Young Swedes adjusting well to heavy workload

Mika Zibanejad was planning to celebrate his 20th birthday on Thursday night with a group of 10 family members and friends cheering him on, including father Mehrdad and mother Ritva.

Young Swedes adjusting well to heavy workload
Mika Zibanejad of the Ottawa Senators in action against Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals. (Jean Levac/Ottawa Citizen)

Mika Zibanejad was planning to celebrate his 20th birthday on Thursday night with a group of 10 family members and friends cheering him on, including father Mehrdad and mother Ritva.

His first year in North American has been an eventful one.

It started with 23 games in Binghamton, interrupted by almost a month by a series of injuries, and moved to Ottawa five games into the lockout-shortened season.

Last season, between the nine games he played here and the 38 he played at various levels in Sweden (according to his own website), he played a total of 47 games.

After playing his 37th game against the Washington Capitals on Thursday, he’ll have played 59 — and the end is not in sight.

He’ll play at least another five regular-season games, then maybe some in the playoffs, if the Senators hang on.

That won’t bring him close to the 82 games he’d play in a normal regular season, but it’ll still be a full year, especially with the way the 48-game schedule has been squeezed into place.

It’s quite different from the leisurely Swedish schedule.

But Zibanejad says he’s adjusted well and feels fine as the Senators head down the stretch.

“It’s a bit different but so far it hasn’t been too bad,” he said. “And I’m younger, too.

“You know you’re not going to be 100 per cent every night. You just have to try to give 100 per cent of what you have that night. It’s a new experience.”

It’s been the same, and more, for Swedish colleague Jakob Silverberg.

The Senators wanted him to come to North America last season, so he would be fully acclimatized for this season. But he decided to stay at home for another year.

His season has been even fuller than Zibanejad’s, because he hasn’t missed a game, playing 34 in Binghamton and 43 here so far.

That’s just over the 75 games he played last season, with more to come.

That’s fine with him.

“The reason I play hockey is that I love to play games,” he said.

“So far, I feel good and my body feels good and I’m enjoying playing a lot of games.”

What is different, he said, is the intensity of the NHL stretch run.

“It’s only two-point games here (for a win), while back in Sweden it’s three points (for a win), so here it gets a lot tighter and there are a lot more teams fighting for that last playoff spot.

“We’re in a good position now, and me, personally, I enjoy playing these games that really count. This is the best part of hockey.

“Obviously you’d like to win every hockey game, but it becomes clearer here that coming down the stretch you really do have to win all the games.”

At the start of this season, coach Paul MacLean said he and his staff would be keeping a close eye on the team’s young players and would rotate them in-and-out depending on their performance.

He hasn’t had to do that with Zibanejad and Silfverberg because their play has remained consistent.

“We haven’t really noticed that their play has diminished,” said MacLean. “I think they’ve got stronger as we’ve gone through the season, but they’re young men

“I feel they’ve been pretty consistent, so it hasn’t been a concern for us.

“I think we’ve had enough rest days for them that we’ve been able to manage that.

“We really haven’t seen a fall-off in their play.”

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