DENVER – The Wild’s top three centers during the NHL playoffs are proud Finns, but as players, they have very different skill sets.
Mikko Koivu is big, powerful and if you make him angry, he’s liable to give you a glare that’ll make you sprint for the bench.
Mikael Granlund is small, slippery and has the vision of an eagle.
Erik Haula is fast, versatile and can catch opponents off-guard in any situation.
Yet their intangibles are almost identical.
“They all bring different things, but they’re ultracompetitive,” said former Wild and Colorado Avalanche forward Andrew Brunette, Koivu’s former linemate who double-dips as an adviser to the Wild’s front office and coaching staff. “Finns are very inside-driven. I’ve played with some intense ones, and I’ve seen some laid-back ones. Once the puck drops, they’re all basically the same — these guys, especially.”
One big reason the Wild pulled out victories in Games 3 and 4 to turn the Western Conference quarterfinals against the Avalanche into a best-of-three series is the play up the middle by Koivu (Turku, Finland), Granlund (Oulu, Finland) and Haula (Pori, Finland).
The three were outstanding during the homestand as the Wild won consecutive games to put the pressure squarely on the young Avalanche’s shoulders heading into Saturday’s fifth game.
Koivu, third in the NHL this postseason with a .644 faceoff winning percentage, was stellar defensively and a beast on the forecheck. Granlund scored Game 3’s overtime winner, and in Game 4 assisted on a goal, won eight of 12 faceoffs, drew three penalties and blocked three shots in the final minute of a one-goal victory. And Haula was coach Mike Yeo’s choice to hop over the boards virtually any time Avs young star Nathan MacKinnon did.
MacKinnon, who had seven points in Games 1 and 2, had no points and three shots combined in Games 3 and 4.
“The one thing that’s consistent for every Finn that I’ve ever worked with is pride,” Yeo said. “They play with an awful lot of pride. Winning is extremely important to them, and they bring that passion to the ice. Part of that winning attitude is every play they take pride in making it happen, whether it’s a blocked shot or a faceoff or shutting somebody down or whatever they can to help their team win.”
Doing it all
That was especially demonstrated by Granlund on Thursday.
When he was drafted ninth overall in 2010, Granlund had the reputation of being a brilliant playmaker, but one who maybe would stray toward the perimeter. He has proved to be anything but a perimeter player in Minnesota.
He’ll throw his body into harm’s way, whether that be in the dirty areas in the corner or in front of the net or whether that be blocking 90 miles-per-hour slapshots with the game on the line.
“You try to do all you can for the win,” Granlund said nonchalantly minutes after fans went wild for his gritty final shift.
“When Granlund blocks four shots, two of them with no stick, every time he was blocking one the building was going louder and louder,” Avalanche coach Patrick Roy said. “I think he would like to block six, seven, eight, nine, 10 more shots.”
The Avalanche has targeted Granlund all series. Whether it’s Colorado going out of its way to check him or giving him an extracurricular shove as Erik Johnson kept doing Thursday or cross-checking him to the ice ferociously the way Paul Stastny did Thursday, Granlund simply peels himself off the ice and continues to perform.
Granlund played pro hockey in Finland, leading his team to a title. He has played in world juniors, world championships and the Olympics. So he might be 22, but Yeo said, “He’s used to playing in these big moments. He’s been a guy counted on, and he’s been a guy that’s delivered.”
“He’s one of those guys you want to have on your side,” added Haula, who while playing for the University of Minnesota last year helped his countryman and pal, Granlund, get adjusted to Minnesota during his rookie year.
Haula, 23, who scored his first career playoff goal in Game 1, began this series on the fourth line. He spent the final seven games of the regular season on the second line as Granlund recuperated from a concussion. Now he’s the mainstay of a young third line, taking struggling Kyle Brodziak’s spot and pivoting a line with 21-year-old Nino Niederreiter (who replaced the suspended Matt Cooke) and fellow rookie Justin Fontaine, 26.
“He keeps taking on a little bit more,” Yeo said of Haula.
Yeo wants the games of all his young players to look the same no matter what line they’re on or role they play.
“Two weeks ago, Haulzy was playing on our second line, and his game looked the same as it does right now,” said Yeo, adding that not only is Haula astute defensively on the checking line, but offensively he’s still first on pucks, using his speed, playing strong down low and creating plays.
The biggest similarity among Koivu, Granlund and Haula is how good they are defensively, which is the Wild’s bread and butter.
“That’s a Finnish thing,” Brunette said. “Defense is a priority and something they take a lot of pride in. That’s why the coaches trust them so much. They take care of their own end as much as they do the other.”