The Young Guns
The trend started with Mikael Granlund. The Wild was down 2-0 in the best-of-seven series in the First Round Stanley Cup Playoffs. In Game 3, the teams were stuck in a Cold War-esque battle, scoreless and at a standstill, until finally, Granlund netted the overtime winner on a spectacular individual effort.
It was a goal for the Wild history books that didn’t look like it would be overshadowed any time soon.
But Granlund wasn’t the only young Minnesotan forward to cast his silhouette on the postseason. The Wild’s “kids,” as Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo affectionately dubs them, has been a constant presence like mosquitos in the humid heat of a Minnesota summer.
In the following contest, Charlie Coyle tipped home the game-winner to even the series 2-2. It was his third tally in four playoff games.
A few games later, with the season on the line, Nino Niederreiter bested Granlund’s Game 3 effort, scoring possibly the biggest goal of his season and second of the night — the overtime winner to upend the Avs, 5-4, in the best-of-seven series. The goal sent the Wild to the Second Round for the first time since 2003.
And that was just the First Round.
In Game 3 of the Second Round, facing a 2-0 series deficit to Chicago, the Wild returned to home ice where the young forwards continued to come up big. Erik Haula got things started, netting a feed from Justin Fontaine that would eventually go down on the score sheet as the game-winner. Granlund added two more on the night, including an empty netter, for good measure in a 4-0 victory.
In the ensuing matchup, the Wild evened the series, 2-2, on the heels of another Niederreiter game-winner, but it was Justin Fontaine that opened the scoring on a sharp angled shot for his first of the postseason.
They’ve made an impact beyond the score sheet as each has brought out some of their best play of the season, elevating their game like playoff veterans.
“It’s not just going out and scoring a pretty goal,” Yeo said. “It’s just going out and doing what winners do. I showed clips of our team blocking shots and throwing hits and it’s Justin Fontaine, it’s Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle. It’s guys doing things quite often you would see a six- or seven-year veteran player doing. These guys have grown an awful lot.”
For Niederreiter, that effort simply boils down to more experience.
“Each game you get under your belt, the more comfortable you get,” Niederreiter said. “I feel like it’s good that we have some many young guys, we’re all pushing each other to get better each day. I think that helps our team as well.”
It certainly does. Through 11 games this postseason, the five young forwards have combined for 27 points and 13 goals. Granlund leads the group with four goals and is tied with Coyle with seven points.
Beyond the offensive output they’ve accounted for 81 hits, led by Niederreiter’s 31, who is closely followed by Coyle’s 28. They’ve also blocked a total 27 shots, with the Finns each registering 10.
Much like the Wild as a whole, Yeo feels his young forwards are flying under the radar.
“You want those guys to get the recognition that you think that they deserve — for everybody to see what you see in them and appreciate them the way that you do, but also with our young kids,” Yeo said. “I don’t know that a lot of these kids get a lot of the talk that some of the other young players around the League do and I really believe that they deserve it.”
Because of their development during the season and into the playoffs, Yeo has the confidence in them to consistently call on them to play big roles. Granlund has seen minutes at center all season long, notably between Zach Parise and Jason Pominville.
Likewise, Haula has been relied upon to shutdown opponents’ top lines — a task he handled in the First Round, particularly at home, against Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Paul Stastny. Fontaine joined him after four games and the two have combined their speed to bring an extra offensive element to a traditional checking line.
“Both kids were scorers in college,” Matt Cooke said, who joined their line upon his return in Game 4. “They’re not always given that opportunity to play that role in the pros, I mean it’s the best players in the world. I think the fact that they were in a checking role and able to chip in offensively is a key component of our (Game 3) win.”
Haula, who just one year out of college at the University of Minnesota, has claimed an expanded role in the Wild’s lineup.
“Erik’s done a great job being put in a situation to play against top lines,” Cooke said. “Part of that is his speed. Part of that is his competitiveness and competitive level. The third part of that, that probably goes unnoticed, is his skill.”
While the young Finns have been relied upon up the middle, Coyle and Niederreiter have been asked to bring a physical presence to the ice on the wings of Mikko Koivu.
But the Swiss native only recently moved into that top line role and has been moved around the lineup all season long.
“We try to make sure that he goes into the game with a good understanding of what we’re expecting of him and with that, trying to build his game where regardless of where he’s playing, who he’s playing with, it should look the same in a lot of ways,” Yeo said.
Niederreiter has taken the message to heart, echoing that same sentiment, but adding how important it is to keep that going, particularly in big games such as the Stanley Cup Playoffs — something each member of the Wild can probably take to heart.
“Those are the most fun to play,” Niederreiter said. “You know there’s something on the line and you know you have to look in the mirror at the end of the night. If you can say you gave everything you could in that game, good things will happen.”