -- Ville Leino doesn't consider himself a dump-and-chase kind of player. He's more of a control freak. And right now, the Flyers are reaping the benefits in one of the more improbable postseason runs you'll ever see.
When Leino was dealt to Philadelphia from the Detroit Red Wings in February, he pledged to play his type of game. After all, that wasn't always the case in previous seasons -- something Leino learned the hard way. But perhaps that's what has toughened him for the rigors of Stanley Cup Playoff hockey today.
"You want to enjoy hockey and I can't play hockey if I'm not having fun," Leino told NHL.com. "If I'm not feeling confident out there ... In Detroit I always had a coach or somebody behind my back telling me to do this, do that or don't do that, and I don't know if it just didn't work out there. I'm not blaming anyone because it was a great learning experience, but it just didn't work out. Now it's just a different situation."
Leino has found a home in Philadelphia, where he's produced a playoff career-high 3 goals, 11 points and a plus-4 rating. And he's doing his damage as the second-line wing, alongside center Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell.
"I'm playing with Danny Briere and we think the same way about hockey and I can be with the puck and he also makes plays because he's a great goal-scorer, too," Leino said. "And Harts is working hard. It's just many things that have been coming together now and it makes me feel better."
There were high hopes in Detroit this season for Leino, but it just never materialized, as the native of Savonlinna, Finland, mustered a disappointing 4 goals and 7 points in 42 regular-season games.
"I think some coaches were thinking maybe they wanted me to become more like a (Tomas) Holmstrom or (Dan) Cleary or even a (Johan) Franzen," the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Leino said. "But I'm not just a pure goal-scorer. I'm more of a playmaker."
The trade to the Flyers -- in exchange for defenseman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen -- might have been just the shot of adrenaline Leino sought.
"I like to play offensive and make plays, so I like going hard and being aggressive on the puck," Leino said. "You don't have to sit back and wait for something to happen (in the Flyers' system). It's aggressive hockey and gets you right on top of things."
Even though he was a healthy scratch for the opening four games of the playoffs, Leino was a workaholic in practice. Injuries to Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne opened the door, and he's been relishing his role with Briere and Hartnell ever since.
"I think we kind of play the same way," Briere said of Leino. "We think the game alike. He's very strong on the puck, and when you think that the play's dead and he's got three guys on his back, he finds a way to keep the play alive and find his teammates around the net. When you find that chemistry and things are clicking, there's no better feeling. You're going out there playing, you just have the feeling that every time you jump on the ice you're going to score."
Hartnell, Briere and Leino have combined for 14 goals, 34 points and a plus-15 rating since being united in the playoffs April 22 -- a 3-0, series-clinching victory against the Devils in the conference quarterfinals. They've piled up 4 goals, 9 points and a plus-5 rating in the opening two games of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Montreal Canadiens.
"When I came here, I was just thinking I'm going to play my own hockey no matter what," Leino said. "I'm going to play the way I know I can play NHL hockey."
Leino might not be the most gifted skater, but when he gets the puck in the attacking end, he really can hang onto it and make things happen. Really, when you think about it, he's the prototypical Flyer -- a hard-working forward who's tough to knock off the puck and can cycle well.
And he also has a few tricks up his sleeve.
"It looks as if he has the puck on a yo-yo sometimes," Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren said. "He's walking the dog with it. I've seen Ville play a lot over the last few years, even when he was in Finland and he's a good player and he's done some good things for us."
Leino, who won the Oskanen Award as the Finnish Elite League's top player in 2007-08, scored his most recent goal off a wicked snap shot from deep in the left circle that somehow beat Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak high to the long side Tuesday. It was the final goal in a 3-0 victory that has the Flyers up, 2-0, in the best-of-seven series.
"I've always loved to play in the playoffs in the past, even in Finland, and last year in the AHL and NHL," Leino said. "I don't now if it's that people are more jumpy or there's more stress and pressure, so people make different decisions. It's easier to be a little patient because people are really ready and on the edge. I don't know what it is, but I'm just enjoying the playoff pressure and having fun again."
It certainly shows.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale