With the Wild trailing by one with a little less than two minutes left in last Tuesday's game in Detroit, assistant coach Rick Wilson called out Justin Falk's name.
Even the rookie defenseman was stunned at the instruction to take the ice with the Wild pressing for the tying goal.
"I kind of looked at the clock and did some math in my head," Falk said. "I was thinking, 'Geez, the goalie should be pulled probably halfway through my shift here, so I didn't know what the deal was."
As Falk deduced, Josh Harding soon headed to the bench for an extra attacker. But Wilson would look like a genius.
Falk, a veteran of 29 NHL games at that point, gathered Devin Setoguchi's chip up the wall and threw a puck on net that Mikko Koivu tipped to force overtime and an eventual Wild victory -- the second in its current four-game win streak.
In a lot of ways Wilson's decision to trust Falk in such a situation was emblematic of what has transpired with the Wild in the first four weeks.
In training camp, the Wild's blue line was projected to be the team's weakest link. Only three defensemen -- Marek Zidlicky, Nick Schultz and Greg Zanon -- were returning with more than 65 games of NHL experience.
What wasn't taken into account was the experience gained last season in Houston by rookie defensemen Falk, Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon.
Last year, Wild coach Mike Yeo and assistant coach Darryl Sydor, a longtime NHL defenseman, guided the Aeros. So Falk, Scandella and Spurgeon, along with the recently recalled Nate Prosser, know the Wild's system better than the vets. Plus, the four blue-liners were fresh off a run to the Calder Cup Finals only months before.
"I believe that playoff experience is almost like another full year of experience," Yeo said. "They've played playoff pressure games. They've played Game 7s, and with that, you develop that confidence to play a certain way. They've shown a lot of poise. They look like they're not rookies."
The Wild leaves Monday for a five-game road trip beginning in Calgary on Tuesday. At 7-3-3, the Wild is the NHL's second-best defensive team, surrendering 1.92 goals a game. In 13 games, it has given up a grand total of 16 even-strength goals -- also second-fewest in the NHL.
A large reason is the play of the young defensemen. Scandella and Spurgeon are 21. Since Zanon strained his groin, Falk, 23, has played six successive games after being scratched in the season's first seven games. Since Clayton Stoner, who played well the first nine games, injured his finger, Prosser, 25, has played four since being promoted from Houston.
"We're very familiar with coaching staff around here," Falk said of the four former Aeros. "It gives you that comfort to have no nerves out there. For me, it feels like it's just another Calder Cup playoff game. We're giving good, solid minutes, and it's nice they're not hesitant to put us out there because our confidence grows when they keep rolling three sets of D."
That familiarity with Yeo and Sydor is the key. For instance, how is it possible that Prosser can spend the first month in Houston yet get called up to play consecutive games against Detroit, then Vancouver and St. Louis and not only look like he belongs, but be one of the best defensemen?
How can Scandella, who two years ago was in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, be arguably the Wild's best defenseman this season? How can Falk sit for seven in a row, step in and look so improved from last season?
"It's the system we were accustomed to last year," Prosser said. "We feel comfortable in it. I know where the puck needs to go and I know where I need to be positionally all the time."
Falk and Prosser were defense partners and road roommates last year in Houston, so their chemistry has been obvious. Same for Scandella and Spurgeon.
In recent games, Yeo said he feels Zidlicky and Schultz have started to catch up to the youngsters.
"That's what Yeosie is trying to build here with these guys -- repetition and habits, where by the midpoint of the season, you won't have to think about the plays you're making," Falk said. "A lot of times I know Pross is going to be on my backside for a reverse when I don't even have to look or even hear him yell.
"Guys are buying in, believing that. We're battling out there, competing for each other to push each other to be better. You can see we're playing great-looking hockey, that's for sure."