THERE'S A twinge of guilt in Peter Laviolette's voice each time he speaks of Ville Leino's plight this season.
"Part of my job is to get the most out of everybody," he was saying yesterday. "When we didn't get Ville in the lineup . . . I take responsibility for that."
It's a good word for any discussion about Ville Leino, responsibility, a good launching point. Because like several of the players imported into the Flyers' mix, descriptions of the 26-year-old Finn are so varied it's hard to believe there aren't a few versions of him out there, or that Ville Leino is as common a name in Finland as John Smith is here.
Leino wasn't responsible in Detroit. That's what you hear, that's what you read, that's what his old coach, Mike Babcock, insinuated if not outright said.
Leino gave up on battles too quickly, didn't value the back end of the ice, acted like his status as leading scorer in Finland's elite league should have carried over into this league. That's why he rarely played in Detroit, it was said, why his trade to the Flyers before the deadline was hardly noted by fans of either team.
He has a lot of haters in the Motor City, a lot of bloggers there who are in agony after each goal he scores, each assist, each nifty pass, each lift of the opponent's stick in the defensive end.
"This isn't funny anymore," one blogger wrote. "Make it stop."
Leino had his lawyers there, too. Babcock's critics argue that the coach tried to make a tractor of a race car, that he either did not recognize the skills Leino has shown repeatedly in these playoffs or did not believe they could translate in a more brutish league. All the facets he now is lauded for - patiently holding the puck, beating men one-on-one - supposedly were discouraged in Detroit.
Leino played 23 minutes, 12 seconds in the Flyers' Game 3 overtime victory Wednesday. His sixth goal of the playoffs, coming just 20 seconds after Patrick Kane's breakaway had given Chicago a 3-2 lead, might have saved the Flyers' season.
It was his 15th point of the postseason, tying Brian Propp's playoff record for rookies.
Leino wore a suit for the first four games of the playoffs, before injuries to Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter allowed him into the lineup. Deemed a malcontent by some in Detroit, he grabbed his opportunity here.
Leino admits his last two seasons of hockey "have been tough, very frustrating,'' but disputes the perception by some in Detroit that he publicly brooded. There, "I found someone who wouldn't tell somebody and I had some bad words there about the situation," he said. Once in Philadelphia, he shared "just a little bit,'' of his frustration with a reporter from Finland, and it was later translated into English, causing an awkward couple of days.
"I thought nobody would notice," he said.
Mostly, though, he came to the rink, skated hard, hoped for his chance. Weeks went by. Then a month. Then another.
"There were a lot of conversations," Laviolette said. "He's a terrific person. He comes to the rink the same way today as he did back 2 months ago when he hadn't played for 10 games straight. And he's just a happy guy."
Wow. That sure doesn't sound like the same John Smith, does it? This guy is a game-breaker, a budding superstar maybe. At the very least, he is a player whose skill set fits this part of the season well.
"He's been playing with more confidence every game, it seems," Danny Briere said. "He's strong on the puck and gets in the zone. Sometimes you think the play is dead, but he holds on and there'll be three guys on him, but he finds a way to keep the play alive and create more chances, so he's a pleasure to play with."
Said Blackhawks wing Adam Burish, to NHL.com: "That Leino's a special player. I feel like when he's got the puck, he's just guarding it out there. He doesn't give it up, he keeps it. He always makes a smart play."
Burish went on to call that second line of Leino, Briere and Scott Hartnell "pretty dangerous." Right now, they are carrying the Flyers, an amazing thing given that it is made up of three players who have had hellish seasons.
"Three guys," said centerman Briere, "searching for themselves.
"Sometimes chemistry is a weird thing," he said. "You start fighting for each other and something clicks."
Briere set up the winning overtime goal in Game 3. Hartnell set up Briere with the game's first goal, tipped in another later on. Leino gave them life with that goal in the third.
"Right now he's in a zone," marveled Briere. "Everything he touches seems to be working for him."
And those haters in Detroit? Well, as Leino was again waving his magic stick Wednesday, umpire Jim Joyce was giving them a new villain to fixate on.
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